Cold fusion

Today’s not particularly critical Critic’s Notebook (“India Resounding in New York”) in The New York Times surveys the overseas South Asian music scene — as every major NYC-centric generalist periodical seems to every seven months or so, whenever some nominally new item prompts re-inventory. The special occasion in this case may be Bombay Dreams on Broadway, an event too tepidly received to garner much prose of its own. Jon Pareles does an adequate job but little more than naming the usual names: Basement Bhangra, Bollywood Disco, the dear-departed Mutiny parties, DJ Rekha (materfamilias of the whole scene and single fixture of every article ever written on Desi music in the US), Nitin Sawhney, Karsh Kale.

Earlier this week, at Club Passim’s Arabesque Mondays, I saw a performance of classical Indian song and Indian-Arabic fusion by Falguni Shah (a.k.a. Falu), a vocalist on Kale’s Realize album and whose clarion and elasticity of voice surpass anyone’s I’ve heard in months. Accompanied by another singer/sitarist and an Indian-tabla player, she opened with a set of ghazals and qawwali (including “Allah Hoo” and “Tery Bina,” made famous by Nusrat’s recordings); in the second half they were joined by an oudist and an Egyptian-tabla player (Boston’s star percussionist Karim Nagi Mohammed). Falu is one to watch. Over the summer she can be seen in New York at the CBGB 313 Gallery and Mercury Lounge. Only after the Passim show did I realize I’d seen her before, when Karsh Kale and the Realize Live Band headlined Six Degree Records‘ Asian Massive Tour in October 2002 — a lively show, at S.O.B.’s in Tribeca, especially memorable for the turntablism of DJ Cheb i Sabbah. As Pareles mentions, Kale now has a residency at Kush (currently on summer hiatus).

On wunderkind A. R. Rahman, composer of Bombay Dreams, Pareles’ critical faculties and/or fact-checkers could do better: “while the Broadway show hints at styles from across the subcontinent, many numbers end up sounding like mildly exoticized Andrew Lloyd Webber.” No surprise there: Lord Lloyd Webber produced the entire show — the West End original as well as the Broadway retooling — having called up Rahman with the very idea in 1998. And it would be more accurate to say that those numbers sound like mildly de-exoticized A. R. Rahman. While Pareles notes influences on filmi music from “electro to salsa to surf music to funk with vocals that hint at ancient Indian traditions,” many songs in Bombay Dreams are undisguised rearrangements of Rahman’s earlier hits: dance-floor warhorses “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from Dil Se (1998) and “Mujhe Rang De” from Takshak (1999) become dance medleys, the twinkly ballad “Ishq Bina” from Taal (1999) loses luster in English as “Love’s Never Easy.” US reviews of the show I’ve come across consistently fail to acknowledge this recycling, which is also to miss a crucial point of its appeal for Bollywood-wise audiences: sing-a-long-ability. Still, as with many crossover projects, the songs of Bombay Dreams are ultimately so unsatisfying because they’re neither here nor there, rather than, say, the best of both worlds. The show’s primary appeal for me when I saw its March 29 preview was Farah Khan’s choreography: winsome razzle-dazzle, a lot more impressive than any chorus line.

Further proof of the affinity between the Victorian novel and Bollywood cinema: Farah Khan was hired by director Mira Nair (of Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding) to choreograph a scene in her forthcoming adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp. (The lengthy trailer looks pretty good. Nair talks about the film in this interview.) It’s in academia, too: UC Berkeley Victorianist Priya Joshi’s next book will be on nationalism in Bollywood.

Incidentally, Farah Khan also choreographed the dances for this $60-million chรขteau shaadi.

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