A.R.Rahman — the Jamaican Connection
Updated: May 2, 2018
In the early 1990s, long before his Grammys and Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, A. R. Rahman introduced himself to Indian audiences as a brilliant, original producer/composer of modern popular music. And though we didn't know it at the time, he also introduced us to reggae and dancehall.
I was 10 years old when Rahman's debut movie soundtrack Roja hit the stores. The album's first track, Chinna Chinna Aasai, told of the simple pleasures of village life—a common theme of Tamil music at the time. But this song blew our minds. It had a fresh, light, airy feel to it (thanks in part to the flutes, the strings, the vocals, and the lack of drums). The groove consisted of a persistent keyboard skank on the upbeats (the 2 and the 4) and a sparse, syncopated bassline. Reggae music.
A couple of years later, the first single to Rahman's soundtrack to Kadhalan—Urvasi Urvasi—became an instant anthem across India. Men in burqas and take-it-easy policies aside, the song's foundation was its telltale bassline. And guess what? Listening back, it sounds like a Sly & Robbie-style, Jamaican bassline.
So I decided to go back and listen to all the songs from all of A. R. Rahman's albums from 1991 to 2000 that I could find. That's 50 film soundtracks plus a couple of non-film albums from the period in question. I made a list of every song that, to me, either had a reggae/dancehall feel or relied prominently on one or more Jamaican elements (drums, bass, keyboards, guitar). My list suggests a peak during the years 1996-97, when Rahman released 10 of the 19 songs I've identified as Jamaican-influenced.
Some of these songs were among Rahman's biggest, career-defining hits, while others were less heralded tracks. A couple of songs feature either a sampled bassline (Telephone Manipol borrows from Dr. Alban's No Coke) or a classic riddim (Thanga Thamarai Magale is on the Stalag riddim), but the vast majority are original, Jamaican-inspired grooves. One song features a legit dancehall artist (No Problem featuring Apache Indian).
Many of Rahman's grooves appear to reference European pop-reggae sounds of the 1990s. This was his part in a global musical conversation. Already, artists like Sly & Robbie were melding Jamaican grooves into mainstream popular rhythms—musicologist Dennis Howard has called the new hybrid rhythm "One Beat." Some of these grooves were widely accessible to Indian audiences through MTV, which began broadcasting through Indian public television starting in 1994. Music from Ace of Base, Dr. Alban, Ini Kamoze, and Shaggy come to mind. Rahman incorporated these grooves (and those of other Western genres) and mixed them with Indian melodies and beats. Rahman also stayed apace with technology, using many of the Korg keyboards and synth sounds that bolstered dancehall beats in the 1990s, allowing him a strong voice in this global musical conversation.
But that voice wasn't being heard worldwide yet. South Asian audiences consumed Rahman's music with enthusiasm, but the lack of an explicit connection to Jamaican artists or reggae/dancehall scenes meant that the Jamaican connection remained implicit and hidden in the music. Rahman's collaboration with Jamaican artists Damien "Jr. Gong" Marley, Shiah Coore, and Courtney Diedrich in 2011 on the Superheavy project (which also featured Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, and Dave Stewart) briefly brought this connection to the fore once again. Still, the story was never fully told and the conversation remained partial.
Here's the list, with links to music videos:
Have a listen, and let me know what you think of this list and of the grooves. You can hit me up in the comments. One!