Symphony of the Streets

Symphony of the Streets

For over two decades,Karsh Kale has been making extraordinary music. Now,he has put together a band in India,with whom he will soon release a record.

By the time Karsh Kale was eight years old,his tabla skills had already made him a regular among the adults at his parents’ get-togethers. As they sat around their New York home with their friends and sang,Kale would be called to accompany them on the tabla. Sometimes,they’d even ask him to show off some of the breakdancing skills he’d picked up alongside.

Born to Indian immigrant parents in West Bromwich,England,in 1974,the Kales moved to New York when he was three. His education in Indian music had already begun,by virtue of the concerts his father took him to,but the interest only came a few years later. “It didn’t really take hold until I was about 7-8 years old,” he says. “I used to play the tabla a little bit,but that’s when I really started getting serious.”

Not much of what Kale has done since the early days of his musical career is what one would call either ordinary or conventional. Kale’s contribution to contemporary music has been pioneering,particularly in the way he has given a voice to Asian underground music. He has mixed disparate genres — Indian classical music with pop,hip-hop and rock,Indian folk with jazz to come up with a brand of music uniquely his own. Besides his proficiency in tabla,Kale is also a master at drums and plays the guitar and keyboards. He has been a DJ,played with rock and blues bands and with musicians as varied as Lenny Kravitz,Zakir Hussain,Sting and Anoushka Shankar.

Kale says his musical taste was shaped by the different types of music his family exposed him to. As the youngest of three children,he had little control over the music that was played in the house or on trips. His father would prefer classical music or bands such as The Beatles,his mother chose old Bollywood music,his brother had his Pink Floyd albums and his sister newer Bollywood music or contemporary pop records. Consequently,the influences were plenty. “I have a theory now about where my influences come from — my dad used to sing ragas over everything,” he says. “We’d be listening to the radio and some Duran Duran song would come on and he would start singing a raga over it.”


Years later,while in high school,he began playing the drums with various bands,most of whom would practise in the large rehearsal room in his house. “When everybody would leave,I would have drums,bass,keyboards,guitars,recorders and everything to myself. That’s when I started taking music apart,trying to figure out how to make music,and then I would incorporate Indian instruments into different kinds of music,” he says. The result was a captivating fusion,that both surprised and delighted listeners.

By the time he went to college,his interest in fusing different types of music had increased manifold. Having studied a year at the Tisch School of the Arts,he was introduced to the Gallatin School of Individualised Study,New York University,which allowed students to choose several majors. “I was taking music,acting and film score classes. I was interning with different studios all over NY. From there,I started meeting a lot of musicians and that was my doorway into the music scene,” he says.

By 1995,two bands he was with came close to signing record deals. But as swiftly as it had all come together,the deals fell apart and Kale turned to making solo music with the home production gear he had managed to acquire. He made a few CDs,went on tour with Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky,and managed to sell close to 5,000 CDs. But more importantly,this was also when Kale realised fusion music was happening in various other parts of the country. “I realised that what I was doing was happening in San Francisco,Los Angeles,London and elsewhere. So I started connecting with musicians who were doing the same thing,and bringing musicians from London to play with us,” he says. This led to his first international album in 2001,Realize. In the same year,he joined producer Bill Laswell’s project Tabla Beat Science,which also featured Zakir Hussain,Trilok Gurtu and Talvin Singh.

Through all of this,Kale’s popularity was growing exponentially,and he was being invited to work with leading talents. One such was Anoushka Shankar,with whom he did an album,Breathing Under Water,in 2007. It was on this that Kale had the opportunity to work with Pandit Ravi Shankar,Norah Jones and Sting. Working with Sting was particularly memorable,he says. The musician,who was about to go on tour with The Police had agreed to the collaboration,but did not have the time to write the lyrics. The responsibility then fell on Kale. “I got to write and that was my day. Sting was one of those artistes whom I had studied in great detail — his music,lyrics,instrumentations,everything,” he says.

At once a producer,a composer and a musician,Kale has also put together several bands of enthusiastic musicians who share his vision. The most recent of these bands is the Karsh Kale Collectiv,which consists entirely of musicians from India,with a core group of about five musicians. Apart from Kale,they include guitarist Warren Mendonsa,drummer Jai Row Kavi,electronic musician/producer Jayant Luthra and flautist Ajay Prasanna. The band is currently recording their first album.

Putting together the Karsh Kale Collectiv,however,is not something the 38-year-old musician had planned to do. After the release of his fifth solo full-length album,Cinema,in the US in 2011,Kale formed the Cinema Band with a group of musicians in New York and began musical tours. Before the release of the album in India nearly a year later,he began talks with the Mumbai-based music and alternative culture company Only Much Louder (OML) to bring his band to India. It soon became clear,however,that this was going to be a difficult task. “They started suggesting musicians here,and at first I was resistant because putting together a whole new band is a daunting task,” Kale says.

Not long after,Kale was invited to curate the finale of the second edition of OML’s music festival,NH7 Weekender,in Pune. Through this exercise,he got to work with Mendonsa and Kavi,and also managed to spend a couple of days in the studio,recording with them. “What we were able to accomplish in two days was very telling,” he says. “I was going to release Cinema here a few months later,so they became the band and then I added Luthra and Prasanna,” he says. MTV’s Coke Studio followed,and through it Kale found the various vocalists who would also feature in the band,including pop and playback singers Benny Dayal,Shilpa Rao,Apeksha Dandekar and Shruti Pathak

The band spent a considerable amount of time in the studio in Mumbai,putting together the album that is likely to be out later this year. “We’re recording the music live,as opposed to recording each part in the studio and putting it together. So it’s more live sounding than any other album I’ve ever done,” he says. Writing the music for the album,too,has been largely a team effort. “It’s pretty challenging,because he’s always throwing different things at us,saying let’s do this in a different way. But it’s a challenge that we all appreciate,” says drummer Kavi.