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Concert Review: Rahman Rises Above Odds

July 2007
Concert Review: Rahman Rises Above Odds

This was supposed to be the concert to dwarf all others! Way back in 1993 the Amitabh Bachchan megastar show at the Omni (now called the Phillips Arena) had pulled in a crowd of 7000. For all his godly stature in Indian cinema, Amitabh, a Bollywood star, has a limited following amongst South Indians. A. R. Rahman, on the other hand, is the first and perhaps the only artist on the horizon who has made himself a household name across all the "woods" of Indian cinema: Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood etc. His shadow also extends far beyond India. As the composer of the musical version of the Tolkien epic, The Lord of the Rings, not to mention the Broadway musical Bombay Dreams, Rahman has established himself as a composer par excellence on the global stage.

The magnitude of the artist, along with the fact that the desi population in Georgia has grown many folds from the time of the 1993 Bachchan concert, there is no reason why the Phillips Arena should not have been teeming with over 10,000 fans. Instead, it was sad to see a sea of empty seats on Saturday, June 23rd, when the concert finally happened after having been announced a couple times before; and after having been postponed last month on short notice.

While we are at it, there were other letdowns surrounding the concert, before we get to the good parts (which, thankfully, were many too):

?The North American tour was advertised as a "Live 3D Concert" with mention of special glasses that were to be handed out. Neither the Atlanta concert, nor the other stops (from what we heard) had any such 3D element! There was no acknowledgment or explanation of why such a key element was missing.

?In Indian concerts, a certain amount of jumping across language barriers is common. But not only is this done sparingly, but also usually for selections that are popular beyond language barriers. Bhangra numbers are a perfect example. While most non-Punjabis don't understand the language, bhangra songs have nevertheless found themselves in pop charts in Bollywood. Where this show differed (in very poor judgment) is that it alienated more than half of its audience for more than half of the show where it performed non-Hindi songs.

?There was disappointment regarding the live orchestra. Compared to what was advertised, there did not appear to be as many

?Many of the star singers (including Sukhwinder, Chitra, Karthik and Alma) who were advertised as a part of the tour did not show up. Again, there was no explanation or acknowledgement of this fact.

Coming to terms with these negatives was the only real hurdle to pure entertainment. It helped also that Rahman apologized for the postponement and offered what seemed like a heartfelt "Thank you" to those who came.

There is a reason why Rahman is perhaps the only musician/composer in Bollywood that commands almost as much fan following as some of the biggest Khans of the big screen. While girls weren't' exactly going gaga as they are seen to do over some of the Khans, there were a large number of fans who stayed over 30 minutes after the program just to get a glimpse, and maybe an autograph. He commends a dignified following and respect that is rare in the industry.

Earlier in the evening, when Rahman made his grand entrance in his suave white suit and calm demeanor, the energy of the audience was perceptibly notched up, having seen who they came to see – after waiting nearly an hour for him. The maestro opened with Jaage Hain (Guru) and continued with a more middle-eastern flavor in Khal Bali (Rang De Basanti).

Hariharan, another important anchor of the evening, and one who had just last month wowed Atlantans at a very successful charity concert, was next with Telephone Dhun Mein Hasne Wali? (Hindustani). The singer with a pony tail and a characteristically artistic look, then alternated to Tamil, while thoroughly enjoying himself on stage.

In a gorgeous, turquoise gagra choli, Madhushree had excellent stage presence as she welcomed Vaaji Vaaji Sivaji with Hariharan. Tamil fans were in for a gala time, as superstar Rajnikanth was invoked through several songs of his latest hit, Sivaji. Judging from the dancing and cheering from the isles, there were more than a few fans for whom cheering for Rahman and Rajnikanth at the same time, seemed like a privilege not to be missed.

Naresh Iyer, a recent find of Rahman, proved that he knows to "loose control" on stage as he ebulliently sang Maasti Ki Paatshaala and Rooabroo (Rang De Basanti). The young singer not only had a fantastic vocal range but also the skills needed to be a true artist, as he danced on the stage, maintained breath control and asked the audience to "be a rebel!" The Sivaji saga continued as Vijay Yesudas, son of the legendary singer Yesudas, beautifully sang Sahana and the rocking-punjabi'sh number Balle Leka along with Tanvi Shah, Sayonara and A. R. Raihanah (Rahman's sister).

Sadhana Sargam performed one of her favorites from the master composer, Chupke Se (Saathiya). The audience was ecstatic when Rahman himself delivered from the heart, Dil Se Re (Dil Se). Bandana clad BlaaZe, a contemporary hip-hop find by Rahman, proved that Indian brothers can rap too, as he performed with Style (Sivaji).

Aslam Khan, looking and sounding every bit the Rajasthani, was the next performer and the latest find of Rahman, the rainmaker. Khan sang super hit Chaiya Chaiya (Dil Se) with aplomb, if not the same vocal flavor of Sukhwinder. While both have a folksy quality, they are also distinctly unique.

For many, the highlight of the evening was Sivamani, the drummer who appears to be a legend in the making. His energy, charisma and the dancing eyes were an equal match to the sheer drumming talent. Seeing his unparalleled hand motions was reflective of the magic that happens when the art and the artist become one. The spellbound audience took in the brilliance of the drummer as he took them on a tour of India. Starting with the traditional South Indian ketti mellam that is played at weddings, he transcended to the dandiya beats of Gujarat before going bhangra with the dhol. A very talented percussionist, Sivamani was accompanied by an American vocalist who flawlessly enunciated the beats or taal. This jugalbandhi was a joy to watch.

The ratio of new songs which have yet to find a place in the hearts and minds of many of his fans to old favorites was a bit off kilter. At least some of the many Sivaji and Guru songs could have been replaced to make room for more classics that have the power to energize the audience. For example, not a single song Taal or Rangeela was a letdown.

To the accompaniment of a piano that was specifically brought on the stage, Rahman was in his element singing the soulful Pray For Me Brother, a song that he composed for his namesake charitable foundation, which raises funds to eradicate poverty. To the backdrop of smoke and lights, the silhouette of Rahman and the piano created the perfect ambiance, for the artist, who is known to have strong spiritual vibes.

Ranjani Vijay of California and winner of the "Voice of America" talent search contest, was invited to perform. She showcased her vocal talents by singing the jazz number from the title track of Jillunu Oru Kaadhal. The Telugu audience was overjoyed as Hariharan sang Nellori Nerajana (Oke Okkadu – Telugu).

The next act proved to not only showcase a brilliant composition but also a very elegant belly dance, Maiyya Maiyya (Guru), by singer Neeti. Hariharan and Sadhana came back to showcase the romantic Chanda Re (Sapnay) followed by Rahman who reached all the high notes of Tera Bina (Guru) with ease. Ranjani Vijay sang Ika Onkar (Rang De Basanti). Blaaze and Rahman asked the audience to groove in to Humma Humma (Bombay) as the concert drew to a finale. The patriotic Maa Tujhe Salam (Vande Matram) made for a fitting grand finale of a relatively short but very memorable concert.

Despite all the glitches and shortcomings, Atlantans owe one to the promoters responsible for the very presence of A. R. Rahman in the good ole' ATL.

[Look for A. R. Rahman's exclusive interview with Khabar in the upcoming August issue]


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