AKI GOES TO BOLLYWOOD
Muddy Meets Mumbai
PBS NEWSHOUR – Art Beat
Meet San Jose musician Aki Kumar today, and he’ll proudly introduce himself as “The Only Bombay Blues Man.”
But there was a time when Kumar, while making a name for himself on the Bay Area blues scene more than a decade ago, would intentionally downplay his Indian heritage. He wasn’t so forthright about immigrating from Bombay — now called Mumbai — to find a new life in America as a software engineer.
“I wanted to make a statement that I was a traditional blues man, so I wanted to be playing blues and have nobody even wonder where I came from,” says Kumar, 36, frontman and harmonica player for the Aki Kumar Blues Band.
The cover for ‘Aki Goes to Bollywood’ pays tribute to classic Indian cinema poster design.
But after more than a decade of playing with top-notch blues musicians and recording a rock-solid first album “Don’t Hold Back” (which garnered widespread accolades, ranging from the Los Angeles Times to Dan Aykroyd), Kumar is taking his love for the blues to unexpected places.
This month, he released his second album, “Aki Goes to Bollywood,” a stylistic mashup of old songs from Indian blockbuster films of his childhood with Chicago-style blues.
“It’s Mumbai meets Muddy Waters,” says Kumar, who reworked Hindi-language hits from big names in Indian pop music — Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, and Mukesh — and made them his own.
American blues fans are used to seeing their music evolve and take on new forms, but back home in India, Kumar says musical culture isn’t so malleable. As he worked on the arrangements for “Aki Goes to Bollywood,” Kumar nervously sent rough mixes back home to his parents in India, whose love of music Kumar credits for planting the seeds of his musical career.
“It was terrifying in some ways. These songs are national treasures in India, sung by legends,” says Kumar. “But I think we pulled it off, and for me, it was the coming together of the music I discovered in the U.S. and my musical roots growing up.”
I first met Akarsha Kumar over ten years ago. He was already a well studied traditional player, already the shining star pupil of the discerning, tasteful and careful educator and player David Barrett. I was impressed by the young man’s ability to play traditional blues in the style of Little Walter and other past icons better than most I have heard twice his years in age and time on the harmonica. He was humble, funny, good looking and was engaged to an equally gifted young lady. I communicated with Aki several more times over the last ten years on a very shallow, harmonica-esque level, at best.
If you are listening to Aki’s music while reading this, you are hearing a real artist – not just another blues harmonica player. Aki Kumar is too strong for simple techniques, trends, or cliques. This music you’re hearing is an honest reflection of a brave, unashamed, bold, individual taking risks with a sense of humor, integrity and self that few artists of any genre have ever really dared to do especially on this early of an outing. I’m impressed. I’m a fan.
Aki stands to lose a lot from a marketing perspective with this release: These mostly Indian songs done in a Western fashion by a natural born Indian artist are something not too short of actual blasphemy in India. My Indian friends tell me there is a real risk of insult to Indian culture and sacred Indian music culture at work here. Conversely, Aki’s album is not TRADITIONAL blues either… Aki is blending Indian pop songs with traditional blues approaches, singing unafraid with his accent and using sitars behind Delta blues jams when he’s not putting Howlin’ Wolf behind beloved Indian Pop tunes. That is NOT a formula for success in the growing, rigid world of Blues Purists. Blues purity is how Aki was musically raised in this country… from the nest of the Bay Area and under the wings of birds like Mark Hummel, David Barrett, Rick Estrin and others this Bali-Bird was hatched. No this album is not a “safe” or even expected Blues release…This album is a marketing nightmare, an impossible sell, a potential financial failure, a slap in the face to both the Eastern and Westen Cultures that nutured him as a child both culturally and musically…. This album is great art! -Jason Ricci