Want some idea of what you’ll see onstage at Original Mike’s this Friday when Aki Kumar performs?
Well, “I won’t have June core but I am most likely going to have body dots and playing drugs,” said Kumar in a recent phone conversation. That’s according to the automated transcription program I use, which does tend to lively up an interviewee’s prose.
Poor Mr. Kumar was only trying to tell me that June Core, the superlative drummer who accompanied him in So Cal earlier this year will be replaced this time by “Marty Dodson playing drums.” He’s likely superlative, too, but I think you’ll agree this news isn’t nearly as compelling as a promise of drugs and body dots, is it?
Unless Aki gets measles, don’t expect dots, but here’s what you should expect: A guy from Mumbai who sings and plays blues harp with enough feeling and personality to have earned the praise of Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Watson and other blues touchstones; and then Kumar then takes classic Indian “Bollywood” soundtrack tunes and filters them through the Southside of Chicago or a Delta roadhouse; and he makes you like it. A lot.
Those of you who know me know that Old Jim would send most blues players to a hell where K.I.S.S. tribute bands overrun their blues jams for all eternity. The majority of blues for the past four decades or more has been over-wrought, over-amped, muscle-bound wank; a paucity of soul that Johnny Otis once described as sounding like guys scratching when they don’t itch and laughing when it ain’t funny.
Also, aside from playing louder and worse, contemporary blues players act like the generations-old blues forms are now the religious scripture from which they shall not stray. But the players they emulate were in constant flux: Guys who started off strumming a mail-order acoustic guitar on a tree stump in a Mississippi turpentine camp ended up playing distorted electric guitars when they hit Memphis or Chicago in the 1950s, then they added bass and drums to invent the instrumentation that became the standard for rock bands. Some added a swing jazz influence, or a Mardi Gras cadence. And if B.B. King or Little Walter heard a Latin rhythm they liked on the radio, it was going onto their next record.
Given long enough, maybe Walter would have got around to doing Bollywood blues. Instead we get Kumar, who got a running start on it from half a world away. Born in 1980, he grew up in Mumbai, immersed in Bollywood’s hits—“whether I wanted to be or not” he says– and for whom American blues was a revelation when he first heard it after coming to the US for a tech career.
If Western audiences have the impression that Bollywood music is a bunch of campy pop, “that’s because it is campy pop, most of it,” Kumar said in a recent phone chat. “I can’t even listen to the contemporary stuff. But if you dig carefully through its history, you’ll find songs that are great because of the melodies, arrangements and poetry in them.”
Along with those ubiquitous soundtrack tunes, Kumar heard classical music from his dad’s small record collection, Stevie Wonder, the Police and other Western pop on the radio, and traditional Indian music in school, where students were introduced to the arts, at arm’s length.
“India is not the kind of culture that encourages the arts as a career choice. The focus in education is towards just getting a job and staying alive,” Kumar said. “There was no guarantee of anything in life. Just because today was a good day, that didn’t mean you could count on tomorrow. Even the roads and sidewalks were so rotten that just getting from point A to point B was a different adventure every time,” he said.
The good side of living in a chaotic metropolis was that it was a tremendous melting pot that exposed him to cultures from around the globe. It did not, however, prepare him for Oklahoma City, where he moved in 1997 to further his education in software engineering.
“Talk about culture shock! In Mumbai you couldn’t walk one foot without bumping into ten people, and then in Oklahoma City you’d look both ways down the street and see not one human being. It was almost post-apocalyptic.
“And my perception had been that the US was a thriving, liberal, enlightened society. There are pockets of that in Oklahoma, but it is a deeply red state. Even the guy who ran the school’s math department had Rush Limbaugh on all the time.”
Kumar found the US better met his expectations once he’d transferred to San Jose State. One thing that continued to disappoint him was our contemporary popular music, which led him to start digging through older music. He fell in love with the blues, took harmonica lessons, attended blues jams, started gigging professionally, and in 2014 said goodbye to the tech world to be a fulltime bluesman.
Championed by Bay Area guitar whiz Kid Andersen, Kumar built a strong local reputation playing traditional blues, while not buying into the immutability of that tradition. “Some people treat the blues like it’s some fundamental and unyielding law of physics that shall not change. And that’s never how it was with the musicians who created it. It was new music then, and they were absorbing influences all the time,” he maintains.
One day, he was listening to a Bollywood tune and thought its changes would make an interesting blues song. Now he’s filled two albums with the stuff (alongside originals, some straight-ahead blues, a foray into ska-soul-jazz with “Watermelon Man” and other twists): Aki Goes to Bollywood and his current Hindi Man Blues.
Hindi Man is all over the map. The opening “Dum Maaro Dum” sounds like a happy riot erupting amidst a spy movie. “Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh” filters Jimmy Reed through the silt of the Ganges. “Voh Surmayi Shaam” opens with Kumar’s mom singing. Yay Mom!
“Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo” has an eerie, trancelike mood, with a slowed down Bo Diddley lick and a vocal that sounds like a windblown prayer from a distant minaret’s PA horn. “I really loved this song when I was growing up,” Kumar said. “It’s very deep, kind of like [Memphis Slim’s] ‘Mother Earth,’ basically asking ‘what’s the point of having material possessions when we’re all going to disappear into the dirt?’”
“Dilruba” is a Texas-style swing blues he wrote with Andersen. Like the Bollywood covers, Kumar sings it in Hindi, because he says the language suits the song’s Louis Prima-styled vocal. There are other advantages. “One thing I like about singing my own songs is you’re not going to know when I screw them up. So I’ve got that working for me, and then I’m singing them in Hindi! So basically you’ve got no shot at catching me.”
His albums have earned glowing reviews. He’s played Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and other festivals, is likely touring Sweden and Russia this summer, four or five local gigs a week around San Jose with his band, with the prodigious Rome Yamilov on guitar, bass player Vance Ehlers and whichever drummer isn’t exploding that week.
That’s all noble work, but Aki really deserves to be twice as big as a Beatle or two, what with all the percolating spirit, verve, soul, humor and general delightfulness he puts in his music.
Aki Kumar and the Silver Kings at Original Mike’s, 101 S. Main, Santa Ana, (714) 809-6146, www.StellarShows.net, Fri. May 3 at 7:30 p.m., $10-$30, all ages.