The migration of Indians to western shores wasn’t limited to human bodies. Along with them, they also carried their culture, art, and taste across the oceans. Music was an integral part of this. Years later the new generation would be a mix of both the worlds and so were their tastes and aspirations.
Electronic music was prevalent in western countries though in a different form. The younger South Asian diaspora explored this genre and gave it its own flavour by adding elements from their native classical music.
Soon this movement was dubbed the Asian Underground.
The first successful album from this genre was the compilation album Anokha – Soundz of the Asian Underground released in 1997 by Talvin Singh. While Talvin was ruling the charts in the UK, the US electronic music scene witnessed the emergence of an Indian classical tabla player who fused his classical sounds to electronic music.
The man, Karsh Kale, carved a niche for himself with his unique style, sound, and experimentation. Karsh Kale is known for being a genre blender, space shifter, collaborator, world-renowned electronic musician, tabla player, and whatnot.
While recording with the legendary Sting, his lyric sheet was signed by Sting with grades of 80 and 100, 100 for lyrics and 80 for his spellings.
In our Interview of the Week, we spoke to Karsh Kale about his journey, collaboration with legends of Indian classical music, international giants, anecdotes, and more.
Tell us about the journey of Utkarsh becoming Karsh Kale.
The name stems from the fact that my elder brother could not pronounce my name so it was shortened to Karsh. Growing up in the States I needed a nickname so Karsh stuck. Musically my journey has a lot to do with growing up in two worlds simultaneously. I was immersed in rock music, film soundtracks and there was my father who would listen to Indian classical music, Marathi music and old Indian movie songs. So I was engulfed with a spectrum of sounds. New York has a huge diaspora and people are willing to mingle.
When I reached college I started mixing my sounds with theirs. New York City has been a huge inspiration on my music and me figuring out that if I have to stand out from the rest, I would need to pluck every fruit from each tree that was on offer. I grew up playing the tabla and Indian classical music. In the 90s electronic music was growing and home studios became available easily. So I started recording my own music. My sound was an honest expression of who I am and the kind of environment I was bought up in.
The genesis of the Asian Underground Music movement was largely in London. You were based in The States. How did you bridge the distance in those days while collaborating or exchanging ideas with musicians from across the Atlantic?
What happened in London started happening in New York too. The thing is that all we artists who started playing and producing this genre thought they were the first to do it. We slowly realised that there were artists in Mumbai, Tokyo, San Francisco, and other cities were also involved with the same genre. The Asian Underground Music scene was sprouting up globally. It started in London as the first immigrants from India landed there and later in America. So there was a sort of generation gap.
It wasn’t until I started playing my own music that people asked me if I had heard Talvin Singh, Nitin Swahney or the Asian Dub Foundation. I met them when they came to perform in America and would connect with them when I traveled to London. We sort of made a network of our own. We gave each other a platform to perform beyond our native cities.
In London, the flag bearer was Talvin Singh, while in New York it was Karsh Kale.
Alongside these two names, let’s throw in the giants, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Trilok Gurtu, and Ustad Sultan Khan. The result was a super group called, Tabla Beat Science.
Tell us about the experience.
Zakir bhai and Trilokji are gurus. They were doing fusion for 25 years before we started and explored the available technology and cultural movement of the time. These men were a part of super heavy groups like Maha Vishnu Orchestra and Shakti. There was hardly any electronic music then except maybe disco. Later techno and house came in the 80s. What happened was that we became children of both of these scenes.
Tabla Beat Science was the brainchild of producer Bill Laswell. He had been working with Zakir bhai and Trilokji since the ’80s and wanted to record an album focussed on the tabla.
He had heard what the new generation was doing which was mixing the tabla with electronic sounds.
Tabla Beat Science started more as a compilation. There was a track which Talvin and I did, a solo by Trilokji and a few by Zakir bhai and Sultan bhai. It was a small band, Trilokji and Talvin were not a part of the live band.
The live band consisted of Zakir bhai, Sultan bhai, Bill Laswell, DJ Disk and myself. We also had a lot of guests performing with us like Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Medieval Pandits, Serj Tankian from System of a Down.
You are from that school of musicians who are always looking for inspiration.
What was the inspiration behind scoring for Bollywood?
Though I have some personal friends who are huge in Bollywood I was never gunning to be a part of it. For me it was about finding a story that fit my sensibilities. Films like Kartik Calling Kartik and Gully Boy weren’t mainstream so I was asked to be a part of the music-making as they were looking for a different sound.
There is no single recipe for producing a good composition, I won’t say a hit song as I don’t know what categorises a hit song.
Me neither, I have never understood that.
OK. So how does one compose a good song technically?
If you are a storyteller, you usually know how the story starts and ends. You should know what you want to say and it should be a reflection of yourself. Often people try to mirror what they have seen and try to copy that. They spend years doing this and at one stage there is a void because they end up feeling they are not narrating their own story. When upcoming musicians ask me about this, I ask them to be original.
What 5 non-electronic songs make it to your playlist?
Tom Sawyer by Rush
Synchronicity by The Police
A Different Drum by Peter Gabriel
Fragile by Sting
You will be performing at the Jim Beams Originals series on the 23rd of January along with three amazing musicians, Randolph Corriea, Komorebi, and Ranjit Arapurakal, where you would be doing your take on some Phil Collins’ hits.
Tell us what we can expect or maybe give us a sneak peek.
I am a huge Phil Collins fan. Just like him, I am a drummer who sings. I am a great admirer of the work of Genesis so didn’t want my take to sound like a barroom karaoke song.
The audience can expect a very “original” take of hits like Tonight, Tonight, Tonight, Against All Odds, In The Air Tonight, and others.
Book your tickets here and watch Karsh Kale perform his rendition of Phil Collins’ hit songs.