On Aki Kumar’s new album, Don’t Hold Back, the track “Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh” begins with some sitar chords before Kumar interrupts: “Hey, you’d better cut that Bollywood shit out! That ain’t the blues…this is the blues!” The music restarts, now bluesy-sounding: a cover of a 1960 tune by Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.
The song can be interpreted as an announcement of Kumar’s arrival on the blues scene, but in reality this Indian American harmonica player has been building to this point for years. In addition to the album, he currently leads a weekly Thursday night “Blues Jam” at Little Lou’s BBQ in Campbell and headlines gigs at a variety of local venues.
Born in Bombay, Kumar grew up with very little musical education, aside from studying some Hindustani music theory and playing around on a Casio keyboard and harmonica. He enjoyed it, but music was more of a hobby. “I gave up on it,” he says, shrugging. “In India, arts are secondary.”
At age 17, he came to the US to study computer science at Oklahoma City University. He stayed for only a short time before transferring to San Jose State, but it was an important stint: he discovered an ear for American music thanks to an oldies radio station, and he met his future wife Rachel, who shared his musical taste and is now a songwriting collaborator.
After graduating from SJSU, Kumar got a job at Adobe, working on products like PDF and Flash. “A few of the people in my group decided to start a band, just for fun, and they invited me to play a little harmonica.” The other musicians caught wind of his interest in classic American tunes and turned him on to blues music from the 1960s. He was hooked.
“When I hear authentic blues, that just brings out an emotion,” Kumar explains. “The lyrics are great. They’re very real and grounded. Anybody in any walk of life can relate to it.”
Inspired by what he was hearing, he enrolled in courses at the School of the Blues in San Jose. Founder David Barrett is a Grammy-nominated harmonica player, and he became Kumar’s private instructor and mentor. Kumar also began attending local shows and introducing himself to performers, eventually reaching a point where he would be invited on stage for a song or two to jam. Improvised jams are part of the tradition of blues, because most of the music is based on a three-chord foundation that forms a sort of “language” and allows people to perform together even if they have never met or heard each other play.
Kumar soon joined a vintage blues group called Tip of the Top, which toured successfully for four years and released three albums before the musicians decided to move on. Now, Kumar’s name carries recognition, and he plays shows as the bandleader. “I’m at a point where I’m able to summon the best players I can to back me up.” He’s even left his job and is trying out music full-time.
On stage, Kumar is electric. Always impeccably dressed in a suit, he exhibits an energy that pulls you in, much like the musicians he wants to emulate. “If I look at the guys I’m inspired by—Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy [Williamson], the whole Chicago blues scene from the ’50s and ’60s—those guys were showmen!”
As for the current blues culture, Kumar is careful not to disparage his peers, but it’s clear that he has a specific idea of what he likes. “Blues has turned into rock,” he laments. “I can turn on a radio and find nothing that plays blues, or it plays rocked-up stuff or funked-up stuff. But there’s something called essential blues. Right now, the only time you can hear that is on a Viagra commercial where they play “Howlin’ Wolf.” It’s sad. But when people are given a chance to hear the real stuff, they enjoy it—which is why doing live shows is important. Blues has never been a big audience, big arena kind of genre; it’s an intimate thing.”
But sustaining a career is a challenge when the audience is small, even if they’re a passionate bunch. “Unless there’s a way to break into the younger market without compromising the music, I don’t know what the future is. But I don’t think it’s going to fade away and die, because it’s just compelling music.”
And people are finding it. Invited to teach a master class in England recently, Kumar traveled across the pond to discover he had fans there who knew his music thanks to YouTube. “This show I did at the little barbecue that nobody knows about…there are guys in the UK spreading those videos.”
Kumar is well aware of the complex, transnational history of the blues, from its roots in the Deep South and segregated music clubs to its reinvention in the ’60s by white British guitarists like John Mayall to its influence on modern popular music across the spectrum. So why shouldn’t an Indian-born harpist serve as blues ambassador to a new generation? Maybe that is what “Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh” is really about.
Article written by Nathan Zannon
Photography by Stan Olszewski
Entire article originally appeared in Issue 6.1 Sight and Sound
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