Mozart of Madras puts his talent on show
The man behind the Oscar- and Grammy-winning soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire, AR Rahman, wants you to know there’s more to him than just Jai Ho. His local performances in the coming week will showcase highlights of a career spanning two decades.
Born in India in 1966, as AS Dileep Kumar, he converted to Islam at the age of 23 and changed his name to Rahman. His family had vowed to convert should their prayers for his younger sister to recover from an illness be answered. During that time Rahman made his way into music, playing the keyboard and acting as an arranger for bands he pulled together with friends. He created a Chennai-based rock group, Nemesis Avenue, played in orchestras and studied Western classical music at Trinity College of Music.
‘I started composing in 1989 for commercials,” Rahman says about his conventional career aspirations during an unconventional upbringing. ‘My first movie break came in 1991 and I thought that it would be my last. I didn’t think I had anything more to give.”
He composed the soundtrack for the Tamil film Roja, which won him the Rajat Kamal award for Best Music Director at the National Film Awards. It was an unprecedented win for a first-time film composer. ‘That’s where the journey really began,” he says.
Rahman’s versatility in combining Western classical, Carnatic and Tamil traditional music with jazz, reggae and rock attracted much attention.
He scored Hindi films and worked with Indian poets and lyricists. In 2005 he established his own recording studios and a year later launched his own music label.
Since then, his career has been as diverse as his influences—he has worked across India and performed with Michael Jackson in Munich; he dabbled in a West End musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber called Bombay Dreams and scored the Hollywood blockbuster Elizabeth. ‘I went to Toronto and London to do the musical The Lord of the Rings. I also did the music for the Hollywood blockbuster Couples Retreat.”
Then came the massive success that was 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, the little film that could. For his soundtrack, Rahman won a Golden Globe and two Academy Awards, becoming the first Indian citizen to do so. The soundtrack also topped the dance/electronic chart, with Jai Ho reaching number two on the Eurochart Hot 100 Singles and number 15 on the US Billboard Hot 100. And, of course, there was that collaboration with the Pussycat Dolls, which Rahman says is a great show of how cultures can come together within a common beat.
Slumdog Millionaire also gave Rahman a working relationship with director Danny Boyle, with whom he recently collaborated on the feature film 127 Hours. ‘He wants his movie to be driven by music,” Rahman says, ‘and so one’s music gets a good platform.”
Composing while touring takes its toll on Rahman: ‘Luckily, though, I have teams that help me—in Chennai, Mumbai, London and Los Angeles.” And technology plays its part too: ‘I do my stuff from a laptop and then send it for orchestration. All the voice recordings happen through Skype and video so I can pull through,” he says with a smile.
Rahman will give his first South African performances this weekend, but he has already taken Jai Ho: The Journey Home World Tour to more than 20 cities worldwide.
Creative director Amy Tinkham, who has created live events for Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Paul McCartney, has been involved in the production. ‘It’s very spectacular—rock meets circus meets ethnic music,” he says.
It’s this fusion of disparate elements that led Time magazine to award Rahman the nickname ‘Mozart of Madras”.
AR Rahman Jai Ho: The Journey Home World Tour — Sun City SuperBowl, November 20; Cape Town, GrandWest Grand Arena, November 24; Durban, Moses Mabhida Stadium, November 26