Who is Ricky Kej?
How the low key composer from Bengaluru, who studied to be a dentist, worked his way to snag one of the biggest awards for musical achievement
It’s close to 2 am in Los Angeles. For Bengaluru-based composer, Ricky Kej, who just won the Grammy in the Best New Age album category, it’s just another day in the studio. Kej, who has been making regular trips to LA, is familiar with the recording industry and has already set up a session for a new project. Among the many projects on his mind is his benefit album 2 Unite All, calling for urgent humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza with influential Brit vocalist and activist Peter Gabriel. He says, “This was for peace and healing of the Middle East.” Also part of the album were English rock band The Police’s drummer Stewart Copeland, drummer Rick Allen of English rock band Def Leppard, American rock band System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian and Grammy Award-winning opera singer Sasha Cooke.
Kej, 33, sounds elated and grounded at the same time when he talks about one of the biggest honors that a musician can receive for his work. His win busts the jaded public perception around the Grammys in that there was no lobbying involved to push Winds of Samsara, his 14th studio album, into the 2015 nominees list. Says the composer, who shares credit with South African flautist and music composer Wouter Kellerman for his award, “I was nominated among legends and I got to take home the Grammy.” Winds of Samsara, which featured 120 artists from all over the world, topped The New Age Albums chart and held its position in the top 10 for 12 weeks straight. Winds of Samsara was pitted against influential Grammy-winning Japanese artist Kitaro’s Symphony Live In Istanbul, one of the strongest contenders for this year’s win.
Winds Of Samsara, which Kej worked on for two years, is led by swaying flute compositions by Kellerman. Both Kej and Kellerman bonded over Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Says Kej, “Given Mandela’s admiration for Gandhi and Gandhi’s years in South Africa, we thought it would be some good music to collaborate on.” Those two pieces evolved into several recordings that incorporated about 50 instruments. Though Kej’s work is an amalgamation of multiple genres, the essence of which remains Hindustani Classical and a bit of Carnatic. “Sometimes it is lounge, sometimes electronic. But it is always strongly Indian,” he says.
How did Kej manage to keep a low profile in India? The composer tells us that the paucity in music-buying culture in India seems to be the reason why most of his albums, including 2007’s Kamasutra Lounge were physically released only in the US. “Independent artistes depend on selling music for revenue. And nobody is buying CDs because they are getting enough of content from Bollywood,” says Kej, who is disillusioned with the Hindi film music industry in the country.
He also found a mentor in LA-based Rod Linnum, former Vice President at Universal Music. He says, “I met him first in 2006, for my first international release [Kamasutra Lounge 1] which was done by his company [Water Music Records]. He gave me a lot of insight into the industry and the US markets.”
What defined Kej’s trajectory of his music career was the moment he realized the value of Indian classical music. He recounts one of his visits to Guitar Centre, the largest chain of musical instrument retailers throughout the United States, several years ago when he was a young and “confused” composer in the making. Kej, then 20, was contemplating whether he should stick with a rock band or become a composer. He remembered a 12 year-old kid walking into Guitar Centre and playing “the most brilliant drum solos, better than any drummer I have heard playing in India.” He adds, “That is when I realized that this kind of rock music is in their blood. There are some things that they are just far more talented at than us. At the same time, there are guitar players going to Hindustani classes to learn sitar but they are just do not play it the way we do; they do not get the raag or the alap so easily. It is a matter of culture – they have the culture to play rock music and be in bands that we just do not have.” The decision seemed to have been made right then for Kej, who was then keyboardist of Bengaluru-based prog rock band Angel Dust. Two years into the band, Kej moved on to become a fulltime composer, creating music for over 3,000 ad jingles and Kannada films. Kej says, “Making jingles is like a work out. One day, I get to work on a Tamil folk jingle and the next day I get to work on a Celtic jingle and an Oriental jingle on the third day. It keeps you on your toes and helps you extend your creativity. The more I work on jingles the better I get at working with new people.”
The composer was also drawn to the music of the legendary Pakistani qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Peter Gabriel. He says, “They were unafraid. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan played with American musician and Pearl Jam guitarist Eddie Vedder, and several other artists. He sang Sufi songs. He was ready to break boundaries and try new stuff. Peter Gabriel would work with musicians from all over the world, get them to jam together and bring about so much positivity through combining these different cultures, you know?” Kej wanted to make music that wasn’t bound by genres and rules. Manoj George, who worked on two tracks Winds of Samsara, arranging the string section for a track titled “Mountain Solitude” and choral harmony on a song named “Mahatma” has known him for over a decade now. “Ricky has got a great ear for fusing Indian and western styles of music and also so clued into technology. He’s also really good with collaborating with other artists.”
Like in the case of most Indian musicians, Kej’s family too doubted the viability of a career in music. He says, “My father and my grand-father were doctors; my mother is a home-maker. My brother is an orthodontist.” So he struck a deal with his parents. He says, “I convinced them that if I finished my degree, I could do whatever I wanted with my life.” Fresh out of college, Kej began working as a rhythm producer, composer for ad jingles and a studio engineer before he earned enough to set up his own studio, Raveolution, in 2003, when he was only 23.
Some of the best names in the alternative music scene in the country including folk rock artist Raghu Dixit and alt rock band Thermal And A Quarter’s frontman Bruce Lee Mani recall studio sessions with Kej. One of the things that they both associate with Kej is his sincere work ethic. Says Dixit, “Ricky is uncompromisingly hard working.” Bruce Lee Mani adds, “I’ve known him for many years now. Even back in college, he was very sure that we wanted to make music for a living. I’m really happy for his Grammy win.”
For Kej, the Grammy night will always remain a heady memory. The first person to congratulate him was American composer Hans Zimmer. “After I won, they took me back stage to give press interviews. He was waiting to get into an elevator and he turns around, looks at me, recognizes me from the speech just a few minutes back and he congratulates me. I requested him for a selfie and he said ‘Sure!’ It was almost like I didn’t know what the highlight of the evening was.”