On Christmas Day, ‘Aki’ Kumar will be performing at Qla, Delhi; on 26 December, he will play at The Quorum in Gurugram; on 27 December, at Zorba, Delhi; on 28 December, at the Neighbourhood Winter Festival in Mumbai; and on New Year’s eve, at SOHO House Mumbai.
This festive season, Indian blues lovers are in for a musical treat with a twist. From Christmas Day to New Year’s eve and beyond, an Indian-American, Akarsha “Aki" Kumar, will be performing gigs for the first time in India. Kumar’s is an interesting story of a Silicon Valley techie turning into a bluesman who has won recognition not only in the US but in Europe’s discerning blues music circles. What sets him apart is his unique blend of Chicago blues and classic Bollywood music. And at Christmas and New Year bashes in Delhi and Mumbai, in his first-ever Indian gigs, he is all set to enthrall blues fans—purists as well as those who don’t mind a bit of fusion to go with the good cheer of the season.
But first a quick recap. It’s late October and in a tiny town on the western coast of Finland, Kumar is singing to an all-Finnish audience of blues lovers. Based in San Jose, California, the first few songs on Kumar’s playlist are traditional blues tunes: Lonesome Sundown’s Leave My Money Alone and Warren Storm’s Prisoner’s Song. Kumar leads a quartet and sings and plays the harmonica. His style is deeply influenced by the Chicago electric blues—Muddy Water, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (both I and II) and Little Walter. The crowd, made up of discerning blues aficionados, is enjoying it, applauding and yearning for more.
But then Kumar, 39, suddenly changes tack and breaks into Kishore Kumar’s Dekha Na Haaye Re from the 1972 film Bombay To Goa. Unlike many other parts of the world, the Nordics are not familiar with Bollywood films or music. So the Hindi song that Kumar breaks into could seem alien. But there’s something about his style of fusion that gets the crowd going. Harmonica and electric guitar riffs blend with the lyrics as Kumar tweaks the old film song into an uptempo blues tune. The crowd, a mix of young and middle-aged couples, breaks out on the dance floor and, soon, it’s a party. That night Kumar sang several Hindi songs—some his own compositions; others, film songs—but also many blues tunes.
That’s the nature of Kumar’s music: a fusion of East and West but with the overall feel of electric blues. Kumar’s is an atypical story. In 1998, when the 18-year-old left Mumbai for the US to study computer science, he dreamt the typical immigrant’s dream of clearing all the hoops: getting an H1B visa, a job, green card, and eventually, citizenship. At first, it went as planned. Kumar got a degree in computer science and found a job at software firm Adobe in San Jose. But somewhere along the way, the blues happened. He heard music by the giants of the Chicago blues scene; and he heard British bluesmen such as John Mayall. It was such an overwhelming experience that Kumar decided to sing and play the blues himself. He got himself a harmonica and a teacher.
It wasn’t difficult for him to pick up the instrument. And singing had always been a hobby. Raised on a diet of eclectic music, courtesy his parents (Telugu-speaking mother and Kannada-speaking father), his tastes in Mumbai ranged from rock ‘n’ roll and pop to Hindi film songs and Indian classical music. In the US, however, he discovered and fell for the blues. Soon, he was playing part-time gigs with local bluesmen in the San Jose area. And, not much later, the penny dropped: He didn’t want to be a techie but a bluesman. Around a decade ago, when Kumar was laid off from his job, it proved to be a blessing in disguise. It was an excuse to become a full-time musician.
He formed his own band, which he leads and manages himself, and one that soon got noticed in the Bay Area, getting gigs at the local clubs and venues. A record followed—Don’t Hold Back in 2014. It was a traditional blues album, comprising classic compositions by Memphis Slim, Hank Ballard and Snooky Pryor, but also Kumar’s own blues songs. Kumar is an intense blues singer and has developed a trademark harmonica playing style that can be in your face and feisty—as good a combination as any for a blues musician. By the time that album came out, Kumar was already an itinerant live performer. Last week, speaking on Skype from San Jose, he told me his paid gigs sometimes number 250 in a year.
But it was in 2015 that another penny dropped. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was gathering momentum, and as an immigrant, albeit well integrated into the American culture, Kumar felt a twinge of insult. “I spent all of my adult life trying to imbibe and absorb the American culture and way of life," says Kumar, “and then we were made to feel like outsiders." That feeling manifested itself in a deep sense of pride in his Indian heritage and roots, which he felt he had to make public. He delved into Bollywood, the dominant factor in Indian pop culture, and started doing his bluesy versions of Bollywood classics, experimenting by foisting them on unsuspecting American audiences of blues fans.
His “mission", as he calls it, was to give an audience familiar with the blues and its rhythm and structure something with a different twist. The experiment worked. His mainly Western audience found the meshing of electric traditional blues and Hindi songs novel and unique, while others, such as the Bay Area’s not insignificant Indian immigrant crowd, lapped up the Bollywood angle. Two albums followed—Aki Goes To Bollywood and Hindi Man Blues. Both have a smattering of conventional blues tunes but the Bollywood-inflected tunes dominate. So there’s Kumar’s bluesy take on classics such as Eena Meena Deeka, Chala Jaata Hoon, Baar Baar Dekho and Dum Maro Dum, but also songs that will appeal to blues purists.
That mix has worked well. Kumar has been touring the US and Europe quite relentlessly in the past few years but has never done a gig in his motherland. That changed this month. Currently, he’s on tour to play a bunch of Christmas and New Year’s eve gigs in Delhi and Mumbai, accompanied by Vance Ehlers (bass), Rome Yamilov (guitar), both from the US, and Mikko Peltola from Finland on drums. It’s a chance to see the techie-turned-bluesman’s singular take on Bollywood music.
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