Bad acoustics mars Rahat concert

By Dev Nadkarni

Auckland audiences had been waiting long for Rahat’s first New Zealand performance. So it was pleasing to see last weekend’s sellout concert begin right on the dot – and the maestro launch into his performance without the sort of fanfare that celebrity performers have come to be associated with. Full marks on that score to Aariya Entertainment, for whom this was a first concert under its auspices.

Starting off with the contemplative Allah hu, the Sufi song that his uncle, the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan took to the corners of the world, Rahat alternated between traditional and contemporary fare from Hindi films throughout the first half.

Sufi singing reflects the abandon of its mystical philosophy and the singer often dwells in the uppermost octave – taar saptak in musical parlance – reaching several successive crescendos in the course of the song. While Rahat sang with the practiced ease he has come to be known for, the poor sound management did gross disservice to his virtuosity.

In the early stages of the concert the sound was tuned to such a deafening level that both his singing and the accompaniment, especially in the higher octaves, sounded shrill, even raucous, to the point that several listeners in the Telstraclear Events Centre audience were seen shielding their ears.

When will acoustics technicians realise that over-the-top decibel levels completely destroy Indian vocalists’ finer essays? Poor sound tuning has been the bane of Indian music concerts in Auckland for years and it is time event organisers step up to the plate and deal with the problem with some degree of finality. Sadly, the subtleties of the celebrated Ustad’s awesome vocal calisthenics were drowned out for a large part of the first half of the concert.

Aariya’s managers have said that the sound management was supervised by sound engineers who had travelled with Rahat and that Aariya had almost no control over it.

Fortunately, wiser counsels seem to have prevailed and the sound in the second half was decidedly better, though far from ideal. Post interval, the Ustad from Pakistan who has succeeded in straddling across the subcontinent with his soulful singing, pleased the audience with his more recent Hindi film favourites. He also sang a few traditional qawwalis and a Punjabi number to a surging re- sponse from the audience.

Rahat is clearly a shy and reticent artiste, who likes to get on with his business of regaling the audience with what he does best – singing soulfully, full throated. His boyish smiles and twinkling eyes undoubtedly endear him to his live audiences. But then there is little that he does by way of interacting with his listeners in a way most other celebrity stage performers do.

In that sense he is the quintessential stage artiste of traditional Indian baithak music: more artiste than entertainer. Which is rather rare in these times especially with shows that involve Bollywood music. And it was a refreshing change.

The audience lapped up his wildly successful recent Bollywood numbers, which he sang with great finesse, though the super hits whose originals had a feminine voice were sung solo – diminishing the experience somewhat. For instance “Teri Meri, Meri Teri” from the superhit flick Bodyguard sounded incomplete without a feminine voice, which is so important to the lyric.

Apparently Rahat’s troupe does not include women artistes, according to promo material that was distributed during the concert, supposedly because the traditional genre that he specialises in does not involve women artistes. But that is at variance with the depiction of both male and female qawwali singers in countless Hindi films released since the 1950s.

His 15-man ensemble is highly accomplished and comprises support vocalists (including Rahat’s younger brother), western and tradi- tional rhythmists and string, wind and electronic instrumentalists. Rahat himself wields the harmonium with great dexterity and finesse.

In no mehfil can an audience’s farmaaish be fully met and that was the case with Rahat’s as well. Many requests from the audience of his favourite numbers – both from Hindi films and his traditional collection – went unheeded and one wished some more of his more recent and not so recent Hindi film numbers were doled out towards the end.

All in all, it was a memorable concert because of both Rahat’s music and the terrible sound management. While Aariya Entertainment and promoters Dinesh and Rahul Raniga did a marvelous job of organising the concert, there was nothing they could have done about the sound.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, March 2012

Breathless Auckland left gasping for more

Auckland’s Hindi music fans will undoubtedly remember the country’s first SEL concert for a long time to come. What a night it was as Bollywood’s celebrated musical triumvirate belted out number after unforgettable number sending the sellout audience into a foot tapping frenzy late into the night.

The well organised concert began at 7-45pm at the choc-a-block Telstraclear Events Centre, just 15 minutes past the scheduled time – a refreshing departure from the delayed starts that is de riguer for celebrity concerts of this sort.

