MUM­BAI BLUES

Har­mon­ica star hits Yard­bird

Edmonton Journal - - YOU - ROGER LEVESQUE

How does a soft­ware en­gi­neer from Mum­bai end up be­com­ing a ris­ing star of blues har­mon­ica?

Aki Ku­mar had to come full cir­cle to dis­cover his mu­sic iden­tity, but if you wanted to sum up the story, just check the ti­tle of his last record­ing, Aki Goes to Bol­ly­wood.

“A lot of things came to­gether in a great way at the same time,” Ku­mar ex­plains, rem­i­nisc­ing over his start in the mu­sic scene of San Fran­cisco’s Bay Area. “Th­ese songs were around when I was a kid — some of them, when my par­ents were kids, be­cause they ’re clas­sics on the air­waves in In­dia. That mu­sic was al­ways part of my life, but it was only much later when I was get­ting se­ri­ous about blues that I started to con­sider sim­i­lar­i­ties in cer­tain songs.”

About five years ago, the singer and har­mon­ica player had an “ah-ha mo­ment.”

“I was alone hum­ming this In­dian song I grew up lis­ten­ing to and I re­al­ized this song had a blues pro­gres­sion to it that I could sing with a Jimmy Reed kind of feel. I recorded it on my first al­bum just to test the wa­ters and a lot of peo­ple liked the feel of it. The blues feel made it ac­ces­si­ble and the alien singing (in Hindi) made it ex­otic.”

That was the tune Ajeeb Daas­taan Hei Yeh (This is a Strange Tale), the last track on Ku­mar’s first re­lease from 2014, Don’t Hold Back.

Since then, he’s put out two more note­wor­thy al­bums — It Takes Three, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with two other Bay Area harp play­ers, Gary Smith and David Bar­rett, and 2016’s Aki Goes to Bol­ly­wood (on Grease­land), with cover graph­ics like a mock-up for a Bol­ly­wood movie poster. The next, fourth in­stal­ment, is due out next fall, and Ku­mar says it takes his whole hy­brid con­cept one step fur­ther.

Ku­mar plays more straigh­ta­head Chicago and delta styles, too, but his hy­brid West Coast sound is some­thing else, tak­ing songs from great Bol­ly­wood film song com­posers such as R.D. Burman and Mo­ham­mad Rufi and adapt­ing them to blues changes with the help of top play­ers such as gui­tarist Kid An­der­sen and key­boardist Jim Pugh, mu­si­cal friends he has con­nected with in the Bay Area.

Mix­ing east­ern and west­ern mu­si­cal el­e­ments isn’t un­prece­dented, but cross­ing the com­mer­cial sound of Bol­ly­wood sound­tracks and Amer­i­can blues was hard to imag­ine be­fore Ku­mar came along.

It all started back in 1980 when Akar­sha (Aki) Ku­mar was born in Mum­bai (then Bom­bay). His par­ents were both big mu­sic fans who had col­lected a range of west­ern sounds and styles along with the Bol­ly­wood hits that played on the ra­dio. Their son “dab­bled in mu­sic” from age nine, tak­ing lessons in the fun­da­men­tals of the Hindi clas­si­cal sys­tem with a set of tabla, then try­ing out guitar and key­board in his teens. Still, mu­sic was very much a hobby.

In the mean­time, Ku­mar started com­puter stud­ies and moved to the United States at age 18, first to Ok­la­homa briefly, and then to be near the cen­tre of high-tech in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. After fin­ish­ing a de­gree in com­puter sci­ence, he wound work­ing for the soft­ware gi­ant Adobe in the Bay Area, which also hap­pens to have an ex­cel­lent blues scene.

“I started lis­ten­ing to oldies ra­dio sta­tions that played 1950s and ’60s rock ’n’ roll and Bri­tish blues and I started go­ing out to watch all th­ese great play­ers like Mark Hum­mel and Gary Smith. I was get­ting into the blues world, delta and Chicago blues, and I re­al­ized this is what I liked about rock ’n’ roll in the first place. I was fi­nally get­ting ex­posed to the roots.”

Ku­mar had played his dad’s har­mon­ica as a child and de­cided it was time to take it up again. He got a good in­stru­ment, got a great teacher in player David Bar­rett, and after a cou­ple of years, he started sit­ting in at clubs. But he didn’t re­ally turn it into a parttime ca­reer un­til his late 20s.

“I just had the bug and there was just no go­ing back. I was able to grad­u­ate to a slightly better band, and then a better band, and it was get­ting very ob­vi­ous that I liked mu­sic more than just be­ing a soft­ware en­gi­neer. I was start­ing to play four nights a week on top of my soft­ware job and I knew there had to be a tran­si­tion, but I didn’t know where, when or how that would come.”

Then, in late 2013, he was part of mas­sive layoffs at Adobe.

“That was the uni­verse send­ing me a sign. Every­body was dis­ap­pointed, but I was ec­static. Since then, I’ve been fol­low­ing my dream and try­ing to be as cre­ative as I can in mu­sic mak­ing. I’ve had many great play­ers to watch and lessons led me to study the rest on record. If you’re look­ing for an au­then­tic sound and lis­ten­ing to 10 different flavours of mu­sic, it helps you craft your own iden­tity.”

Ku­mar stud­ied greats such as Reed and Little Wal­ter to cre­ate what he calls “Mum­bai meets Muddy Wa­ters.” The blues com­mu­nity and me­dia has been ex­tremely pos­i­tive with vet­er­ans such as Mark Hum­mel not­ing: “Ku­mar’s mas­tery of the in­stru­ment in such a short amount of time in as­tound­ing,” and his mu­sic has taken him across the U.S. and over to Europe.

On his way to Aki Goes to Bol­ly­wood, Amer­i­can so­cial and po­lit­i­cal cur­rents had an in­flu­ence.

“It was re­ally a per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion for me be­cause of changes in the U.S. po­lit­i­cal cli­mate and the rise of this ma­niac Trump and the poi­son he’s spew­ing. I thought it was time to stop try­ing to gain au­then­tic­ity as a Chicago style blues har­mon­ica player and be more about who I re­ally am, which is part In­dian and part Amer­i­can, and to put that out in the blues com­mu­nity in a very vis­i­ble way.”

For his Ed­mon­ton de­but this week­end at the Yard­bird, Ku­mar is bring­ing a spe­cial guest with him, young friend and Bay Area guitar star Rome Yamilov. Born in Rus­sia but raised in Amer­ica and bred in the blues, psychedelia, metal, elec­tron­ica and more, he’s a ver­sa­tile com­pan­ion.

Ku­mar and Yamilov will en­joy the back­ing of lo­cal pros, gui­tarist Rodger Stanley, bassist Chris Grapel, and drum­mer Grant Stovel in their new con­fig­u­ra­tion The Ju­nior Lock­woods. They will be tack­ling a mix of clas­sic and new orig­i­nal blues with Ku­mar.

Bay Area blues­man Aki Ku­mar makes his Ed­mon­ton de­but Fri­day and Satur­day at the Yard­bird Suite.

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