A Bombastic Night at the Bowl with A.R. Rahman

Photographs taken by Anup Sugunan​ at the Hollywood Bowl. Provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

South Indian composer, producer, singer, and instrumentalist A.R. Rahman has been hailed as the “Mozart of the Madras” and is known throughout India as the man who single-handedly revolutionized Indian contemporary music, fusing traditional Hindustani and Carnatic styles with jazz, rock, and even electronic elements. The Grammy award-winning composer is one of the most famous musicians in India and one of the most successful musicians in the world, holding the title of the first Indian artist to break into the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart with the immensely popular song, “Jai Ho,” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire. On a balmy July 24th, concertgoers flocked to the iconic Hollywood Bowl to see one of the most revered composers perform many of his most beloved tracks during the Los Angeles stop of Rahman’s All Access North America Tour. Notable members of the guest list included actress Poorna Jagannathan, Youtuber-turned-late-night-host Lilly Singh, and New York Times bestselling author Jay Shetty.

The composer exuded an air of unpretentious confidence, sporting dark shades while perched on the raised podium, flanked by two keyboards and a fingerboard. Closer to the edge of the dome sat the drummer, bassist, flautist, guitarist, and additional keyboardists. Behind the instrumentalists was a giant LCD screen projected futuristic images, and while this backdrop might have represented A.R. Rahman’s modernization of ancient Indian classical music traditions, it felt out of place in an otherwise minimalistic stage setup.

The set opened with “Jai Ho,” a rousing song propelled by the relentless pulse that bursted into the powerfully chanted hook, the first of many crowd favorites. The audience cheered in excitement at the start of “Muqabala Muqabala.” This incredibly popular song from the film Hum Se Hai Muqabala has been sampled nearly a dozen times and was recreated in StreetDancer3D in 2020, garnering over half a billion views just on YouTube. While it was a shame that there wasn’t a dance performance, that didn’t stop several audience members from jamming out in their seats. Rahman kept this energy going with, “Baadal”, a retrofuturistic take on Indian classical music performed with the boldness of a flamenco dancer, another one of those criminally groovy songs that make you want to get out of your seat and dance like nobody’s watching.

Not only did the performance showcase a hefty number of danceable earworms, it also included touching songs that stem from Rahman’s deep spirituality and devotion to Sufism. His reverent rendition of “O…Saya,” another track from the hit film Slumdog Millionaire, recast the song of defiance into a hymn. But perhaps the clearest example of his spirituality was “Kun Faya Kun,” a stately worship song expressing unconditional devotion to Allah. The comforting melody and expansive instrumentals transformed the dome into a temple, the stage into something sacred. The soul-stirring melodies and the vocalists’ mesmerizing performance conveyed the spiritual message to all the listeners, even those who could not understand the lyrics.

Photographs taken by Anup Sugunan​ at the Hollywood Bowl. Provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

To celebrate his roots in Hindustani and Carnatic music, Rahman included 10 raags, which are traditional melodic frameworks for improvisation. Raags (Westernized as “ragas”) are essential concepts in Indian classical music, each characterized by a specific melodic structure and a distinct mood. The raags performed ranged from “Suddh Sarang,” which evoked a refreshing burst of energy, to “Bhimpalasi,” which represents the longing of meeting a loved one.

Indo-Canadian singer Jonita Gandhi was one of the brightest stars of the night, dazzling the audience with her powerful, crystal clear vocals and elegant stage presence. However, the other singers featured in the show such as playback singers Rakshita Suresh and Haricharan also deserved the highest praise. In addition to the troupe of fantastic vocalists touring with A.R. Rahman, the show also featured a very special guest who rose to stardom with her imitations of famous singers. Indian-American singer, songwriter, and rapper Shuba joined the stage for “Enna Sona,” where she served more as a backup singer than a guest star, but thankfully, she got to perform a fiery rap solo in “Ek Ho Gaye Hum Are Tum.” Also known as “The Humma Song,” this track injected a breath of feel-good funk into the setlist.

As the evening air cooled down, the party heated up with “Param Sundari,” an upbeat Bollywood classic featuring a smoldering guitar motif and the addictive chorus. By the last few songs, nearly all of the audience members were dancing and singing along. With songs as catchy as “Urvashi Urvashi,” the audience could not help but pulse to the electronic baseline and the rhythmic singing. When “Mustafa Mustafa” came on, the text on the big screen encouraged everyone to sing along, and the crowd happily obliged, singing their hearts out to “Ooh, yeah, friendship / Friendship is what we’re looking for,” while lighting up the venue with their phone flashlights. The last song brought all the singers and dancers back to the stage to perform India’s national song, “Vande Mataram,” and share a message of devotion and pride.

A.R. Rahman’s genius lies not only in his addictive hooks or his seamless infusion of Eastern and Western compositional styles, but also in his ability to create novel versions of his classics during live performances. A new instrumentation here or a different distortion effect there added a delightful freshness to old favorites, making this ARR concert a truly unique experience.

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