From the word go the trio fired on all cylinders with maestro Shankar connecting with the audience straight away. As the concert went into top gear with his repertoire of smash hit numbers, Shankar cajoled and coaxed the audience to sing, sway and dance with him – a thing which they did with great enthusiasm.

Fresh from a sellout performance in Sydney, the trio on more than one occasion said that the Auckland audience was the most amazing one they had ever faced. This was a statement as sincere as it can be because Shankar is a straight shooter – there are simply no airs about him. He speaks from the heart and there was no doubt that he meant it.

The trio and their talented ensemble performed every number that they had promised all along in their promos in the pages of Indian Weekender, including the title theme of the concert, the legendary “Breathless”, which catapulted Shankar into his permanent place in Bollywood’s stellar firmament.

The trio’s hit numbers are so many over the years since their big break in Dil Chahta Hai that it would have been impossible to sing all of them. But Shankar obliged by stringing along about a dozen of them of them sampler style in a panorama of their musical hits down the years.

Shankar’s training in both forms of Indian Classical music – Hindustani and Carnatic – shone through brilliantly in his incredible range of vocal inflections: alaps, taans, gamaks, taranas and superfast sargams besides rhythmic bols and boltaans, the latter which he dabbled in with the superbly talented drummers and percussionists.

His virtuosity in extempore improvisation even in his well known numbers to make them special for a live performance were pure genius, which would have elicited a hundred wah-wahs from connoisseurs.

But bad sound tuning, which had his microphone low on volume, subdued the finer points of his softer vocalisations, much to the chagrin of several listeners in the audience. Bad sound management is the bane of Auckland sound contractors when it comes to traditional Indian soirees. Many a great concert has been a victim of this unfortunate shortcoming.

A number of people complained during the interval and the versatile singer’s mic was set to a higher volume in the second half much to everybody’s relief. Shankar himself wasn’t happy with the settings in the first half, he told me backstage at the interval and acknowledged that many had echoed those sentiments.

The ever smiling and effable Ehsaan Noorani and the gentle and shy Loy Mendonca displayed their own virtuosity on the instruments of their mastery to rounds of unending applause. The trio’s coordination with one another and their extraordinarily talented ensemble including the singers in their troupe was superb and radiated an easygoing bonhomie that is characteristic of the trio’s persona even offstage.
Speaking to me on the evening before the concert, Shankar spoke of his early training, his favourite ragas, how the trio makes its legendary music and the non-Bollywood experimentation he has been involved in.

The middleclass lad growing up in suburban Mumbai in a family of music lovers showed early talent in singing. He was tutored in both Hindustani and Carnatic forms before breaking out into singing and composing popular music.

Though he is clearly the driving force, the SEL engine room is a finely coordinated, collaborative effort, insists Shankar: everyone plays a more or less equally significant role he says, pulling in their respective talents and creativity to produce their wholesome musical offerings that have proved to be such great hits time and time again.

Shankar has created and collaborated to create a significant body of music outside Bollywood. He has set to tune and sung soulful Ghazals and Urdu poetry written by the great Javed Akhtar and others and has been part of a fusion group headquartered in Sweden called Mynta, which has produced extremely interesting experimental sounds with international musicians.

When asked if he would sing some of the soulful Javed Akhtar-penned numbers in Auckland, he said he was sorry he couldn’t because of the set up of the concert. Indeed the absence of some of his more soulful songs did seem to disappoint a wee bit of the senior audience who have listened to his early music and remembered it over the years.

Auckland’s SEL Breathless concert will go down as one of the most memorable ones.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, March 2012

Rarotonga Diary: Leveraging the recession to print success

By Dev Nadkarni

In the years since the global financial crisis unfolded – and easy, cheap credit suddenly vanished – stories of new private sector investment have been few and far between. Businesses have been in survival mode for the most part refraining from making new investments, waiting for the first signs of the hitherto elusive turnaround.

Economies of the Pacific Island region have not been as badly affected as those in Europe partly because the Asia Pacific region has been largely insulated from the west’s financial troubles thanks to the momentum of their robust economic activity over the past few years.

But the ripple effects have been felt particularly in countries drawing sustenance mainly from remittances and revenues brought in by inbound tourism: job losses, wage cuts and a general tendency to put off non essential expenditure by people in the main tourist source markets has caused some decline in inbound tourist numbers and onshore expenditure.

