We are at Mumbai’s live music hub, Blue Frog, and the club is just filling up. There are yuppies dressed in their Jimmy Choos and Chopards, artsy intellectuals sipping their single malts, girls with flowers in their hair, and faded-tee-and-denim-wearing boys with restively rolled joints to enhance their listening pleasure. Music is a great unifier, especially when the artiste they are all here to listen to is one whose renown hinges on bringing many worlds together.
That artiste is Karsh Kale, Mumbai’s own Marathi manoos in Noo Yawk. His name is synonymous with electronic fusion music. As a pioneer of the Asian underground genre, his reputation is enough to pack the premises. At Blue Frog, the occasion is the India release of his new album, Cinema, inspired by—what else?—Bollywood.
Mention ‘Asian underground genre’, and Kale laughs. “Well,” he says, “it’s not underground anymore, thankfully.” It’s not. The genre, which started to gain momentum in the late 90s, is no longer on the fringes. Asian musicians overseas, such as Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney, Trilok Gurtu, along with Kale, have brought the genre to the forefront of the global music scene and given Indians abroad music they could call their own. It is a blend, after all, of elements of Western underground dance music and traditional Asian music.
Kale was the first Indo-American to sign a solo recording contract in the US—for the release of his first album, Realize, in 2001. Since then, he has released four albums and collaborated with Anoushka Shankar, Zakir Hussain, Norah Jones and Sting, among others. He has also done the music for movies such as Chutney Popcorn and Pyaar Impossible, and for shows such as HBO’s True Blood.
Kale, who was born in England but raised in New York, says his original impulse as a musician was to carve his own identity. “In New York, you realise what the word ‘isolation’ means even more when surrounded by White Jewish kids. My USP was that I could play the tabla, a ‘foreign instrument’. But I made musicians in NYC realise that I could bring something different to the table. Along with finding my identity, something to call my own as a New Yorker, it was also a way to show people how cool this kind of music was.”
His music is indeed different. The club is packed, and there isn’t a body that’s not bopping. Kale has no exaggerated flourishes as he plays the tabla. Dressed in denims and a T-shirt, his bearded face sports a peaceful smile. The tabla seems to come naturally to him, and he seems calm, much like his music. He has a flautist and guitarist for company, not to speak of the sound of computer-generated beats.
Perhaps Kale picked up his knack for fusion subconsciously, napping in the backseat of his parents’ car as they drove around America on family vacations. “We were a family of varied music tastes,” admits Kale, “My sister wanted to listen to Michael Jackson, my brother liked Led Zeppelin, while my father wanted to hear classical music like Bhimsen Joshi. So, all through the trip, the music kept changing, and I soaked it all in.”
It was no big surprise that he knew early on in life that music was a passion he would devote himself to. “I studied music at New York University and did everything possible [related to music]. I interned at EMI Records, learnt about the business of music…the works. I also pursued graphic design as a back-up plan. Thank God, I didn’t need that.”
Now out with his fifth album, he is channelling his desi side into his art by taking inspiration from his experiences of Hindi cinema, which he absolutely loves and has no hesitation saying so. “The scene in India is just great,” he says, “I am also very impressed with the indie scene here. There are so many different approaches.”
Mention ‘mainstream commercial music’ and his face lights up. ‘I think music that’s entertaining and makes you want to dance is great,” he says, “I think Sheila Ki Jawani was great fun, and so was Kolaveri Di.” He describes Cinema as “progressive, nostalgic—and a journey”. “It’s the culmination of all those afternoons spent in the car listening to different music surrounded by family.” He has sung on this album too. This, however, is only because, “I finally have enough experience in life for my voice to have some history. I wouldn’t have sung otherwise.”
Amit Gurbaxani, music journalist and senior editor at Mumbai Boss, explains Kale’s popularity thus: “He’s one of those rare artistes who make music that is smart but makes you want to dance. There’s a wealth of influences in his compositions, from rock and electronica to Indian classical music, to name just three core elements.” He makes another point. “While the guys in the audience are mesmerised by his tabla playing skills, the girls are often sighing at his good looks. It’s all about that beard, if you ask me.”
If that is so, Kale does not seem to notice. He is quite the artiste who rocks to his own rhythm. He clearly loves what he does, and his reason for making music seems shorn of all pretension. “I listen to music that makes me feel calm and good, and that’s why I make music—it is like therapy.”
Disarmingly, he retains a teenage fascination with the stardom of other artistes he admires. “I had the opportunity to work with Sting, and kept pinching myself all through. I couldn’t believe I was writing a song for the great songwriter,” he recalls, and then he laughs out loud. “You know what he finally told me?” he says, “He said, ‘I give you 100 out of 80 marks for songwriting and your music, but zero for your spelling.’”