At the 58th annual Grammy Awards last month in Los Angeles, Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra walked away with the award for the Best Instrumental album. When O’Farrill was busy expressing his gratitude for his father, Latin jazz musician Chico O’Farrill, and thanking jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who featured on the album Cuba: The Conversation Continues, a tall man named Kabir Sehgal stood behind O’Farril, looking into his speech. Just before the exit music, he took the microphone and thanked the “people of Cuba and America”. The executive producer, liner notes author and artistic producer on the album, Sehgal is the only Indian-origin name to win the hallowed gramophone this year.
“It’s a great honour to have won this. We just tried to create great music. The award makes it better,” says Sehgal in a telephone conversation from New York. While he and O’Farrill led a delegation of almost 60 musicians to Havana for the recording, the story of the album really began in Agra, when Sehgal (former vice-president at JP Morgan), was on a banking trip to India in 2013, with his Argentinian friend Nicholas. The two were discussing each other’s bucket list, when Nicholas said, “I want to go to Cuba.” The journey was meant to be his tribute to Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary leader who belonged to his hometown Rosario in Argentina. While Sehgal immediately called Arturo to work on an album based in Havana, around the same time, American President Barack Obama announced the beginning of a dialogue with Cuba and “re-establishing diplomatic relations that had been severed since 1961”. “The coincidence was emotional and symbolic,” says Sehgal.
Born and raised in Atlanta, listening to the likes of Jagjit Singh, Ghulam Ali, Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, Sehgal was drawn to jazz in school. A bass player, music was never a career option he considered. “Writing was always my first interest. I wanted to compose in terms of people, which means that there are a lot of great jazz musicians in the world and I wanted to bring about the artistic projects that I felt deserved credit. So, I don’t write the notes but I try to make projects happen by raising capital, getting the music together and putting people together,” says Sehgal, whose mother grew up in Aligarh and Chandigarh, and his maternal grandfather was the science advisor to President Zakir Hussain.
Sehgal’s name did not feature in the nominations list for the Grammys, which is why his musical story is largely unknown. He is, however, known as a banker and best-selling author in the US. His recent book Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us, which talks of “life of money” and why it makes us behave the way we do, is a New York Times bestseller, with a forward by Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate and founder of Grameen Bank. Speaking about straddling different fields, Sehgal says, “It’s great to be at the intersection of different fields. That’s where creativity is magnified. In the investment community, we talk about a well-balanced portfolio in terms of money. I like to extend that to life. Music is inspiring. At the same time, I write because that’s another way to express myself.”
A graduate from the London School of Economics, Sehgal served as a political aide for John Kerry during his Presidential campaign. He drew on the experience to write his first book, Jazzocracy Jazz, Democracy, and the Creation of a New American Mythology (2008), which explores the relationship between democracy and jazz. During his stint as an investment banker, he helped list e-commerce company Alibaba’s stock in the market, which remains the largest initial public offering.
Executive producer of the album The Presidential Suite by Ted Nash, which will interpret famous speeches through music, Sehgal is also busy writing children’s books with his mother Surishtha Sehgal. Their latest publication is The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk (Simon & Schuster)“We take stories from India and interpret them for the Western audience. It involves working with my mother and is a great way to collaborate,” says Sehgal.