Ebony & Ivory: AR Rahman strikes the right chords

By January 7, 2010 No Comments

AR Rahman is consumed with passion to bring together Western and Eastern musical forms Danny Boyle almost botched it.

The Welsh director had bottled the mad razzle of Mumbai quite brilliantly in Slumdog Millionaire. He just had to cap it well. As Jamal meets Latika at the Churchgate station in a climax that was inevitably Mumbai, everything was perfect – the release of tension, atmosphere of jubilation – except for the sound of joy. “Rahman heard the song that I had put and said ‘Don’t use this song. I have another song for you. Use it’ and I said What!!!” Boyle recalled in an interview to a Web site. Actually, it wasn’t even a song; just a danceable instrumental piece. But he agreed to listen to the song that Allah Rakha Rahman had in mind. Looking back, Jai Ho is what defines the climax. Hell, it is the climax. Critics don’t consider Jai Ho as his best work but they are barking up the tree and missing the woods. The reality is that Jai Ho is important for a variety of reasons that make Rahman one of the most influential musicians on the planet. And most of the reasons are in that song. The song itself can be thought of as a Rahman glide note that joins three worlds: music of the West, East and computer technology. The rousing victory song set in A Minor reminds many people of Mozart’s 40th Symphony but the melodic line of Jai Ho runs closer to the Austrian Legend’s Piano Sonata 8. One is tempted to think of it as a subconscious hat-tip from the Mozart of Madras to the Dear Departed.

Beyond the hat-tip though, it is Rahman’s interpretation of the euphoric mood of the moment. The song loops in the enthusiasm of disco, rawness of world music, slick synthesizer runs and all of these buoy the soaring vocals. Superb sound engineering is the final touch that creates a song that is as much at home in an Indian music competition as much as it is in an Oscar ceremony.

The success of Slumdog may have left everyone surprised but it is the result of a concerted effort. Rahman did the music for a Chinese film Warriors of Heaven and Earth in 2003. Then, he did the musical Bombay Dreams with Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2004. He did the score for Lord of the Rings in 2007 and he did Raga’s Dance for the violinist Vanessa Mae in 2008. In 2009, he did the music for a Hollywood film Couple’s Retreat.

If this was merely another Indian composer trying to make it in the West it wouldn’t be a big deal. It is much bigger. Rahman is trying to create sound that fuses the music of East and West. To do this, he has started his own KM music conservatory, a school of music as it were. He also has his own label KM Musiq to produce the sort of music that he thinks should be out there. “I want to think like an entrepreneur not an employee. Attempts to create a synthesis of the music of West and the East were made in the past but did not last because that form wasn’t institutionalised. I want to do that,” says Rahman. The tea leaves augur well. “Rahman has been trying to do this East-West bridge for a very long time. Bombay Dreams was the first time he made such an attempt. If anyone can, he can,” says Atul Churamani, vice president at SaReGaMa.

Rahman was destined to cross boundaries. He was a child prodigy. A Tehelka article on him talks about one such instance. When Rahman was a kid, his father took him to a music director called Sudarshan. “I hear your child can play anything. Let’s see if you can play this,” he said and played a challening piece. He then covered the harmonium keys with a veshti and gave it to the child. Rahman played the composition pitch perfect. An overwhelmed Sudarshan embraced the boy.

Maybe Rahman could have become a great Carnatic musician, maybe a great western classical virtuoso. A world of possibilities ended when his father passed away and the family went through some very hard times. He had to record music for a fee to help feed his family. He played for television shows. He travelled with different music troupes all over South India. The genius could have remained a journeyman. A scholarship to Trinity College of Music at Oxford in changed everything. In 1987, he returned from Oxford and by 1992, he had stunned the world with the soundtrack of Roja.

Roja would define how music composers all over India change their oeuvre. That’s because Rahman revolutionised the way music was composed for Indian films primarily because he understood technology very well.

“Earlier, you could record only two or three tracks, essentially streams of music. Only the singer’s voice you could record in two or three options. And then you had to mix these to get the final result,” says Selvakumar, who handles technology for Rahman. Rahman had established some sort of mastery of virtual musical instruments, which are software programs that can reproduce the tones of a guitar or a piano. “Rahman would then record the human voice in various options and then try and combine it with the sounds of virtually any instrument,” says a music composer who wishes to remain anonymous.

What Rahman had was an array of millions of tones. What he produced was limited by only his imagination and that was incredibly vast. Does that sound easy? Imagine you had a book of the most elegant words and phrases. What would it take for you to produce a Shakespeare? You would need an extraordinary flair for creating great sentences and ability to arrange them in the right order. Musically, that’s what Rahman has. In copious quantity.

His acutely sensitive ears are able to arrange his array of tones into winsome tunes that are intricately layered. A snatch of melody can be accompanied by sounds of birds, waves of ocean or an electronic distortion being played simultaneously. What’s more, in case a piece of music appears off-key, the pitch correction software may be used to make it sound pitch perfect. “What Rahman wants is the best sound for the listener. His ears are so sensitive that they can pick even micro-tonal (extremely subtle changes in pitch) variations. So when Rahman delivers a tune it sounds unique and absolutely polished,” says Selvakumar.

Rahman isn’t the first to do this. R.D. Burman did a bit of it. Bappi Lahiri has done it. Biddu did it for Disco Deewane. But for them, it was just a project or a song. For Rahman, it is a distinct musical language.

Now Rahman wants to institutionalise this form of music which combines the Western form with the Eastern and which incorporates digital sounds. “We like to hear orchestral music in our films but we don’t really accept them otherwise. Why should that be the case?” says Rahman. That’s where the music conservatory comes in. By training students that can play for the Orchestra, Rahman hopes to have the technical talent in place to execute that plan. And the plan is not just to have traditional western classical music being played. “I would like to have the sound and technology of Western music, but give it an Indian soul,” says Rahman.

What about doing more Slumdog type projects? “There are many offers but I need to be able to see how that film uses music. The film director and I need to vibe well. So I am waiting to do the right film,” says Rahman.

Meanwhile, his concerts are already a sell out and his price for doing a concert has increased more than 30 percent in just a year. That doesn’t make him immune to failure though. His music for Blue hasn’t found too many takers. But that shouldn’t worry a man who gilded the Slumdog Lily with Jai Ho. “I think it is alright to fail. It is part of being human,” says the man who sometimes appears outside of this realm.


“I would like to have the sound and technology of Western music, but give it an Indian soul”
– A.R. Rahman