AR Rahman, Music, Quizzing

The Rahman Quiz

While I acknowledge that I am a Lapsed Quizzer, there comes a time in a man’s life when he is forced to shake that queasy (yeah, fine, pun intended) feeling out of himself by going all Powerpointy. I have been listening to some Rahman every now and then. Though I tend to stay away from his earlier catalog as much as I can, ever since that year-long sabbatical from his music. A friend and I were talking about “Aha” moments in his songs – where random back-up singers go “aha”, like in ‘Kilimanjaro’ and the title track of Parthaley Paravasam. We tried to think of other songs of a similar nature, and suddenly I found odd bits of trivia popping up in my head. So here, out, damned spot. A bunch of 20 questions that are somewhat sensible, and sometimes not. Please make sure to read the fine print (second slide), and come back here for answers in a few days.

(For those who cannot see what’s below, it’s supposed to be an embedded Slideshare iFrame. Here’s a direct link to the page.)



Covering Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

This made me so so happy. Jeff Buckley, when singing and mispronouncing nearly every word in the song, stands for every music lover enamored by an artiste singing in an alien language. On one hand, it’s almost frightening how close he gets to the feel of a Nusrat song – the impassioned wails, the improvisations, the fact that he is singing the part of Rahmat Ali, the high-pitched backing singer that you hear on every one of Nusrat’s live shows. On the other, it’s hard not to be swayed by the the earnest appeal to the crowd to “do it like they do it in Pakistan”, urging them to clap in time with the song.

Sadly, there are not many Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sure, almost every high-pitched singer on every talent show in India tries to sing Nusrat songs, but they are mostly insipid rehashes, sans personality or individuality. Bally Sagoo, the British DJ who, at some point, was remixing every Indian song in existence, got North Carolina-based singer Gunjan to sing ‘Kinna Sona’, on the Bend It Like Beckham OST. I find Gunjan’s voice too tinny for my taste, and the version itself does not break any new ground  – just a straightforward beat added to the basic structure of the song.

Remixes abound, of course. In addition to the familiar names – Michael Brook, Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack, there’s Italian electronica composer Gaudi, who came up with an entire album dedicated to Nusrat remixes, called Dub Qawwali. That one’s quite an earful, featuring a guest appearance by MK Gandhi even.

Two AR Rahman songs pay tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. ‘Varaagha Nadikarai’ from Sangamam is inspired by the Punjabi folk song ‘Lal Meri Pat’, which is technically not a Nusrat song per se, but Rahman based it on his version of it. Then there’s ‘Tere Bina’ from Guru – a lovely song that was due to be sung by Murtaza and Qadir Khan, but was rerecorded in Rahman’s voice at director Mani Ratnam’s insistence. (the brothers can still be heard in the opening strains of the track) I love the song, but hate the visuals – the cheesy dance routines do not fit the semi-spiritual vibe.

I was never a huge Atif Aslam fan – despite some of the songs from his band Jal being ear-wormy enough. Until I heard his Coke Studio songs – two of which stand out. ‘Wasta Pyaar Da’, a mash-up of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ with a traditional Punjabi song, and ‘Jal Pari’. The second song’s from Aslam’s own solo album. At 4:39 of the performance, he segues into Nusrat’s ‘Tu Mera Dil’. The transition is done without drawing too much attention towards itself, a smart little homage that makes this Nusrat fan feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

One of the most interesting things you will hear is the Brooklyn Qawwali Party, a tribute band formed by percussionist Brooke Martinez specifically to cover Nusrat Fateh Ali songs. This 9-minute version of Musst Musst, complete with claps, a wind section, a double bass, an electric guitar – and even a harmonium – is sublime, especially when the guys sing the main chorus of the song.

And then there’s Pakistani-American band Kominas’ completely irreverent take on ‘Pooja Karoonga’. I’ll reserve all comment.


AR Rahman, Life, Music

A most unexpected Rahman concert

The first, and only, AR Rahman concert I had been to was in Hyderabad, in 2003. It was the first time Rahman had ever toured, and expectations were high, the man himself had not sold out was at the top of his game, and I had all-access backstage passes. Since then, I’ve passed on every ARR concert that happened in the vicinity, partly because I could not really top the 2003 experience, and partly because there was not really anything new happening in any of the concerts – you could make out parts being badly lip-synched, there would be the mandatory Sivamani jam, garish background dancers, and a bunch of crowd-pleasing songs. Ho-hum.

