Corby's Orbit

Corby's Orbit
Listening in All the High Places illustration by John Kricfalusi

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rah! Rah! Rahman!

I was at the-almost-best-show that I've ever seen on Sunday. It is a close and unwinnable contest for first place, with perhaps a thousand to compare amongst. But not many like this, my friend. It was the vision of genuine Indian genius A.R. Rahman, performing a make-up show for the Journey Home tour that had stopped just before it reached Toronto last June, due to a collapsing lighting rig in Detroit the night before. I can't remember ever having felt the shivers of pain and pride emanating so intensely from any other performance piece (maybe Isaac Hayes at the O'Keefe, maybe Bob Marley at Massey Hall in '76. And Mary J.).

There were banks of empty seats. On the floor, where ticket prices ranged from $350-$500, about 3/4 of the seats were occupied. No matter, the view from the surrounding arena had the panorama and scope that Rahman's vision was crafted for. As grand as imposing as the sub-continent itself, the columned curtained stage was presented at the beginning as a temple. A ghetto youth ran in panic, spotlighted, from the back of the auditorium to the stage, where the projected image of a door opened to him and scooped him, and us, inside to play and dance to a world-wide variety of musical styles; indeed we had taken refuge together in the temple of music.

Twin staircases that would later become walls and prisons and stages ushered him up into the welcoming intoxication of O... Saya, the opening number, with the composer singing and strolling down the staircase in a fedora and suit, stylishly conjuring memories of both Sinatra and Michael Jackson, as dancers radiated out around the floorspace and a dozen virtuoso musicians stressed the groove to the depths and heights of their expressive powers; high-def live rear projections, expertly filmed and edited, focussed the audience's attention as lights and sliding patterns spun around the performers. (I didn't see a cameraman all night). Judging from internet evidence, the show has changed and evolved since the accident in Detroit. The singing progressed forward to a curved projecting catwalk that embraced a hundred of the lucky fans in the first ten rows with three singers led out on parade by a scepter-wielding DJ BlaaZe and caboosed by Rahman in casual whites with matching ball cap and a portable keyboard/lyre. This was the first of a dozen quick costume changes that Rahman managed during the show. Sexy hot-pants and suggestive dance moves were enticing, but they always stayed a few shades short of lurid, maintaining an admirable classiness that mixed well with the sensuous spiritualism of the music.

Rahman's prominence as a worldwide touchstone for the hopes of oppressed Tamils caused the majority of expats in the audience to respond boisterously to the Hindi and especially the Tamil songs of DJ Blaaze, Lata Mangeshkar, who appeared as a hologram on the front curtain to engage in a moving duet on Luka Chupi from Rang De Basanti , Desi superstar Hariharan, whose rapid fire microtonal pleas and endearments sent all into a state of rapture, the crystalline Richa Sharma, and Sufi / Ganesha / Bhangra echoes that permeated, but never dominated the truly global allegiances of Rahman's vision. Dance-pop, jazz piano, acoustic guitar duets, chanting, virtuoso solos on the violin, cylindrical drum, wood flute, sitar, and trap kit, as well as contortionists, acrobats, break dancers, ballet, reggae, MJ's Black or White, a Happy Birthday singalong for the composer's 62-year-old mother and a program of Indian music at the center of the show: each had their moment, and were swept away by a change of light, beat and costume, so that by the climactic Jai Ho finale, a seeming dream-time had taken up our collective consciouness for almost three hours, like an epic film. The boy of the opening returned and ascended the staircase with the man he had become, and the two turned hand in hand to wave farewell as credits rolled on the curtain, ending with urgent quotes from Gandhi and his disciple, Martin Luther King Jr., imploring us to further the dream for peace, especially in the arena of racism, which continues to frame the major conflicts that defile our world.Messages of hope and world-wide unity in the sweetest context imaginable.

Disks to find:
2002. The Legend of Bhagat Singh.
2001. Lagaan.
1999. Thakshak.
1998. Dil Se.
1997. Vande Mataram.
1995. Rangeela.
1992/4. Roja.

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