Singer Asha Bhosle spans Bollywood genres

Special to The Times

From the very first notes she sang at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night, Asha Bhosle demonstrated why she has reigned as one of the queens of Bollywood playback singing for the last several decades. Her interpretation of “Yeh Mera Dil Yaar Ka Diwana” (“This Heart of Mine Is Crazy About a Lover”), delivered in a high, girlish voice, belied that she was celebrating her 75th birthday while underscoring her ability to create a seemingly limitless array of musical characterizations.

Playback singers, who provide the vocal tracks for the actors and actresses in the enormously prolific Indian film musicals, are celebrities in their own right. And Bhosle, along with her older sister, Lata Mangeshkar, are at the top of the playback singing A-list, each reportedly having recorded more than 12,000 songs.

Bhosle’s performance Sunday was warm and engaging, and she enhanced her interpretations with graceful hand movements and an occasional dance step. But the most fascinating aspect was the dynamic authenticity she brought to her interpretations of songs that had moved from film musicals to the Indian pop charts.

Because Bollywood musicals are wildly diverse, Bhosle’s program spanned genres, sometimes shifting within the sections of an individual song. Her eight-piece backup ensemble generated sounds and rhythms embracing American pop and R&B;, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean and Middle Eastern music, with an intermittent dose of heavy metal guitar.


Bhosle handled it all with ease. She always has been more than a playback singer, fully capable of impressive performances in the Indian classical style. And the most musically compelling segments this evening were the too-brief passages -- especially a “Natya Sangeet” (a classical form from the Indian state of Maharashtra) -- in which her extraordinary voice was applied to the soaring melismas of the classics.

Less intriguing was the presence of actor-singer Amit Kumar, the son of Kishore Kumar, a Bollywood star actor-singer who partnered with Bhosle on hundreds of duets. Unfortunately, the younger Kumar’s monochromatic tone and “American Idol” presentation style wore thin well before he finished.

Nor was the audience well served by the between-songs narratives about Bhosle’s life that were conducted almost completely in Hindi. Granted, half the crowd appeared to understand, but many others did not. The communication disconnect undoubtedly was the cause of a small but steady flow of early departures.