Music: Mix tape
The outcome of electronic fusion pioneer Karsh Kale's latest work is an album, not the favoured single track
Siddharth Sharma, aka Dub Sharma, produces “electronic music from the heart of Punjab". Growing up in Chandigarh, he started out playing the harmonium at the age of 10 and listened to Indian classical and Punjabi folk. In his teens, the 27-year-old discovered electronic music; and his hard dubstep beats are a marriage of Western dance music and his native traditions.
Across the country, singer Papon (Angaraag Mahanta) cut his teeth learning Indian classical and his native Assamese folk music. In recent years, the 40-year-old has made inroads into Bollywood, but has also maintained a separate persona performing acoustic folk and ambient electronic infused with Indian classical melodies.
A couple of decades ago, it would have been sacrilege for Indian classical musicians to dabble in electronic music, and both Sharma and Mahanta owe a debt to the trailblazers of what was dubbed the “Asian Underground" by the British music press in the mid-1990s. The Asian Underground mixed Western underground dance music and traditional Asian music, and its pioneers included the likes of Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney and Karsh Kale.
At 41, Kale, an elder statesman on the Indian indie scene, has proved to be a major influence on a generation of Indian musicians. The American-Indian producer, musician, composer and DJ has several albums to his credit, and has collaborated with the likes of Sting, Norah Jones, Yoko Ono and the Midival Punditz. Kale’s blend of Indian classical and Western forms has been variously described as epic and cinematic. For Kale, “fusion is not a genre, it’s a process", and it can be done in many different ways.
His new album Up too sees him collaborating with a wide range of younger Indian and American artistes. It’s his first album since Cinema (2011) and Up neatly encapsulates Kale’s musical journey over the past 20 years. The album, Kale’s love letter to his earliest fans, was born out of his belief in the concept of the album, in an age when consumers favour singles and individual tracks.
Like most of his albums, Up features a bewildering range of collaborators, including singers Benny Dayal, Ankur Tewari, Monali Thakur and Papon; guitarist Warren Mendonsa, sitarist Ravi Chary, sarangi player Sabir Khan and flautist Ajay Prasanna. The album even includes a track sung by Chinese pop star Sa Ding Ding. “It was a pleasure working on this album. Most of the musicians on Up are younger than me and for them it’s not really fusion any more," Kale says. “R&B meets Carnatic meets ambient? Sure that’s fine…there was no previous context that I had to create for them to understand what I was trying to do."
Kale was born in the UK and moved to New York with his family when he was barely three years old. “We started living the American Dream, but for me it became very difficult because back then there was no context for where we came from. I was asked questions like, ‘Do you ride elephants or live in tepees?’ 1980s America was a very different America. So I had to keep reinventing myself."
Kale immersed himself in music. He got into rock and pop music and started playing the drums, and unlike more casual fans, he took a very studious approach to his listening. “I would listen to songs hundreds of times until I understood every single element," Kale says. “It wasn’t enough to know just the lyrics or to just know the drums. I had to know the bass line, understand what chord progression was going on; the more challenging, the better."
Living in the US, Kale’s interest in Indian classical music was piqued by his father, who “filled the house with music". “It was constantly being pumped at us whether we wanted to listen to it or not," Kale remembers. Kale heard Indian classical, apart from old Marathi songs and Hindi film music. Kale started learning the tabla on his own, an approach that would be alien to most Indians learning to play the instrument back home. “I would come to India once every two years and spend two weeks with a teacher. But mainly, I learnt by watching videos of Zakir Hussain, and two or three times a year I would go see him in concerts," Kale says. “I was a sponge and absorbed as much as I could. My relationship with Indian classical music is definitely like an alien’s."
As an outsider, Kale had a broader vision and wanted to avoid the purist path. But initially, in the mid-1990s, when he was mixing Western music with Indian classical, he was concerned about how it would play out to an Indian classical audience. The worries, however, were short-lived. Hearing his samples of Indian classical music, sitar virtuoso Ustad Nishat Khan called him up; a couple of weeks later, sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan followed suit. Then Kale started meeting artistes in London like Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh and started working with them. In 2001, Kale was invited to join the electronic-Indian classical fusion group Tabla Beat Science, which featured Ustad Zakir Hussain, Trilok Gurtu, Talvin Singh, Sultan Khan and Bill Laswell.
“That feeling of not having a guru started to fade away because I felt their blessing," says Kale. “You know, when Zakir Hussain and Sultan Khan say that it is okay, then I really couldn’t care less what anybody felt."
Kale has always kept his own counsel and says he is wary of getting involved with things he doesn’t believe in. For instance, doing more work for Bollywood. “I have done plenty of commercial stuff but that’s not where I feel artistically satisfied," he says. “I can do it; if you ask me to make a Punjabi rap song, I can do it. But If I am working with a Punjabi artiste who happens to be a hip hop artiste, then it will be a story that we want to tell. As opposed to being the craftsman and delivering whatever the people are asking for."
It’s Kale’s desire to tell a story that led to the creation of his new album. For the past few years, Kale had appeared on television shows—Coke Studio and The Dewarists, and various one-off projects. He found himself travelling constantly between New York (where he lives) and India. “There was a moment for me when I felt it started becoming white noise in terms of all of the different things that were going on," Kale says. “In terms of my own artistic output, I was beginning to lose that sense of what should I do next?"
Then he heard The Endless River, the final album by Pink Floyd, the British band which has been a huge influence on him. “Now this was an album; you listen to it from the beginning to the end. There is no single on it; It was an experience just like Pink Floyd has always been," Kale says. “I realized they had put an album out as if they hadn’t listened to anything that had happened in the industry since the last time they released an album, which was 15 years back. That kind of reminded me of the fans I have been able to retain from the time of my first album, which was 2001, and for those people I needed to make an album."
The idea of Up came from his incessant flying—many of the ideas on the album came to him when he was sitting in an aeroplane. “They were the only real moments of clarity that I had about my family life, my musical life in the States and what was happening here," Kale says. “It’s the kind of emotional pendulum swing that one goes through when you are constantly jumping back and forth between worlds."
Kale, not one to be swayed by current fads, considers his music to be a body of work that he’s creating for posterity. “If aliens came to this planet 20 years from now, I would love my music to be part of the representation of what Earth sounds like. That’s the inspiration."