Indian cinema has long been known for punctuating melodrama with incongruous, showstopping song-and-dance numbers, which had elicited a collective chortle in the West — until, of course, 2008's Slumdog Millionaire. The poignant Oscar-winner inspired movie masses to look east for a new sound, after hearing the film's infectious Bollywood dance finale, "Jai Ho."
Slumdog composer A.R. Rahman, 44, has since earned huge Western renown — including two Grammys and two Oscars for his soundtrack — after seducing South Asian audiences for nearly two decades. Indeed, the "Mozart of Madras" has composed scores for more than 100 films, and sold more than 200 million records, which puts him between Elton John and AC/DC on the list of the all-time best sellers.
This Saturday, Rahman performs at the reopened Pontiac Silverdome. Metro Detroit, a hub for some 60,000 South Asians, was a logical stop for his international tour. By the end of July, "Jai Ho: The Journey Home Tour" will have hit more than 20 stages around the globe, including Zurich, Amsterdam and Los Angeles.
With Rahman's ease for melding worlds of musical styles, it was only a matter of time before Western audiences took notice.
"My shows normally have a strange audience — Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis — and 12- to 18-[year-old] Japanese," Rahman says.
Hip hop, reggae, Islamic devotional music, electro-pop and both Eastern and Western classical styles fit gracefully together through Rahman's synthesizer. So his show's aesthetic is therefore shifting from pure Bollywood grandeur to embrace more of a "We Are the World" feel. (Actually, he performed that very song along with Wyclef Jean, Jennifer Hudson, Barbra Streisand and others to benefit February's earthquake in Haiti.) Onstage entertainment ranges from belly to break dance, featuring Cirque du Soleil acrobats and contortionists, and projecting 3-D videos that re-create scenes from the movies he's composed music for.
"The concert will have works from the past 18 years, and new stuff," he says. "It's the same music produced from a different perspective. We have a Western director, and most of the technicians are from America, but the talent is from India and the rest of the world."
Allah Rakha Rahman's father was a talented Madras (now Chennai)-based musician, who himself composed soundtracks for Indian films. The younger Rahman began playing the piano and other instruments at a tender age. By 26, he won India's prestigious National Film Award for Best Music Direction — for Roja, his debut film score.
"When I was young, I was in bands and stuff," he says. "Pop bands, rock bands, fusion bands — almost any band you can think of. When I am making music, all these experiences come in."
And he's certainly had plenty to draw upon. In 2002, he collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Bombay Dreams, which debuted in London and opened on Broadway in 2004. He performed at President Obama's first state dinner last year, which honored Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Rahman is now working on an album with Interscope Records, collaborating with a slew of yet-to-be-announced artists.
"It can't be defined yet — we're still making it, it's got a year to go — but it's a follow-up to the Pussycat Dolls song," he says, in reference to the 2009 club hit "Jai Ho (You Are My Destiny)," which melded Rahman's track with pop star Nicole Scherzinger's auto-tuned piping.
Rahman's voice is smoky and pleasant, reminiscent of the throaty Sufi Qawwali music that has influenced so many of his compositions. You won't hear any vocal gymnastics — he's a composer who sings, not a singer who composes — but live he'll be joined by 10 other singers, performing reinterpretations off his "best of" list.
That said, Rahman emphasizes that he doesn't play favorites among his songs.
"I want everything to be my favorite," he says. "You can never force things."
Meghana Keshavan is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
At 8 p.m. Saturday, June 19, at the Pontiac Silverdome, 1200 Featherstone Rd., Pontiac; 248-338-2500.