Featured Interview – Aki Kumar

imageThe sound of blues takes many forms, and when someone takes it in a new direction, it’s a real attention-grabber. And there’s no bigger head-turner in the blues world today than Bay Area harp player Aki Kumar, who’s forged a new brand of the music that’s definitely all his own.

Based in San Jose, Calif., where he’s proven himself as a standard bearer for traditional Chicago stylings and more, he’s a native of Mumbai, India, who discovered by accident one day that the flatted thirds and seventh of American blues meld perfectly with the microtones of South Asia and spread around the planet through the musical scores of Bollywood movies produced in his hometown.

Aki lovingly terms the hybrid as “Bollywood blues,” and he’s released three albums of the revolutionary new product – two in the U.S. and one abroad – since coming up with the idea six or seven years ago. And his latest effort, Diruba – issued in partnership with Sony, has compiled more than a million downloads in India, planting powerful new seeds in one of the most diverse musical markets in the world.

While it’s true that Mumbai has been hosting the annual Mahindra Blues Festival for the past decade – the largest event of its kind in all of Asia, it’s still an amazing accomplishment because the music has barely made a foothold in a nation with the second largest population in the world.

“Before anything else, I’m a traditional blues man,” Kumar told Blues Blast in a recent interview, noting that he formerly downplayed his nationality while spending a couple of decades assimilating into American culture. That said, however, he now wants to play the blues in a manner that’s both familiar to listeners, but also in a form in which “nobody will ever wonder where I came from.”

It’s been a long, strange trip for Akarsha Kumar, a dashing man in his early 40s who’s an electrifying showman with both a rapier wit and deep social conscience.

“My parents are very big music lovers,” he says, noting that his father – who’s retired from a mid-level management position in the government bank – spoke Kannada, commonly used in southwestern India, while his mother spoke Telugu, the official language of the southeastern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

“Whatever my dad saved from his job, he bought records. My mom was never a musician by any means, but she liked to sing. If karaoke culture had been big at the time, I’d bet my money that she’d have been a karaoke person (laughs). Their love for music subconsciously became part of my personality.”

Their record collection was small by Western terms, but a major possession for the family, Aki notes, and it covered a lot of ground. Growing up in a country where literally hundreds of different dialects are spoken among 1.4 billion residents, the homegrown music of India is so rich and diverse that “I could have gotten lost in it by itself for ten lifetimes with no reason to venture outside the borders,” he says.

“But when Western classical, rock-‘n’-roll, R&B, pop and Afro-Caribbean were added to the mix through the LPs, “…stuff that just jumped out of nowhere, and I didn’t know what to make of it.”

imageKumar took piano lessons as a child and fooled around with the tabla, the bowl-shaped drums used in Hindustani music, too. “I like to say I ‘dabbled’ at tabla because it was nothing more than a couple of months’ of an adventure,” he insists. “I got to go to a friend’s house when I was about nine or ten, where I got to play it once a week for two months. In other interviews, it’s sounded like I’m somebody who’s steeped in traditional music and that I’m a proficient tabla player. But, no! I just learned some basic rhythm patterns.”

Aki’s unsure about when he picked up the harmonica for the first time, but it was probably in infancy because his father owned one. “He’d pull it out once every few months and play it, and I’d be like: ‘Oh, that’s what a harmonica sounds like,’” he recalls.

“Then, in my teens, I started dabbling and could play a couple of old Bollywood songs. But the harp didn’t have all the notes, so I thought it wasn’t a complete instrument, so I put it down.”

In truth, however, it was a tremolo harp. Built with two parallel rows of reeds that are tuned in parallel, too — one set sharp and the other flat, tremolos appear frequently in the scores of Bollywood movies and are also well-suited for playing waltzes and Gypsy songs, but virtually useless to most other Western music – especially blues.

