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CULTURE: Singular tribute to music guru; The CBSO is going Bollywood in its latest barrier-busting project. Terry Grimley finds out how the orchestra added Indian hit songs to its repertoire.

Byline: Terry Grimley

When the singer Mohammed Rafi died in 1980, the public outpouring of grief at his funeral is said to have been the greatest ever witnessed in Bombay.

During his lifetime Rafi recorded an astonishing 26,000 songs and provided the singing voice for some of Bollywood's greatest actors. But in the traditions of Bollywood, singers are just as big celebrities as actors, even if they do not appear on screen.

Tomorrow night the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra pays tribute to Rafi in a culture-bridging concert which could open up a whole new area of collaboration between Western classical and Asian popular music.

The CBSO has dipped its toe into Bollywood before, with a sold-out concert with contemporary composer AR Rahman. But that concentrated on Rahman's purely orchestral music, whereas for Asian audiences the musical focus is overwhelmingly on the human voice.

Tomorrow night's concert features four vocalists including Surrinder Pawana, better known as Shin, singer with internationally-renowned Birmingham bhangra band DCS.

"It's a dream come true, really," he told me on Tuesday, the day after the first rehearsal with the orchestra. "Rafi was my first guru, I took my first lessons from his songs, and now being given the opportunity to perform them on stage with a 60- piece orchestra...we don't know if Rafi in his lifetime had the opportunity to performing with a complete orchestra.

"He came on tour here in 1979 with a band consisting of about 14 musicians with keyboards. So I doubt he had the opportunity to do what we're being given the opportunity to do."

Rafi was a huge influence on vocalists in the bhangra as well as Bollywood worlds, and directly encouraged Mahboob Chohan, another of tomorrow night's singers, at the start of his career.

"Songs are so popular in India," says Shin. "You have music from the moment you wake up to when you go to sleep. An Asian anywhere in the world will be able to sing you a film song. Now you get a lot of mainstream pop coming into the Bollywood sound, but orchestral arrangements are still very popular and that sound suits 70mm films."

But wait, how do you get orchestral arrangements off Bollywood soundtracks and on to CBSO music stands? Enter CBSO librarian and composer Tim Pottier, who with help from trombonist and arranger Alwyn Green on several numbers, has prepared the music for the concert.

"It's been done by listening to CDs over the last three or four months while we've been putting the programme together," he explains. "It's a matter of transcribing the main melodies and inner parts that are there and turning them into symphony orchestra music."

This exhausting task has been made more difficult not only because some recordings are of indifferent quality, but because the engineers were evidently busy with the faders during sessions.

"Sometimes you will hear a lovely line at the beginning and the end and you're swearing at the sound engineer because they got rid of the middle of that line. So sometimes there was guesswork, and I would love it if my guesswork was right and that's what was there originally. Even when I had to create something original I wanted to keep that sound world."

Of course there is a sense of the music coming full-circle, since composers like Laxmikant & Pyarelal were influenced by European orchestral music. Tim points out that Dil Ke Sharoakhe has an almost classical opening like Dvorak's Serenade for Strings, while Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki is like a fusion of classical and 40s American jazz bands.

The process of narrowing down the vast potential repertoire to concert length was begun by Tim and Shin each drawing up a list of about 60. Any songs which appeared on both lists were given priority. The other singers also had their favourites.

Aware that orchestras who stray into unfamiliar territory are often criticised for being unidiomatic, Tim took care to include detailed inflections in the scores. But he still wasn't sure how well it would work.

"I wanted to be in a situation where they could walk into the rehearsal room and play it straight away, and to my astonishment they did. I think right to the last minute I was sceptical that we would pull it off, but it was just amazing, The music sounded like completely a different soundworld from what the CBSO usually plays. It was like it is on the actual recordings, but maybe a bit more powerful."

"It was incredible," Shin agrees. "I was having goose bumps sitting there."

He recalls going to a Bollywood recording session at the end of the 1980s. An orchestra with a vast percussion section was being recorded on to ancient four-track equipment with spectacular results.

"That was the first time I heard that sound live, and yesterday was the second. I've been trying to recreate it for 20 years with keyboards, and it's never happened."

Shin points out that Birmingham is the centre of the UK's Asian music scene. It's less easy to explain why, though he thinks it has something to do with the concentration of Punjabis, with their tradition of musical celebration.

"I really wanted this to work, because for me it's a really Birmingham thing," adds Tim. "You have this hugely rich Asian culture in Birmingham and a world-class orchestra which is also a very versatile orchestra - possibly the most versatile in the country, if not the world."

Now it seems that the CBSO may have identified a market with immense potential - albeit one that is a little unnerving for marketing departments used to traditional classical audiences. A couple of weeks ago tomorrow's concert had only sold 200 tickets, but now it seems likely to sell out.

"There's so much scope," says Shin. "All credit to the CBSO for taking this stuff on. They are going into a market which is potentially huge, and the Asian community is crying out for something different at the moment."

Meanwhile Tim Pottier, already surely Birmingham's most accentless Belgian resident, has added a new linguistic skill.

"I've learned to sing the songs off by heart," he reveals. "I've started singing in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu. I don't have a clue what I'm singing about, but I think my pronunciation is OK."

"If one of us drops out, he's going on!" laughs Shin.

Michael Seal conducts the CBSO, with vocalists Shin, Silinder Pardesi, Mehboob Chohan and Sameera Singh, in A Tribute to Mohammed Rafi at Symphony Hall tomorrow night at 7.30pm (Box office: 0121

You have this hugely rich Asian culture in Birmingham and a world-class orchestra - possibly the most versatile in the country, if not the world


Shin (left) and Tim Pottier at the CBSO Centre Picture, Neil Pugh
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 6, 2006
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