by Susan Fry
A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho: The Journey Home World Tour” concert last weekend at the Oracle Arena clearly broadcast Rahman’s mission: to create music that combines his Indian heritage with inspirations from around the world, including rap, reggae, hip-hop, Latin, and even Michael Jackson.
Rahman is epically well-known in the Indian community. He has composed for Bollywood mega-hit after mega-hit, from Lagaan to Rang de Basanti, Taal to Guru. Even mainstream America can probably hum along with Rahman’s music to Slumdog Millionaire, for which he won two Academy Awards, including an Oscar for best song for "Jai Ho." Time Magazine dubbed Rahman the “Mozart of Madras” and listed him in “The Time 100: The World’s Most Influential People” in 2009.
At first glance, Rahman is an unlikely star. He’s a soft-spoken philosopher with the cuddly physique of a teddy bear, just as likely to offer a prayer as a crowd-rousing cheer. He even seems a little shy on stage, happier to direct his multi-ethnic cast of singers, dancers, and acrobats than to perform himself. He’s so nonchalant as he sings, plays the keytar, and strums the harmonium that he appears to take his own talents for granted.
But as the roars from the crowd that packed the Arena must have reminded him, Rahman’s range is astounding. His music spans a dizzying array of world beats. Bollywood rap? Check. Ethereal ghazal? Check. Glitzy Bollywood dance number, hip-hop Hindi, folksy drum song, Latin bhangra? Check, check, check, check.
Rahman’s cast echoed this diversity, with Indians in traditional saris sharing the stage with a violinist in Country-western boots, an Asian acrobat, and black hip-hop dancers. The lighting also changed to reflect the flavor of every piece. The centerpiece of the set — a Mughal archway — remained constant. But water droplets projected onto the stage during “Barso Re Megha” reminded the crowd of Aishwarya Rai’s famous dance in the rain during Guru, and the psychedelic patterns during the title song from Rang de Basanti recalled the story of youthful rebellion.
The most effective lighting occurred during Rahman’s duet of “Luka Chuppi” with Lata Mangeshkar, the revered Bollywood vocalist. Mangeshkar, at eighty-plus years old, is probably too fragile for a concert tour, so Rahman projected a larger-than-life image of her onto a strip of transparent material. Mangeshkar’s glowing face and stunningly pure voice gave the eerie sensation that Rahman, like the mother and son of the song, was communing with a vanished past.
At best, Rahman’s concert showed the exhilarating potential for a true global music. But, occasionally, the show creaked under the strain of trying to hold the smorgasbord together. A tribute to Michael Jackson, for example, seemed to come out of nowhere, even though the young dancer Malachi imitated Jackson’s moves perfectly. And a segment of traditional ghazal music slowed the pace of the concert to a stand-still. Problems with the sound system didn’t help — soloists’ microphones failed, and an overly long pause before the final song, the "Jai Ho" of the tour’s title, undermined what should have been the concert’s triumphant climax.
The concert, originally set for a June 26th performance, had to be rescheduled due to a set malfunction earlier this summer. Was the wait worth it? The crowd, singing along with every word, seemed to think so.