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Rahman seeks international pop stardom

A R Rahman is all set to dazzle the western audiences in concerts teeming with dancers, acrobats and high-tech lighting. The tour begins on June 11 at New York's Nassau Coliseum and wends through...

music Updated: May 28, 2010 11:44 IST

RahmanWith scores of dancers moving in unison atop trains, singing amid ancient ruins and running across cricket fields, the average Bollywood production is a grand spectacle.

Taking such a show on the road would seem to require significant downsizing. Not for A R Rahman, who garnered worldwide exposure with his Academy Award-winning score to Slumdog Millionaire.

The composer is trying to orchestrate his own rise to international stardom by making his production even bigger to dazzle audiences in massive concert venues across the Western Hemisphere with elaborate stage shows teeming with dancers, acrobats and high-tech lighting. The tour begins on June 11 at New York's Nassau Coliseum and wends through North America and Europe before ending at London's Wembley Stadium in late July, with ticket prices for the roughly three-hour-long shows ranging from USD 45 to USD 1,000.

Through the concerts, Rahman is attempting something many performers from outside the English-speaking world have tried and failed to do: transcend a regional, ethnic niche and become an international mainstream superstar.

"My core audiences are from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East and all those people, so after Slumdog Millionaire, we wanted audiences from the US and Europe," Rahman said, seated in a vast rehearsal hall in an industrial part of the San Fernando Valley.

In a music scene dominated by lithe 20-something songstresses and frenetic hip-hop collectives, the soft-spoken 44-year-old, with his squat, sparkplug-shaped physique and shaggy, brushed-back black coiffure, might seem an unlikely candidate for sustained Western pop stardom.

During an interview in a room dominated by a towering drum kit, Rahman cast longing glances at the piano beside him, looking like he'd rather be alone with the keyboard than at the center of this frantic pre-tour bustle.

"I'm an introvert, actually," he said, then corrected himself, "I was an introvert, rather."

He's also rowing against a tide that has capsized other non-Western stars who attempted to find a place in a global pop pantheon dominated by European and American performers.

The Japanese singing duo Puffy had big plans when they played their first US concerts at the beginning of the decade, but they got little for their troubles beyond a cease and desist letter from lawyers for Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy.

And does anyone remember Rain, the Korean pop idol who planned to take on America with a US tour and a supporting role in the 2008 action film Speed Racer? (Does anyone even remember Speed Racer?)

But Rahman is off to a hopeful start. His music is ubiquitous in his native India, where he is acclaimed for crafting moving movie music with global influences that appeal to contemporary Indian listeners for more than 100 films.

"He has supplied the soundtrack for a whole generation," TV chef Padma Lakshmi wrote in an appreciation for Time magazine, which named Rahman one of the 100 most influential people of 2009.

First Published: May 28, 2010 11:02 IST