Auckland audiences had been waiting long for Rahat’s first New Zealand performance. So it was pleasing to see last weekend’s sellout concert begin right on the dot – and the maestro launch into his performance without the sort of fanfare that celebrity performers have come to be associated with. Full marks on that score to Aariya Entertainment, for whom this was a first concert under its auspices.

Starting off with the contemplative Allah hu, the Sufi song that his uncle, the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan took to the corners of the world, Rahat alternated between traditional and contemporary fare from Hindi films throughout the first half.

Sufi singing reflects the abandon of its mystical philosophy and the singer often dwells in the uppermost octave – taar saptak in musical parlance – reaching several successive crescendos in the course of the song. While Rahat sang with the practiced ease he has come to be known for, the poor sound management did gross disservice to his virtuosity.

In the early stages of the concert the sound was tuned to such a deafening level that both his singing and the accompaniment, especially in the higher octaves, sounded shrill, even raucous, to the point that several listeners in the Telstraclear Events Centre audience were seen shielding their ears.

When will acoustics technicians realise that over-the-top decibel levels completely destroy Indian vocalists’ finer essays? Poor sound tuning has been the bane of Indian music concerts in Auckland for years and it is time event organisers step up to the plate and deal with the problem with some degree of finality. Sadly, the subtleties of the celebrated Ustad’s awesome vocal calisthenics were drowned out for a large part of the first half of the concert.

Aariya’s managers have said that the sound management was supervised by sound engineers who had travelled with Rahat and that Aariya had almost no control over it.

Fortunately, wiser counsels seem to have prevailed and the sound in the second half was decidedly better, though far from ideal. Post interval, the Ustad from Pakistan who has succeeded in straddling across the subcontinent with his soulful singing, pleased the audience with his more recent Hindi film favourites. He also sang a few traditional qawwalis and a Punjabi number to a surging re- sponse from the audience.

Rahat is clearly a shy and reticent artiste, who likes to get on with his business of regaling the audience with what he does best – singing soulfully, full throated. His boyish smiles and twinkling eyes undoubtedly endear him to his live audiences. But then there is little that he does by way of interacting with his listeners in a way most other celebrity stage performers do.

In that sense he is the quintessential stage artiste of traditional Indian baithak music: more artiste than entertainer. Which is rather rare in these times especially with shows that involve Bollywood music. And it was a refreshing change.

The audience lapped up his wildly successful recent Bollywood numbers, which he sang with great finesse, though the super hits whose originals had a feminine voice were sung solo – diminishing the experience somewhat. For instance “Teri Meri, Meri Teri” from the superhit flick Bodyguard sounded incomplete without a feminine voice, which is so important to the lyric.

Apparently Rahat’s troupe does not include women artistes, according to promo material that was distributed during the concert, supposedly because the traditional genre that he specialises in does not involve women artistes. But that is at variance with the depiction of both male and female qawwali singers in countless Hindi films released since the 1950s.

His 15-man ensemble is highly accomplished and comprises support vocalists (including Rahat’s younger brother), western and tradi- tional rhythmists and string, wind and electronic instrumentalists. Rahat himself wields the harmonium with great dexterity and finesse.

In no mehfil can an audience’s farmaaish be fully met and that was the case with Rahat’s as well. Many requests from the audience of his favourite numbers – both from Hindi films and his traditional collection – went unheeded and one wished some more of his more recent and not so recent Hindi film numbers were doled out towards the end.

All in all, it was a memorable concert because of both Rahat’s music and the terrible sound management. While Aariya Entertainment and promoters Dinesh and Rahul Raniga did a marvelous job of organising the concert, there was nothing they could have done about the sound.