“Now, I know that it has a specific purpose,” Kumar says. “But back then, if that’s the only thing you have and you’re trying to fit the world of music into it, it feels very uncomfortable. As a musician, I knew that there were certain notes that I couldn’t produce. Back then, I thought that, to play the blues, there was a special harmonica that you needed to use, that it was very expensive and, for me, very unattainable. I know now that I was wrong (chuckles).”

Aki came to the U.S. just prior to his 18th birthday, initially settling in Oklahoma City to pursue a career in computer science. “I tried applying to every single school I could, and almost bankrupted my dad just through the admissions process,” he admits. It cost $25 to $50, each time Kumar submitted an application – a huge amount to an Indian household, where it was the equivalent of $500 in local currency.

While the Oklahoma school provided the least expensive route for Kumar to pursue his dream, he quickly transferred to San Jose State University in Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, where he knew he’d receive the best education possible.

“It really set me on a great path,” Kumar says, “because it allowed me to do an internship with Adobe while I was a student and get my grades up well enough that they immediately hired me out of college.”

He started out as a quality tester for Adobe’s PDF programs before becoming a programmer for Flash, Photoshop and other applications. But music became an overwhelming, all-consuming pursuit. He’d discovered oldies radio stations after listening to KOMA-FM in Oklahoma City and had fallen in love with doo-wop before moving on to classic rock, the Beatles and early rock-‘n’-roll in the Bay Area.

“I didn’t know what it was other than rock,” he admits. “I didn’t know any of the blues inspiration and influence behind it – something that – in my 20s – I started to figure out thanks to folks who were 25 or 30 years older than me at work and from the blues and blues-rock generation. They kinda knew that I was musically inclined.

“There was a small, informal band that met every six months and tried to play cover songs. I jumped in a couple of times and tried to play the Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ on harp. And they hipped me to where the Brit rock guys were influenced…why the Rolling Stones had the name Rolling Stones.

“So I started to delve into blues, too. When I found people like Muddy Waters, it was devastating…wow!…where has this been my whole life!”

Aki expanding his education by spending nights on very active local blues scene, and decided to get serious about the harmonica by seeking out David Barrett for lessons. One of the most important instructors in the world and the author of several instructional books, Barrett operates the School of the Blues in San Jose as well as internationally acclaimed Harmonica Masterclass Workshops and a go-to website.

“David kinda narrowed my focus,” Kumar says. “’If this is what you want to play,’ he said, ‘start listening to this (turning him on to music in the process).’ He changed my life for better or worse (laughs). He changed in a big way the notion that, for me, all I could do was software engineering.”

imageOn some levels, it was a concept that – as a stranger in a strange land – is often difficult to understand. It’s something that every world traveler has to come to terms with from time to time because of unspoken cultural differences between your new home and your homeland. For Aki, it meant wrapping his mind about changing professions.

“I come from a culture that’s often not relatable to standard American culture,” he notes. “A lot of my peers in the U.S. had both early encouragement and access to music-making. Not only did they have the license to make the music, they believed they could. Being a musician was a thing.

“In India, it was pretty ingrained in my head that either you come from a privileged family where you can afford to be an artist and spend a lifetime pursuing it – elite society stuff – or you end up doing the struggling artist thing in a very brutal, severe way, trying to be a rags-to-riches story.

“That was not made an option to me (at home). For me, it was ‘get your act straight, and get outta here. Lay down a solid foundation for your life, and think of everything else as frivolous pursuits.”

His own parents came from very difficult backgrounds and worked diligently to elevate themselves to the middle-class lifestyle they sweated and strained to achieve. Fortunately, they were well-meaning, encouraging and only wanted the best for their sons.

“When I made the transition to music,” Aki says, “I had to overcome that first mental hurdle – some of it cultural, but mostly mental. Fortunately, I had an advantage: I was raised to learn in a methodical way and to submit myself to my teachers, which is the traditional way in Indian music.

“Given that the diatonic harmonica is a difficult instrument – it really is, and all of the dexterity that we admire in the blues masters doesn’t come to them for free — that takes a lot of diligent work. It was something that I was dedicated to putting in because I knew I had a good teacher who’d already figured all of this out.