It is therefore refreshing to see a private enterprise in the Pacific Island region building its business growth strategy leveraging on the recession.  John Woods, owner, publisher and editor of the Rarotonga based Cook Islands News saw an opportunity in expanding his business precisely because of the recession.

If it weren’t for the global recession, he would never have been able to expand his media enterprise with a fairly substantial investment in new machinery and equipment in one of the South Pacific’s most popular holiday destinations.

Like all industries ancillary to manufacturing, the printing industry also felt the ravages of the global financial crisis. As manufacturers round the world pulled back on production levels, the demand for print products and services including promotional and packaging material dropped. This was bad news for overleveraged suppliers in the print and packaging industry. With the result, the printing and packaging industry was awash with thousands of sophisticated printing and finishing machines at unbelievably low prices.

This is where Woods saw the opportunity – especially in relation to the situation in the tiny Cook Islands market.

Rarotonga, the Cook Islands’ capital and its most populated island has just over 10,000 residents. An additional 7000 tourists and visitors at any given time keep its economy ticking. Like in most island destinations in the South Pacific the costs of goods and services are high because of their geographical distances. Rarotonga’s businesses have to send out a considerable amount of their print and packaging requirement to facilities in New Zealand adding considerably to costs.

Highly capital intensive printing facilities were too expensive to invest in because of the small size of the market so far. But the global financial crisis changed all that. Woods was able to pick up a reasonably recent model of a four colour unit Heidelberg printing press from a used printing machinery warehouse in Auckland for about 15 percent of the price of a new one, he says.

Having acquired the machine, he flew in engineers from Heidelberg to refurbish and assemble the machinery in his Rarotonga facility. Besides printing the daily Cook Islands News, the press is beginning to prove a cost saver to a number of high quality print product users, who so far had no alternative but to get their runs printed in New Zealand and then shipped or air lifted to the Cook Islands, adding considerably to costs.

Woods’ press is on par with printing technology in New Zealand and uses the latest in prepress and offset printing technology. He also runs a digital printing set up for smaller runs and banner printing for signage and advertising, adding another set of services for the island’s small display, advertising and signage industry.

As well as running a live wire newsroom for the Cook Islands News with the latest buzz from the island, the region and the world, Woods has refurbished the paper’s website and is looking at a re-launch with several e-commerce options in the next couple of months.

Business plans for this foray into digital media are based on the fact that more than 100,000 Cook Islanders live and work overseas – mainly in New Zealand, Australia and the United States besides other countries. The biggest offshore population being in New Zealand, an Auckland print edition of the Cook Islands News is on the cards, too, Woods says.


Raro – the next movie destination?

Fiji-born New Zealand accountant and actor Anand Naidu – whose first film ‘Curry Munchers’ made waves in New Zealand, Australia and is now set to release in the United Kingdom (albeit under a different title, ‘Vindaloo Wars’) and who is now based in Rarotonga – is contemplating setting his next production in the Cook Islands. Not that the destination is new to the international audio visual industry: the popular ‘Survivor’ series was shot in Aitutaki some time back.

Naidu is now financial controller of one of Rarotonga’s biggest resorts – Edgewater – and is contemplating a reality television series and a possible film with collaborators from New Zealand and India.

‘Curry Munchers’ themed on the migrant experience in New Zealand did not do as well as he had expected it to in his native Fiji, says Naidu. He is encouraged by its relative success in New Zealand and Australia and its impending release in the UK and India.


Gearing up for the forum

New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade visited Rarotonga and Aitutaki last month accompanied by senior officials and Cook Islands based diplomatic staff on a recce ahead of this year’s annual Pacific Islands Forum summit. The forum will be held in the last week of August.

Cook Islands does not seem to have a single venue to host an event the size of the forum, given the ever burgeoning numbers of attendees from far flung nations thanks to the exponentially increasing interest in the region for both strategic geopolitical and natural resources reasons.

The Edgewater is likely to be one of the main venues both for stay and work. The leaders’ retreat will be held on the picturesque Aitutaki, a half hour’s flight away. Interest in this year’s forum is sky high. More than a hundred rooms have already been booked between the Chinese and Americans alone – another pointer to the ongoing race of the superpowers in the resource rich Pacific Islands region.

First appeared in Islands Business March 2012