A.R. Rahman was a musical star of Bollywood for nearly two decades before winning a pair of Oscars in 2009 for his work in â€œSlumdog Millionaire.â€ With songs and scores in more than 100 films, he’s become a master of multiple moods and genres, blending the modern with traditional Indian sounds in what he calls â€œa supermarket of music,â€ which he stretched to a vibrant multimedia performance of nearly three hours at the Forum on Saturday.
Not surprisingly, there was a cinematic scale to the concert, organized into big thematic sections: Rural India, Freedom Fighters, Modern India, Romance, Spiritual and Festival. It opened with a young boy wandering the arena floor beneath a spotlight, looking genuinely lost until he climbed the stage to the pounding of drums as Rahman emerged from atop a golden staircase to sing â€œO â€¦ Saya.â€
Heâ€™s not an action-packed stage performer himself, more ringmaster than traditional frontman, and he surrounded his music with the kinetic energy of multiple dancers, musicians, flashing lights, bright colors and other special effects. During the tropical call-and-response of â€œNaNa,â€ he strapped on a keytar and shouted some phrases, but shared the moment with three other singers joining him along the catwalk. And as he sang the understated romantic ballad â€œYeh Jo Des Hai Tera,â€ three colorful dancers twirled on the stage around him.
For the wistful â€œLuka Chupi,â€ Rahman sang a duet with the projected glowing image of Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar, a Bollywood veteran known to fans as â€œthe nightingale of India.â€ Now a grandmotherly 81, her soft, birdlike falsetto added an eloquent, contemplative counterpoint to Rahman and Aditya Kalyanpurâ€™s tabla thumps and thunks.There was more traditional flavor to his â€œKhwaja Mere Khwaja,â€ a moving Sufi devotional that he sang with real feeling while sitting behind a harmonium, accompanied only by tabla and two male backup singers.
There were shades of rock, hip-hop, reggae and pop, even including a piece of Michael Jacksonâ€™s â€œBlack or White.â€ Rahman showed a strong ambition to please on a grand scale, though the more he sweetened his sound with the lightest Western pop formulas, the thinner his own music became. He was best served when tapping the deeper emotions of his own work and culture.
He comingled ancient and modern in a deeply felt â€œHai Rama Yeh Kya Hua,â€ riding the urgent plucking of sitar by Assad Khan. A medley of songs from his many films in both India and Hollywood were performed with warmth and gravity, leading to â€œMehndi Hai Rachnewaliâ€ (from the 2001 film â€œZubeidaaâ€), a bittersweet song about an arranged marriage.
The American leg of Rahmanâ€™s international tour began in June but was halted after the collapse of a stage in Detroit destroyed much of the showâ€™s staging. On Saturday, he noted the concert’s Sept. 11 date, landing on the ninth anniversary of terrorist attacks aimed at New York and Washington, as â€œa very, very important dayâ€ and sat at a grand piano to weave a tender, graceful piece of music with violinist Christine Wu.
At the end of the night of songs, soundtrack music and the occasional prayer, Rahman’s encore included an inevitable â€œJai Ho,â€ his infinitely catchy hit from the final moments of â€œSlumdog Millionaire.â€ And as the curtain fell, there were projected quotes of peace from Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, along with the lengthy rolling of the showâ€™s many, many credits, just like an epic movie.
— Steve Appleford
Photos: A.R. Rahman in concert. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times