Aki Goes to Bollywood, is an unexpected and unexpectedly wonderful meeting of American blues and Indian pop. The meeting happened, though, in California’s Bay Area. The project is part of the Little Village Foundation’s mission to uncover the hidden cultures and music of the state. Other releases have covered folk, blues, mariachi and Latin American traditional music (some of the latter coming from communities where the language is neither English nor Spanish, but pre-Colombian dialects).
But this? Go figure! The story behind the album is surprising enough. Akarsha Kumar was born in Mumbai, moving to Silicone Valley at 18, eventually becoming an Adobe software engineer. He’d studied Hindustani traditional music as a child, but over here became infatuated with blues and early rock and took up the harmonica, playing in club bands at night after work. At some point along the way, he realized that some Bollywood pop was heavily influenced and modeled on American rock and pop and might lend itself to some specifically blues-rooted interpretations.
Jim Pugh, executive director of the Little Village Foundation and an accomplished blues keyboard player as well, agreed when he encountered Kumar a few years back. And here we are with something likely never before heard, whether in California or Calcutta.
For the most part the songs find a great balance between the styles, the best featuring stinging guitar lines, roiling piano, hard-four beats and Kumar’s blowzy harp fitting perfectly with the buoyant froth of some classic Bollywood production numbers. On first listen to such delights as the opening “Badan Per Sitaare” (the original found in the 1969 Bollywood movie “Prince” and sung on that soundtrack by icon Mohammad Rafi) it’s a perfect tease — a riff that sets you up for Muddy Waters instead leading to bubbly Hindi.
Songs that are basically blues with Indian touches, such as the slow stomper “My Home is a Prison” (with guitarist Kit Anderson adding a little sitar), are less successful, but still worthy experiments.
There’s much to delight here, but the absolute must-hear is Kumar’s take on “Eena Meena Deeka,” originally from a big band boogie-woogie fantasy sequence in the 1957 Tamil movie “Aasha,” featuring the voice of all-time top playback singer Asha Bosle. Kumar and band transform it into pure Southside swing scorcher. It’s Chicago deep-dish pizza — masala style.