Source Outing With Oscar Winner A.R. Rahman: Bollywood and Far Beyond

By June 24, 2010 No Comments

A.R. Rahman“Not like this before.”

That’s A.R. Rahman‘s answer when asked if he’d ever done anything comparable to the current tour of elaborate dance numbers staged to highlights from his vast catalog of music composed for Indian films.

“It’s a combination of Broadway and a rock concert and Bollywood,” he says. “I’ve been wanting to do this for ages.”

Well, when you’ve become the first Bollywood composer to win an Academy Award (he actually won two: one for Best Score and one for Best Song) as he did last year for ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘ and the number ‘Jai Ho’ – the peak of a run of acclaim that also included two Golden Globes and two Grammy Awards – you can do a few things you’ve never done before.

Billed as ‘A.R. Rhaman Jai Ho Concert: The Journey Home World Tour,’ the trek is a collaboration with creative director Amy Tinkham, now in the middle of a North America run that continues with shows this coming weekend in San Francisco and Los Angeles and then moves across the continent before heading to Europe for a handful of dates.

Even without the theatricality, it would be a lot to take in. Rahman’s musical scope draws on a wide spectrum of tastes and influences, his 18-year film-music career marked by an expansion of the already eclectic language of Bollywood. The Chennai native had played keyboards in various rock bands growing up, as well as working with such Indian musicians as Zakir Hussain and L. Shankar, ultimately getting a scholarship to study Western classical music at London’s Trinity College of Music.

Returning to India, he built his own studio in 1992 and quickly made his name scoring documentaries, TV shows, commercials and soon Tamil-language features and then Hindi movies, as well. Credits accumulated quickly – his music appearing in well over 100 films to date – as did awards

“I’m trying to get the theme of ‘Jai Ho,'” he says. “The whole show is about the aspects of Indian culture – the spirituality and the excitement, the festivals and love, all featuring my songs.”

In the latest in an occasional series we call Source Outing, Around the World asked him to discuss the five musical influences that would serve as maps for navigating through his own musical mazes, the figures or works that get the most credit for the development of his artistic character. Not surprisingly, four out of his five choices came at the intersection of music and film or video.

• His first choice is one of whom you’ve probably never heard: the relatively obscure Indian film composer R.K. Shekhar. But he couldn’t have been more important to Rahman. He was his father.

“My father was a composer, musician, conductor, all that stuff,” Rahman says. “He passed away at an early age [43, in 1976], but what he left behind was a lot of good will among musicians, and that forced me to live up to expectations. That’s the way I started. Most of his stuff was never released. He died when his first film was released. I think it was called ‘Chottanikkara Amma.'”

• Second is at the other end of the fame scale, perhaps the most recognizable figure in the world and his most famous work: Michael Jackson‘s ‘Thriller.’

“I was a studio musician at the time and just listened to that stuff in the car,” he says. “The production, the vocals, the arrangements, everything. I think production-wise, how clean it was and also it taught me to be more hands-on in recording. Also helped me shape songs. And there was the great combination of him and Quincy Jones.”

Surprisingly, the videos of the time – the title song, ‘Beat It,’ ‘Billie Jean,’ ubiquitous groundbreakers all – didn’t really get his attention.

“I was more into the musical side of it.”

But the visuals, especially the choreography, ultimately had a huge impact on his career.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, every director would come to me and say, ‘I want one like this and one like that.'”

• Rahman got to meet one of his heroes at the Golden Globe Awards show last year. And then beat him. Peter Gabriel‘s ‘Down to Earth,’ from the Pixar animated movie ‘Wall-E‘ lost out to ‘Jai Ho’ for best song.

“I just told him that I was a big fan,” Rahman.

That match-up and outcome were repeated at the Oscars – except this time the victorious Indian musician inadvertently snubbed Gabriel, having meant to thank him during his acceptance remarks. Ever thoughtful, he made up for it by praising the Englishman when interviewed at a backstage camera.

Gabriel’s 1989 album ‘Passion,’ drawn from music he’d composed for Martin Scorsese’s film of Nikos Kazantsakis’ ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ opened Rahman’s ears to new possibilities. The music was a powerfully atmospheric mélange of musical impressions drawn from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, and, along with its companion ‘Passion: Sources,’ of material from which it took samples and/or inspiration, provided key global exposure for such regional stars as Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal.

“It’s beautiful, a great concept,” he says, praising Gabriel’s whole Real World enterprise and its pioneering work of linking musicians from many lands. “The whole idea of creating Real World Records and bringing in world musicians to create beautiful music and sending it in a beautiful way to the world.”

• It’s probably not surprising that Rahman cites John Williams as a big influence. The composer has scored some of the biggest movies of the past four decades, providing some of the iconic soundtrack passages of the era: the shark figure in ‘Jaws,’ the Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker themes from the ‘Star Wars’ movies, the five-note phrase sent by the aliens in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ not to mention the resonant soundtracks of ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘E.T.’ and ‘Jurassic Park,’ among so many others.

“I watched so many of those movies as a child, most of the biggie films, the Spielberg stuff, ‘Jaws,'” he says.

What is a bit surprising is the one Rahman singles out as the most influential of the Williams canon: ‘Born on the Fourth of July,’ the 1989 Oliver Stone film starring Tom Cruise and based on the autobiography of disabled Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic.

“I saw that maybe 15 or 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s the way the music is used in the movie, some of the string cues, the emotional impact.”

• The final choice is closer to home but someone representing a musical style Rahman resisted for years: Pakistani qawwali star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

“His impact was almost like a rock star but in a different format,” Rahman says of the melismatic force of nature, who made qawwali a global presence before dying in 1997. “When he sings you just become entranced in the music. Qawwali was not my favorite music before, but listening to him changed my opinion. It was a combination of the voice and the words and his choice of how he sang these things.”

The album that did the trick for him, though, was not one of the more traditional qawwali releases from the vast Nusrat catalog but the 1990 album ‘Mustt Mustt,’ released by Gabriel’s Real World and given a distinct production touch by Michael Brook.

“That was the first I heard of Nusrat,” Rahman says.

Later, though, he had a chance to work with the singer.

“I did a song with him just two weeks before he died,” he says. “It was just one day. We traveled to Pakistan to record. He was very nice. He was coming to India to do movies, so it was a great introduction but very brief.”

As the ‘Jai Ho’ tour continues, Rahman is writing for a non-movie project, a new solo album that will involve collaborations from a roster of global all-stars. Only one’s confirmed thus far – Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls, who did a pop adaptation of ‘Jai Ho’ and performed in shows with Rahman all over the world – but he says he knows that he has a simple mission with the project:

“It has to be good,” he says, refusing to divulge more. “That’s what we’re working on.”