But when Sasi told me about Rahman playing at the Hollywood Bowl in July, I was struck with that Rahmantic yearning again. And that’s how we landed up there this Sunday, with a bottle of wine, bags of popcorn, and a cumulative high after listening to ‘Jiya Se Jiya’ in the car. (the Hollywood Bowl allows you to bring your own food in, which was a pleasant surprise) As expected, the place was desi-ville, right from the parking lot to the crowded stands. (Which also meant there was a great deal of queue-bumping. Or queue-nonexistence.) A bhangra group, apparently a bunch of SoCal dancers called the Sher Foundation were performing at the entrance and inviting passers-by to join in, leading to much exhibition of left feet.

The concert began with a performance by Rhythms of Rajasthan, a folk singing troupe. Nobody really paid them much attention, people were still streaming in, it was not dark enough to see the screens, and there were no crunchy beats to make you get up and dance, yo. Karsh Kale was up next. He played an excellent 45-minute set, with some great singers joining him onstage, as well as a female violinist named Lili Haydn, who owned. Salim Merchant came onstage for a bit, jamming to his song ‘Shukran Allah’ from Kurbaan with Kale and his crew. Overall, a fantastic performance, and I was primed for the evening. But no ARR in sight, instead Sher Foundation and something called Bollywood Step Dance came onstage and did what every wannabe on every talent show on every TV channel does – dance to Bollywood songs. Omkara, Jab We Met, facepalm. Thankfully, this did not last too long.

The announcer came on stage, did his usual Rahman spiel. Mispronounced name, check. Slumdog Millionaire mention, check. Audience going wild, check. Random drunk Tamil dude screaming ‘thalaivar’ over and over again, check. Conductor Matt Dunkley walked in. The opening sequence to Enthiran played on the giant screen, and the crowd roared as Robonikanth sauntered into view. The music began to play, slowly building, and the choir launched into ‘Arima Arima’. But whoa, it was a version much different from the one on the soundtrack. I believe the precise moment I began to gape with disbelief was when ‘Arima’ became a rearranged ‘Puthiya Manithan’ Because this was good, guys. This was not stick-to-the-crowd-pleasers Rahman I was expecting. The  Spirit of Unity tour in 2003 had the bombastic ‘Oruvan Oruvan’ from Muthu opening every show. The overture to that song is a magnificent orchestral piece that was tweaked a little, so that the meaty beats and SPB’s robust vocals that lead to the song became a bubbly hymn of anticipation, driving fanboys like yours truly delirious with happiness. This version of Enthiran evoked something quite like that. But I expected the singers to emerge any minute, destroying those few minutes of sonic adventurism that we were witnessing. I was wrong.

Rahman came onstage, talked a bit about how happy he was to be there. Said something funny about this not being a ‘rockstar event’. A brief speech about Roja, and he walked away. The orchestra struck up again, with a delicate reinterpretation of ‘Kaadhal Rojave’, with ARR regular Naveen on the solo flute. It was at this point I realized this was going to be much, much more than a regular concert.

Chances were high that something like this would suck. You know why? Because orchestral reinterpretations fall into two categories – gimmicky or wannabe. An outfit like Apocalyptica, once the novelty of hearing METALLICA-ON-CELLO-WOO-HOO wears off, is just a bunch of celloists scraping on their instruments as hard as possible to make them sound like badass Les Pauls. Off the top of my head, the only orchestral version I loved whole-heartedly, without coming back to it some time later and going ‘wha-huh, I enjoyed that?’ was Jon Lord’s Concerto For Group And Orchestra.  And please don’t say S&M. No, it does not hold up. Matt Dunkley, who was the conductor and arranger for the concert, has apparently worked with ARR since

The choice of songs was superb. These were the underrated gems, the pieces that do not make it to your top 10 ARR lists. ‘Ayo Re Sakhi’ from Water, (which was nearly ruined by the female vocalist, a lady named Amrita. I will get to her in a minute) , pieces from Couples Retreat and 127 Hours.  ‘Mausam & Escape’ from Slumdog Millionaire was a frenzied piano/sitar duet, with sitarist Asad Khan joining Rahman on the keys, and a very unexpected choice for that soundtrack. The predictable inclusions – the theme from Warriors of Heaven and Earth and ‘Once Upon A Time in India’ from Lagaan, the Bombay theme. The most unpredictable one was a suite from The Rising, otherwise known as Mangal Pandey. I have to admit that the piece made me itch to go and revisit the OST, though I am not courageous enough to consider watching the film again. (Shudder!)

The one piece I could not recognize at all was ‘Changing Seasons’. Was it from Raavan? I have absolutely no clue, because my post-2009 ARRfu is weak. I do not remember seeing it anywhere before, even on promos.

