Monday, February 23, 2009

AR Rahman: Global tunesmith

Rahman is a composer with a staggering range
Indian music director AR Rahman's score for Slumdog Millionaire has won an Oscar for best music, and a second for best song. The BBC's Soutik Biswas discusses what makes Rahman tick.

The curiously named Panchathan Record Inn is a nondescript building tucked away in the thriving film district of the southern Indian city of Madras (Chennai). The backyard music studio is also AR Rahman's atelier.

"We make a lot of noise here," one of Rahman's assistants told me wryly when I paid a visit a few years ago. It was late in the evening, and trombone loops floated down the stairs from the state-of-the art studio above.

The "noise" has now conquered the world.

Seventeen years after he began writing music and songs for films, the jingle maker-turned-musician has finally got recognition as India's first truly global film music composer with his score for Danny Boyle's sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire.

The score is an untidy smorgasbord of hip hop, Bollywood remix and signature pop anthem. But it works because it follows the film's giddy pace, the darkness of its characters, its portrayal of lives on the edge.

Bollywood outsider

The golden statue is a global recognition of Rahman's enormous talent.

Like many film composers, he is not a particularly gifted vocalist or a player. Rahman, instead, is an alchemist of sounds and voices, mixing and melting them in a potion that is usually a joy for the ear and soul.

Rahman is an alchemist of sounds and voices

Send your comments on Soutik Biswas's article

It is not surprising then that he is a composer with a staggering range - from raga to reggae to hip hop to Indian rustbelt folk to jungle rhythms to faux baroque. All of it is brewed with an unerring feel for melody, swing and soul.

Rahman, who converted to Islam some 20 years ago, is also India's- and Bollywood's- first truly successful crossover music director.

Bollywood has filched tunes from the West for as long as I can remember - check out rip-offs from Chuck Berry, The Beatles, swing jazz and vapid disco for many home-grown hit tunes of the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s. But Rahman is not your archetypal tune ripper; he is, instead, an intrepid fusion tunesmith