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Daler's bill

An Indo-pop star rocks the post-dessert crowd

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Contrary to popular American perception, the music that moves India is not the improvisational sitar and tabla drones of the country's widely recognized classical music. Sure, those sounds are pervasive and popular, but the music that blares from apartments and cars and dance parties is far removed from the stately classicism of a ghazal or a taal. Pop music is the sound of India and, whether it's filmi (music taken from Bombay's immensely popular and numerous "Bollywood" movies), bhangra (high-energy, techno-based dance music) or any other type of accessible, non-classical music, it's still pop and still very Indian. In the world of non-filmi Indian pop, Daler Mehndi is the undisputed king. Although his parents were both renowned classical vocalists and he received early training in singing ghazals, Mehndi discovered in his teens the lure of pop music. While living in the U.S. in the late '80s (his parents immigrated in 1984), he became convinced of his desire to be a professional singer. Fusing the classical singing style of his training with the propulsive rhythms of bhangra, Mehndi hit upon a style that would make him a huge success.

Returning to India in 1990, he formed a group and began singing at festivals and private functions. A performance in France drew the attention of the Indian label Magnasound, which signed him and released Bolo Ta Ra Ra, the title track of which became one of the biggest pop hits India had seen in years.

More hits would follow, as well as remix albums, hundreds of live performances and movie appearances. So would environmental activism, death threats from the Indian Mafia and a backlash in the press. And so would the largest contract ever signed by a non-film Indian pop artist (25 million rupees). Daler Mehndi was a certified star.

Of course, when my wife and I arrived in Delhi last September, after a week on a tiger preserve, we had no idea about any of this. Upon checking into our hotel, we were informed that "an Indian pop star" would be performing in the courtyard that evening, and as guests of the hotel, we were invited to attend. There would be free food and drinks would be flowing. We figured, "Indian pop star? Whatever. It's probably a nephew of the hotel manager. But, the food's free. ..."

What we didn't know was that we'd been hearing his songs on radios throughout our trip so far. And maybe we should have guessed -- when we looked out to the street and saw limousines, dozens of police cars and a line that stretched down the block and back -- that maybe this Daler Mehndi guy might at least be a B-grade pop star. But, then again, what pop star takes the time to perform in a hotel courtyard? With a free buffet?

Well, apparently things are a little different for pop stars in India, as this was a full-fledged concert by someone who turned out to be the biggest musical star in the country. The crowd just kept coming and coming and coming through the gates: the VIP areas filled up, the viewing areas filled up, the areas around the monitor screens filled up, the buffet areas filled up. The entire courtyard was packed with what seemed like every middle- and upper-class family in Delhi. And they were all ready for a show ... and some food.

When the serving staff opened up the warming trays to reveal what seemed like tons of food, the crowd utterly abandoned any pretense of "cool" and a mad rush ensued for paper plates stacked with daal and rice and naan. And then they gave out the ice cream. It was truly one of the most insane things we'd ever seen.

With the meal (and dessert) finished, it was time for the show to begin. More than a thousand folks shouted "Da-ler! Da-ler!" before he took the stage, and when he arrived, Daler did not disappoint. Assisted by a suave, English-speaking MC (Mehndi speaks some English, apparently, but would rather have an MC get the crowd moving for him), the star wowed the riotous crowd with two hours of high-energy bhangra hits. Never once slowing the pace of the set (although we think he may have cheated and performed "Bolo Ta Ra Ra" twice), Mehndi bounded around the stage and exhorted the crowd to do the same. It was clear this was music to be danced to, and the audience was more than ready to oblige.

Obviously, Daler Mehndi was not the nephew of the hotel manager.

Daler Mehndi performs with Indian film star Karishma Kapoor at the Georgia World Congress Center on Fri., July 7 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $45-$125. For more information, call 404-508-1786.

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