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Ricky Kej: A rock band in India is as good as an average college band in America

The Grammy winning composer from Bengaluru was in Mumbai recently to perform with flautist and collaborator Wouter Kellerman

Lalitha Suhasini Apr 27, 2015
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Flautist Wouter Kellerman and Ricky Kej on keyboard, performing for the 21st Freedom Day of South Africa in Mumbai. Photo: Sairaj Kamath

Flautist Wouter Kellerman and Ricky Kej on keyboard, performing for the 21st Freedom Day of South Africa in Mumbai. Photo: Sairaj Kamath

On Sunday, South African nationals in Mumbai gathered together to celebrate Freedom Day, commemorating 21 years since the country’s first democratic election and the end of apartheid. Composers Ricky Kej from Bengaluru and flautist Wouter Kellerman from Johannesburg who both shared the Grammy award for Best New Age Album for their collaborative effort on Winds of Samsara were invited to perform for the event. This was Kej and Wouter’s debut performance in the country and what better way to cheer for South Africa than by performing a rousing ode to its former president and revolutionary figure, Nelson Mandela. Kellerman performed “Madiba” among other songs from Winds of Samsara leading the group, with Kej on keyboard. We met Kej ahead of the performance for an interview and the composer didn’t mince words when we he spoke about his life and music. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

How has life been after Grammys?

It’s been pretty hectic. I’m doing a lot of talks at music schools. Last week, I went over to Chennai and met A R Rahman and spent two days there. I had a really good time and chatted a lot. He invited me to his school KM Music Conservatory. That place has been built with so much heart and passion. Looking at a facility like this, I could not help but imagine that if my parents could have seen the place before they forced me to do dentistry, they would have believed that I could have had a career in music. I’m going to Pune to speak at Usha Mangeshkar’s school next.

And there are a lot of causes that I believe in and right now, I’m getting all this attention, so am doing as much as I can to gather funding for them. For example, music therapy in autism is something I believe in and I talked about my research at HP [Hewlett-Packard] in Electronic City [in Bengaluru]. Sometimes music is the only thing that children with autism respond to and it’s amazing how they react to this. We need to find musicians who are open to spend time with these children. Secondly, I believe in woman empowerment. For me, it’s about financial independence for women and I’m working towards announcing scholarships for academically deserving students. The other thing is animal rights. I love dogs in particular and visit a lot of dog shelters to support them financially.

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Have you signed on a Hollywood project?

There are two strong leads. I wouldn’t even call them leads because it’s more than that. I’ll be either working on one or both of them starting January [next year]. So those would be scores. The reason why I love doing scores is that in Hollywood, the directors always encourage you to look into your own emotions for a scene, rather than what happens in India where the editor adds a lot of stock music into the score and it’s given to the score composer as a reference. There will be [music from] Pirates of The Caribbean in there and all sorts of scores. Of course, it’s not copied verbatim but they copy the feel of it. So your inspiration is another piece of music and for me, that is the worst thing to do. Your inspiration should be another piece of art. Why can’t it be the visual? But people don’t trust a musician to interpret that emotion.

But are you even interested in doing Bollywood films?

No, not at all. After the Grammy, I’ve got so many offers but first of all, it does not interest me. There was that temptation to make money and I wanted to get that validation in India. I wanted to become famous in India. There was a thought that maybe if I do a score or a big budget Bollywood film, people might be interested in my other music. But that thought was dispelled by examples in cases like A R Rahman. His film scores get millions of millions of hits in India but the stuff that he loves doing like “Pray For Me Brother” gets only a couple of hundred thousand hits. In India, people only appreciate film music.

How is Indian music perceived abroad?

In India, music means Bollywood. And even if everybody’s talking about how Bollywood music is international, it’s not. Except for “Jai Ho,” the international audience is not familiar with Bollywood music. A Bollywood playback composer would get a full house in New Jersey or some place, but it’s only the Indian diaspora that attends these shows. Bollywood is non-existent internationally when it comes to breaking cultural barriers. The people who broke barriers were Indian classical musicians. People are still talking about Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan there.

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What’s your take on rock bands here?

In my humble opinion, there are very, very good rock bands all over India, but the thing is that a rock band in India is as good as an average college band in America. It’s just the sad truth. Just like I’ve worked with a lot of white sitar players, white sarangi players and white esraj players in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. They just don’t get Indian classical music. They’ve practised for years, they’ve learnt under some of the best gurus, they can name all the ragas by rote with all the notes, they are really learned, but they’re guitar players, playing the sarangi. They just don’t get it. They have western sensibilities. They don’t get the glides between notes. They don’t get the musical language of Indian classical music. They get the notes but they don’t get the soul of it. It’s the same over here I feel.

So you think Indian artists should only play classical music?

Not sure about it. Play whatever you feel like. The thing is that, when people were not listening to my music because I couldn’t reach out via radio and TV because only Bollywood got played on those channels, I did not cry over it. I continued what I was doing and I started looking for my audience. You have to find your audience and at the end of the day, you have to accept that if you’re going to be doing the regular drums, bass, guitar and vocals abroad, you’re not going to be as good as them. You’re not going to be signed up by a label there, simply because they’ve got another 40 people as good as you in their backyard, and who are singing about stuff that is relevant to America.

Who are the Indian bands that you follow?

There’s one band who I’ve been recently listening to in Bangalore called Parvaaz. They’re pretty good. They’ve got an identity of their own, which is pretty commendable. There’s another singer in Bangalore who’s got a band called Alexis. The band’s vocalist Alexis D’Souza has also sung on Winds of Samsara ”“ beautiful band, beautiful voice. I also like Swarathma a lot. I think they’re brilliant. I’ve worked with Vasu [Dixit, vocalist] on a lot of jingles and I know him as being a very uncompromising person when it comes to creativity. I like that nature of his. I’ve been a follower of Motherjane for many years, but I haven’t heard them of late.

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