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Ken Hunt, a principal contributor to the Rough Guide to World Music, is a “writer, broadcaster, translator and occasional lyricist” — not to mention a huge fan of AR Rahman. I caught up with him by email yesterday after a frantic search:
JO: What makes the musical compositions of AR Rahman unique?
KH: Indian film music has long borrowed, plagiarised and downright thieved from the popular music of other cultures. Especially western pop music. The first music by Rahman that I heard were his thrilling soundtracks to Thiruda Thiruda and Pudhiya Mugam – two Tamil-language
films – and it was clear that he made of strong stuff. Roja just confirmed that. Listen to Roja's Bharat Humko Jaan Se Pyara Hai and you can discern pre-echoes of his work on, say, the Lord Of The Rings musical. He was pretty much ready for the big time from the get-go.
There are a number of gifts that single him out as special. His handling of rhythmical elements is astonishing and his solutions very South Indian. Plus there was something apparent from the very beginning when he was working in Tamil movies and starting to work in Hindi film. His melodies are catchy, clever and reveal a command of theatrical music techniques with their musical cues. When I interviewed him, he talked about having worked in advertising. That requires a consummate terseness and a light touch. Rahman also has an agile and distinctive grasp of the sound palettes of the subcontinent's and western music. The last characteristic that
singles him out is the quality of the performances he draws out from supporting musicians. It is a unique package.
JO: In what ways has he expanded his horizons with the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire?
KH: I'm not sure Rahman has expanded his horizons with Slumdog Millionaire. He's way past consolidating his position and he's so far over the horizon that most "music directors" at best are eating his dust.
JO: What are your "top 3" AR Rahman songs?
KH: In chronological order. The first is Carolene [STET] singing Thee Thee from Thiruda Thiruda with its fiery percussion, spot-colour flute and melodic and rhythmic shifts and turns. When Roja came out, it just bowled me over, but picking just one composition from it is tricky. Right now, I'll plump for the title track sung by S P Balasubramaniam and Chitra. Ask tomorrow and it could be Minmini singing Chhoti Si Aasha or Baba Sehgal and Shweta singing Rukmani Rukmani. The last is the hypnotic Tamil-language Thai Mannai Vanakkam from his 1997 solo album Vande Mataram because it reveals the breadth of his vision and arranging skills.