The low points –

  • Almost no connection between the content of the video clips and the piece being conducted at the moment. Imagine watching an action sequence with a romantic theme playing in the background, and you will understand what I mean.
  • The multiple anti-British themes (and their corresponding videos) got a little tedious. Thankfully, no pieces from Bose: The Forgotten Hero.
  • The choice of Jai Ho’ as the closing song. While I get it, it’s the most recognized Rahman song in Hollywoodland, familiar enough for even the random drunk woman sitting next to me to wake up and cheer. But you have a Philharmonic orchestra and start off with programmed beats and a bunch of under-trained vocalists to substitute for Sukhwinder Singh’s power-packed vocals. Seriously?
  • The terrible, terrible female vocalist, who had no business sharing a stage with the Man, or anywhere near a microphone. She sounded nervous at first, a little out of breath, when singing the Water song, but one can only forgive so much. Her voice was grating enough to suck away all the joy out of ‘Jai Ho’. I missed you, Tanvi Shah. You may be the only Indian woman who can say ‘Salut, baila baila!’ without making me giggle.

And now to wait for an official CD release.

AR Rahman, Music

Two songs

Two songs by two of my favourite Indian composers –  AR Rahman’s ‘Dilli 6’, from the movie of the same name was released in 2009 and Amit Trivedi’s ‘Dilli’, from No One Killed Jessica came out last month. I haven’t heard the first in about a year, due to a self-imposed hiatus. The other’s been on my playlist the past few days. Both songs are written and composed around the same city – Delhi. (d-uh!) Both of them feature a melange of vibrant sounds that one would not really associate with the idea of a song about the capital of India. Rahman goes in for a chill-out/club-music vibe (French lyrics! an analog synth groove!), while Trivedi layers his track with screaming distortion guitars that occasionally meander into Indian classical/prog-rock territory.

Female voices begin each song. Tanvi Shah’s velvet vocals, heavily processed, introduce us to ‘Dilli 6’. Her inflection of the words has a distinct accent, “yeh Dilli” comes out as ‘E Delhi’. The languorous vibe of the song is broken by Benny Dayal and Blaaze’s chanting, and from then on, the song gives us a series of pleasant musical surprises – syncopated rap in French, a very effective use of the beat and a scratchy fill that punctuates key phrases.

‘Dilli 6’ is about the city, or rather, an introduction to the city. Come hither, the city is great. ‘Bas ishq mohabbat pyaar.’ Right, the city is just perfect for the lover, for the artist, it embraces you tight and scolds you soundly. But obviously, if you are practical enough, you should make sure you have your seat-belts fastened, there is enough cash in your wallet and the air-conditioner is switched on.

‘Dilli’ is from the point of view of one who lives in Delhi. Sure, he loves the city, but it’s love-tinged-with-irony, the casual cruelty reserved for the lover without whom you cannot do with, but resent her presence and her effect on you all the same. ‘Mera kaat kalejaa Dilli, mui Dilli le gayi’  – ‘it has cut my liver out, Delhi has’ goes the main refrain. Trivedi’s musical aesthetic, as I have noted before, seeks to bring out a raw scruffiness that is usually missing from mainstream Indian cinema, and ‘Dilli’, head-banger of a song though it may be, is a perfect example of this. It aims for the gut. From the scraping, echoey intro guitar loop that warns you of yet another day in a city that sucks the blood out of you, the song, once it starts, is breathless – the female voice ( Aditi Singh Sharma, a Trivedi regular) rat-a-tats the word ‘Dilli’, the drums and the male voices – Toshi Raina and Shriram Iyer sing the bulk of the song in unison. All three singers get their Delhi vibe just right – no pan-Indian song, this one.

On a side, there is this new wave of Delhi-centric movies that get the city. I am not really sure I am qualified enough to say this myself – I have passed through Delhi every now and then, and all my interactions have been through the filter of close friends. Remember Sarfarosh and Dil Se, which were  set in the city? The only time you recognized Delhi as an entity was the morning shots in the fog at Connaught Place. Not so the post-Dibakar Bannerjee era, where the city becomes real – its inhabitants are the inhabitants of the capital, speaking the vernacular, not pretenders from Film City. Which reminds me – go watch Band Baaja Baarat. It has its flaws, but I had fun. End aside.

I could be wrong – but is the Dilli in the Rahman song addressed as a male (I know most of the lyrics just refer to it as a city, but the lines ‘badaa kaske gale lagaata hai’ personify it, I thought), while the one in Trivedi’s song is the bitch-from-hell lover?

Rahman’s song has an epic build-up moment. At a point, as the male voices chant the ‘yeh Delhi hai’ refrain, the bassline throbs, Rahman makes his way through ear-friendly chords,  heavily-processed French horns and timpanis pronounce euphoria and grandeur. No such moments in Trivedi’s composition – the only ear-friendly portion comes when all three voices come together in magnificent harmony.

I played ‘Dilli 6’ again just now, and I notice that this song, as well, has a subtly recurring guitar riff. Nice.

