OAKLAND, Calif. â€” A.R. Rahmanâ€™s latest show has all the gloss of a Las Vegas spectacular, with a global touch and a respectful nod to history.
The Oscar-winning composerâ€™s live shows have always been must-see events, but this latest tour â€” titled â€œJai Ho! The Journey Homeâ€ â€” marks a new high in terms of ambition and visual splendor.
In two California appearances, Sept. 11 at the Los Angeles Forum (presented by Mehta Entertainment) and Sept. 12 at the Oracle Arena in Oakland (presented by Singh Entertainment), Indiaâ€™s top pop musician held forth as a hand-picked troupe of musicians and dancers performed songs from â€œSlumdog Millionaire,â€ â€œGuru,â€ â€œRang De Basanti,â€ â€œDelhi-6,â€ â€œDil Se,â€ â€œJodha Akhbar,â€ â€œZubeidaa,â€ â€œJaane Tu Ya Jaane Naa,â€ â€œSwadesâ€ and other films before a vast backdrop, as brilliantly colored projections played out above their heads.
After a pre-show performance by the local Bollywood dance troupe Project Pulse, the concert opened as a young hip-hop dancer, Malachai Cohen, danced on a circular raised stage that jutted out into the audience. His youthful, urban energy got the show off to an exciting start as he moved to â€œThe journey home,â€ Rahmanâ€™s number from â€œBombay Dreams.â€
As the band pounded out the thrilling intro to â€œSlumdogâ€™sâ€ â€œO saya,â€ Rahman himself made his grand entrance atop a towering staircase, accompanied by dancers of all races in Sufi dervish costumes and dressed as Hindu gods â€” and typical of show director Amy Tinkhamâ€™s â€œmore is moreâ€ approach, female singers in outlandishly opulent peacock-toned dresses added their voices to the mix.
Other high points in the show included a dhol solo by noted Japanese American percussionist Taku Hirano; a demonstration of the Indian martial art kalari payat to go along with a muscular song from â€œDil Se,â€ and several songs by dynamic male vocalists Vijai Prakash (a spitting image of Shaan, with just as much charisma and an impressive set of pipes), frequent Rahman collaborators Blaaze and Benny Dayal, and Malayalam composer-singer Alfons Joseph.
Shweta Pandit, Neeti Mohan and other top-notch Indian vocalists and Western and Indian musicians rounded out the supporting lineup.
Rahman sang a novel, but moving, duet of â€œRang De Basantiâ€™sâ€ â€œLukka chuppiâ€ with a gigantic projection of Lata Mangeshkar; and guest star Hariharan â€” who has joined Rahman on nearly every one of his stage shows â€” appeared with the maestro once again, on several gorgeous songs including â€œRojaâ€™sâ€ powerful â€œBharat humko jaan se.â€
A parade of colorfully costumed musicians and dancers brought life to the title track of â€œRang De Basanti,â€ and a female vocalist sang the haunting â€œLatikaâ€™s themeâ€ from â€œSlumdog Millionaireâ€ as an acrobat performed a suspended dance within a pale lavender aerial curtain high above her head.
Later, there were more fireworks as the dancers writhed and thrashed on a metal cage suspended from the ceiling, to another â€œSlumdogâ€ track, the electrifying â€œEscape.â€ Neeti Mohan and Vijai Prakash got the chance to shine with â€œIrumbilaye oruâ€ and â€œOh babyâ€ from Rahmanâ€™s latest release, â€œRobot,â€ and she teamed with Pandit again on â€œSlumdogâ€™sâ€ saucy â€œRinga ringa.â€
Although Rahman offered up a selection of Bollywood hits, he was careful to balance out the set list with a few South Indian songs, such as â€œUrvashiâ€ (â€œPremikuduâ€), â€œSay na naâ€ (a Tamil song he used in â€œCouples Retreatâ€) and others.
The most engaging moments in the three-hour show came during an â€œunpluggedâ€ segment, as the singers, tabla player Aditya Kalyanpur, sitarist Assad Khan and other artists, gifted us with a medley of classically-influenced pieces. Rahmanâ€™s powerful version of the Sufi-inspired â€œKhwaja mere khwajaâ€ and Harshdeep Kaurâ€™s devotional Sikh number added depth as well.
Rahmanâ€™s live performances have always been highly collaborative, as heâ€™s toured with many of Indiaâ€™s leading musicians and vocalists. Here, he stepped into the spotlight as heâ€™s never done before, with the lead vocals on many of the songs. But despite his myriad costume changes and the extreme staging, Rahman still displayed a shy demeanor â€” his between-song patter was limited to brief comments like â€œI love you, too!â€
He closed out the show with â€œJai hoâ€ and his perennial closing number, â€œMa tujhe salaam.â€
Amy Tinkham, the â€œJai Hoâ€ tourâ€™s creative director, has masterminded concerts for artists as varied as Paul McCartney, Britney Spears, Madonna and Kenny Ortegaâ€™s â€œAmerican Dance.â€ She told India-West in Oakland that the entire team was glad to be back in the U.S. on tour since reworking the show after a stage mishap in Detroit in June. Rahman also performed some European dates over the summer.
â€œOur first show was last night in L.A. Everybody was so ready,â€ she said.
â€œItâ€™s a great gift to work with an artist like Rahman with such a body of work,â€ Tinkham added. â€œHeâ€™s everything to everybody. I just wanted to do him justice, making the show fluid, like a journey â€” not just song after song after song.
â€œSince he is a composer for films, the show had to have that vast scale of composition to it,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s about a merging of cultures.â€