Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan: Disaster at Avery Fisher Hall

Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has a wonderful voice.  You wouldn't have known it if you attended the concert at the Lincoln Center in New York - the Avery Fisher Hall.   The Avery Fisher Hall is known to be somewhat mediocre, acoustically speaking, but that was not the problem.

Firstly, the artiste had a cold, as evidenced by the piles of tissues he periodically applied to his nose.  Maybe a sore throat too.    Also for some reason, he sang at a faster tempo than the compositions called for, like an express train. But even with that, when you could catch it, his voice was wonderful.  But you could get it only in bits and snatches, when the musical accompaniment was mostly silent and when his voice was low.

What was wrong?  Whomever the sound engineers were for this program were among the lousiest I have ever encountered (and that includes amateur nights at college).   They over-amplified the sound so that (and others said so independently) it sounded like baaraath music (the marriage procession in India, that blares out on cheap loudspeakers music so loud you may not know what song is being played.  The main purpose there is to simply have loud attention-gathering noise.)  On top of that, there was a heavy bass.  The railing in front of my seat, the seat armrests, even the seat cushion reverberated in that low frequency din.  In fact, all the instruments were overloud.  So you could hear the Ustad only in the quiet passages or if you held your hands tightly over your ears.

Since the organizers of these programs are interested in the money, not in the music, and because someone or the other is going to fill the seats for these scarce shows, I don't think this will be remedied unless the artist himself insists on it.  Or it has to be a matter of pride for the organizers. 

It so happens that just six days ago, I also attended a Kailash Kher concert (in Washington DC, the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University) and that was a great event.  No such issues, the electronics was, in a sense, imperceptible, as it should be.   The sound was natural except if you paused to think how it could fill such a large hall.

I think unless it is a small private performance, it doesn't matter how good the musician is if the technical support is mediocre.


Neither concert began on time.  The Kailash Kher concert began about twenty minutes late, the Rahat Fateh Ali Khan a bit over half-an-hour.   The Lincoln Center made a valiant attempt to get people in by the starting time of 8:30 PM.  Nothing doing,   The doors remained open, and people walked down the aisle, and up the aisle and down the aisle.   From my vantage point in a box, it was the familiar sight, that this was a social occasion, people shaking hands, hugging and kissing, as they moved down from the entrance to their seats.    And while I think desis manage to stick to their seats during movies, here there was a constant flow of people throughout the concert.   I saw the usher showing somebody their seats an hour and twelve minutes after the concert began.   I guess those guys were smart, they didn't really miss much.

The organizers of the Kher concert did apologize for starting late, and mentioned that they are trying to do better.  With the customers they have, it is hard to do.  I don't know if any of the organizers of the Rahat Fateh Ali Khan said anything, a lot of what they said I couldn't parse, their sound was terrible too.

If you love Indian music, then apart from such acoustic disasters as described above, you should be able to identify the greatest enemy of enjoying the show - the Indian socialite who considers attending such an event to be a fashion statement.  There is no statement of disgust that is adequate.


PS: The Bhangra Blowout that I attended in D.C., organized by students of G.W.U., and where the music is supposed to have a heavy beat, had better sound quality and clarity than the atrocity perpetrated on Rahat Fateh Ali Khan at the Lincoln Center.