Why I Travel: Rahman on Nature, People-Watching & the Power of Stillness

In conversation with the Mozart of Madras.

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At his L.A. studio, composer A. R. Rahman plays the harpejji, an electric stringed instrument. Photo: Jessica Sample

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If it sounds as though A. R. Rahman is in tune with global music, that’s because he’s made history broadcasting the beat. One of the highest paid composers of all time, the hit maker from Chennai (Madras), India, fuses musical styles—from reggae to Rachmaninoff—for Bollywood, Broadway, and Hollywood. Rahman swept the West in 2008 with his frenetic Slumdog Millionaire sound track‚ including the film’s infectious anthem “Jai Ho,” winning two Oscars, two Grammys, a Golden Globe, and a spot on the Time 100.

The “Mozart of Madras” also recorded an album with Mick Jagger and set up a music conservatory as well as a philanthropy in India.

How does travel influence your music?
You learn so much when you’re soul to soul. In Dubai in the ’90s, I picked up a lot of Arabic instruments, including an oud [a type of lute]. When I met some folksingers in Kashmir, which felt like the 1960s. Living in London while working on [Andrew Lloyd Webber’s] Bombay Dreams changed my perception about art. It all becomes part of my music.

How is globalisation affecting music?
The beat is becoming a universal four-on-the-floor rhythm. You can put any melody on that beat and people in a club are going to understand it, like robots. That’s good and bad. You can put Indian music over a club beat, and people will dance. But you’re missing all the dynamics and other little niceties that add depth.

What’s your travel style?
I’m not a proper explorer. I sit on the train or at a restaurant and digest the place and its energies. My experiences are often internal. On airplanes, I watch a movie with subtitles and no sound. I love to look around and imagine what’s in people’s minds. They’re so different but have the same zest for life, the same problems.

So you travel to find silence?
It’s very important to listen to yourself. E-mails, text messagesexternal forces are constantly disturbing the stillness of the being. I prefer nature and beauty, but sometimes you have to imagine the calmness of nature and bring that with you internally.

Appeared in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler (U.S.) as “India’s Music Man”.

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