Lata Mangeshkar may not be a household word here, but there were enough of her fans last night at the Kennedy Center to sell out the Concert Hall and turn it into a festival of Indian music. She is an unassuming stage figure, one hand holding her white silk sari while the other waves discreetly. Her singing is always forward, very pushed at the top, but with a hypnotic and strange timbre. The program chosen was as varied as her career: Mangeshkar has recorded more than 25,000 songs, including ghosting the soundtracks of almost every major Indian film. The audience last night clapped and cheered as it recognized her numbers, which ranged from classical to popular styles of Indian music.
Much of the success lay in the orchestral arrangements, which revealed the unusual percussion writing that has influenced so many Western composers. While not all of the backup was authentic -- the less said about the accordion the better -- the tempo often developed with insistent intricacy into layers of rhythms, often giving the illusion of a polyrhythmic structure and always returning to a basic beat pattern. In a music system in which an octave has seven notes and microtones abound, much of the reference for the foreign listener must come from a grasp of the rhythm, as well as from the vocal quality.Both fascinated in this concert.
Assisting singer Manna Dey sounded more like middle-of-the-road European pop, also singing songs from films but with backrounds that were closer to reggae than to raga. He joined Mangeshkar in the duet Eye rat vigi vigi, the first of several requests from the audience, the two voices blending in sounds that were truly out of this world.