All that said, I am really impressed by the way Trivedi’s been carving his own path, refusing to stick to a single style – for all my talk of his rawness, the soundtrack of Aisha was the only IFM soundtrack that has been consistently on the iPod all year, and the polish of it gives me a quick kick to the rear my trying-to-find-patterns inner critic. Right now, I am fixated on ‘Shaam’, the under-rated song of the album, shot in the film in a style that fits its stoner roots. I have not heard Udaan properly yet, (and haven’t seen the film, either) apparently No One Killed Jessica has usurped its place on the Trivedi queue.

Read: Aadisht’s lovely examination and deconstruction of what makes the Dilli 6 song tick, where I am also mentioned.


No Rahman For A Year

I turned 30 last year, and I realized that for the last seventeen years of my life, AR Rahman’s music has been a constant companion to virtually everything I’ve done. It was what converted me from a casual listener to a rabid music enthusiast, and it is to this music that I map most memories of growing up, my college years, a lot of significant events of my life. Every Rahman release would be ( and still is) a mini-event, the only thing beating it would be the anticipation of what would come after this one. While I cannot confess to having listened to *every* song produced by him, the number comes very close to his complete output.

But hey, seventeen years is a long time, man. While there was a time that I listened exclusively to his music alone, it also got me to sample new composers in the Indian film music scene, and even go beyond my comfort zone and try out different genres – Qawwali, world music ( I remember hunting down and buying Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ just because it was recommended by Rahman, in a Filmfare interview, then the only way to keep track of what was on the cards for the next few months for the Rahman fix), good ol’ rock and roll, ambient music, EDM – and lots and lots of soundtracks.  And while my tastes in other genres and kinds of music has morphed and evolved in various directions, I find my predilection for Indian music often gauged by the strict barometer of the standard laid down by Rahman. (And not just Indian music, mind you – there is an instant liking to some international artistes based on how Rahman-like their music sounds on the first hearing – Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ comes to mind, as does Owl City’s ‘Fireflies’ ) Which is to say that, every new composer or artiste I listen to has to stand up in a podium while I, with my halo of Rahman-love shining brightly over my head, pass judgement – the result is more often than not a thumbs-down.

Last December, while walking through the streets of LA, the album that played in my ears was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. Now this is another of those college-level albums that was internalized to such an extent that I could not only sing along to all the songs, once upon a time, but also murmur the words that Kurt Cobain says in between song. True confession, I would do that, and even laugh along with the studio audience. During boring classes, I could play the album in my head all the way through – ah well, you get the picture. It was an album that I heard so much that after some time, I realized that I need not listen to it again ever again. And I didn’t, for quite some time – I remember hearing it again sometime in 2003 or 2004, and then relegating it again to the “been there, enjoyed that, time to move on” pile. But listening to it this December was a revelation. I frequently found myself being surprised by which song followed another, I could not remember most of the lyrics, and Cobain’s dry banter between songs actually had me smiling not by force of habit, because I found them genuinely funny. Needless to say, I loved that feeling.

So the deal with not listening to Rahman’s music for a year is this – I want to get back that unfamiliar feeling of discovering something new about an oft-heard song. The number of times I’ve heard ARR’s discography borders on the ludicrous ( check out my profile for the extremely skewed statistics) . I seem to use his music as a stress-busting choice or a mood enhancer, and sometimes plainly as a default playlist filler when I run out of ideas of what I want to listen to. In a way, Rahman has become comfort food, and I don’t think I am too comfortable with that idea. Hence, this experiment.

Sure, there are new releases lined up – I believe Gautam Menon’s latest release is already out ( Vinnaithandi Varuvaiya) and Mani Ratnam’s Raavan is coming soon, but hey, I’ve heard Justice, Leslie Feist and Katie Melua three years too late, and even now, discover artistes whose prime albums were released many years ago. There is no pressing need for me to listen to a new Rahman album other than the fluttery feeling that accompanies the first listen. The fear of that experience being marred by reviews and other people’s opinions is why you need to listen to the songs on the day of release, because you can be sure that every other blog, column and radio station would be talking about it in the weeks to come.  Ah well, one has to live with that.

This does not mean I will run away if you play a Rahman song, or that I will cover my ears and go “la-la-la” if ‘Chiggy Wiggy’ starts playing in the mall when I am shopping. It’s just that I won’t actively add a Rahman song to my playlist if I can help it – I can spend that time listening to something new, something I haven’t heard before. It’s embarrassing to know that I hadn’t heard Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds album until a few weeks ago, or hadn’t succumbed to the pure joy of listening to Lady Gaga’s Fame. Maybe seventeen years later, it’s time to go cold turkey and hey, if things get really bad, I am sure I can just press play in my mind.