Alongside okay, cool and please, ‘rocking’ has undoubtedly become one of the most over used terms in the English language the world over thanks to the popularity of contemporary music. No where more so than in India, where the word has been taken up by the millions of young people to describe anything that is remotely exciting, energetic or entertaining.
There was a time when the only thing that rocked was cradles, wooden horses and chairs. Nowadays, parties are “rocking”, people are “rocking”, places are “rocking” and even Indian actors, sportsmen and politicians have been described as rock stars. Cries of “let’s rock dude” and “this music’s rocking yaar” can be heard up and down the country in schools, colleges, cafes, bars, nightclubs and even blaring out of television and radio commercials aimed at capturing the youth market.
But three guys who genuinely deserve to use the word rocking are Indian music composers Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa (S-E-L). Having created over fifty chart-topping Hindi film soundtracks, composed advert jingles, high profile sports anthems and much more, the middle-aged maestros have risen to the top of their field thanks to their clever fusion of contemporary rock and pop sounds with traditional Hindustani and Carnatic music.
With millions of albums sold and a worldwide fan base, it came as a surprise when on Sunday 18th September 2011 the trio performed together live in the UK for the very first time. Surely they had played in the UK before? The answer was an astonishing no. Despite various individual work trips and solo efforts, particularly by lead singer Shankar, the three had not performed as a unit. It was an event well over due.
The magnificent Royal Albert Hall was the venue that played host to S-E-L thanks to the tremendous organisation of the Asian Music Circuit (AMC), the leading promoter of Asian music in the UK. Besides providing Indian film music fans with the chance to hear the talented threesome perform live on stage, the Asia Rocks evening was also a fitting celebration of twenty years of work by the AMC.
Alongside the headline act, the evening featured performances by local artists, including Bollywood dance troupe K Spark and Gitanjali, a specially commissioned audio-visual production of poetry, music, film and dance to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore created by the London-based arts collective, Baithak.
Playing to a capacity audience, S-E-L bought the house down, performing to a long list of hits, starting from Dil Chahta Hai, the 2001 youth-oriented soundtrack that made them a household name, to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, one of this year’s biggest filmi hits.
Any doubt that the trio were aging or that their music was beginning to sound dated were evaporated with their rendition of Paint It Red and Senorita from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The lively dance and salsa inspired numbers bought the auditorium to its feet, encouraging people to sing and dance in the aisles. The same went for the grand finale, Kajra Re, from Bunty Aur Babli.
In between the opening and closing songs, S-E-L ran down the fifteen year period in which they have been producing show stoppers, showcasing hits from films like Kal Ho Na Ho, Rock On, Salaam-E-Ishq, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Don, Kabhie Alvida Na Kehna and My Name is Khan amongst others. The sheer breadth and quality of their work was a reminder of just how creative and successful the three artists are.
However, the highlight of Asia Rocks was S-E-L’s genuine ability to rock. By the end of the evening there wasn’t a hand that wasn’t clapping or foot that wasn’t tapping along to their beats. Having witnessed several Asian artists in concert at the Royal Albert Hall, including Asha Bhosle, Adnan Sami, Atif Aslam and Gurdas Maan to name but a few, S-E-L won hands down for their sheer energy and ability to entertain across the age barrier. A R Rahman’s mega concert at the O2 in 2010 paled in comparison in terms of energy and audience participation. Everyone from grandchildren to grandparents rose from their seats to join in with S-E-L’s medley of songs, making for an electric atmosphere.
Respect also due to up and coming playback singers Akriti Kakar and Raman Mahadevan whose matched Shankar’s astounding vocal range note for note. Accompanying S-E-L on stage, their presence added variety and vibrancy. Also shining in the limelight was London-based musician Soumik Datta whose Eric Clapton style electric rendition of the classical Sarod added a touch of class to Mitwa from Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. His solo contribution was as well received as Ehsaan’s solo on lead guitar and Loy on keyboards.
Like the Rolling Stones and U2, with Asia Rocks S-E-L showed that age is no barrier when it comes to making and appreciating good music. Major credit to the success of the night, however, goes to the AMC. For the past 20 years the organisation has been bringing over some of the best musicians and dancers from India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and other Asian countries. No one organisation has done more to generate and retain interest in pan-Asian music in the UK.
So it comes as some surprise and shame that the AMC’s future hangs in the balance at this current point in time. The Arts Council funding it receives is no longer a guarantee and the fact that AMC volunteers lined the corridors of the Royal Albert Hall with buckets for donations was a sad sign of the times. It would be a travesty if the promoter is no longer around to put on such great concerts. Here’s hoping both the AMC and Asia Rocks are back for a sequel in 2012.
Photo credit: Asian Music Circuit