“I would have had to have been a fool not to put in the time – and playing an instrument is a lifelong pursuit. That’s one of the things I’d tell anyone who wants to be a harmonica player: Commit to it because it’s something that’s not going to come easy unless you’re a genetic freak of nature where they can tongue block from day one – something it took me years to master.

“For me, bending reeds was incredibly hard. I still work on bending as a very simple exercise all the time without trying to do overblows or anything like that.”

Aki started sitting in at local jams about six years after his arrival. He admits that his limited skill set often resulted in him getting schooled pretty quickly in the process. But the older players were still welcoming, and the compliments he received – some justified, others not – made it all worthwhile.

As his skills progressed, he served short stints with a couple of local classic rock groups – learning quickly that his heart was elsewhere. “You’re not gonna fit Big Walter licks into a Led Zeppelin song,” he says, “not to disrespect Led Zeppelin. It’s just not a good match.

“But once in a while, I was able to sneak in a couple of songs to my liking – ‘Key to the Highway.’ Once a month for three years, we did an opening set at JJ’s Blues in San Jose. It gave me a way to practice for a month, go on stage…and mess it all up, then go home and say: ‘Okay, what did I screw up? Work on that.’

“I had a run early on where I could hide without being embarrassed – something that’s impossible to do now because everything you today do winds up on Tiktok or YouTube tomorrow.”

Kumar eventually established himself in the Bay Area blues scene as a member of Tip of the Top, which were regional favorites during his three-year run. The group was led by vocalist Little Jonny Lawton, a Bay Area veteran who’s enjoyed a long career as a front man and guitarist, along with bassist Frank DeRose, a journeyman who’s worked with Kenny “Blue” Ray and Jackie Payne.

imageDelivering West Coast and Chicago blues, they released a pair of well-received albums, most notably From Memphis to Greaseland, which was Aki’s first trip in the studio with award-winning producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist Kid Andersen.

“Working with Tip of the Top really helped me step up my game,” Kumar says. “Working was a lot like Buddy Guy working with Junior Wells. I’d play lead and then slip into the background for a while, too.”

By the time the band disbanded, Aki was ready to launch a solo career and announce himself to the world as what he terms “a disciple of the blues.” His first album, Don’t Hold Back, appeared in 2014 on Andersen’s Greaseland Records imprint. It was a tour de force debut with an all-star roster that included Kid, Little Jonny, Rusty Zinn and Johnny “Cat” Soubrand (Terry Hanck Band) on guitars, Robert Welsh (Elvin Bishop) on keys as well as June Core and Vance Ehlers on drums.

It really was a tribute album to Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Hank Ballard and others, he says, despite containing four originals. “I picked my favorite material, covered it and sent out a message that ‘look, I’m really a traditional blues guy, and I really want to do this!’”

The last track, however, debuted what Kumar now terms Bollywood blues. Entitled “Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh (A Strange Story),” it was a traditional tune from the Hindi songbook that he’d been humming to himself at home one day when he dawned on the realization that it had similarities with something he’d heard from Jimmy Reed.

“I said: ‘I have 12 traditional blues songs that you’ll like, but here’s one that’s a curve ball,’” Aki remembers. He covered the tune with a New Orleans stroll feel and closed the disc by singing it in one of his native tongues.

As solid as that album was, Aki proved he truly belonged in the blues world later that year with another Greaseland release, It Takes Three, a partnership in which he traded licks throughout with Barrett and the masterful Gary Smith, the West Coast harmonica giant who’d taught David how to play.

“It was huge for me to do an album with them,” Kumar says. “I got to be in the room with two guys who are heavily influential, join them in music making – and also do a little ‘sword fighting,’ too, which is also fun. It was intimidating.

“In the moment, I realized that there I was and that both of them had been playing 40 years more than me. But when I listened to the end result, I realized: ‘Wow! My playing really holds up – and when you listen to it, you can’t tell who’s playing what!’

“No matter where I go worldwide today, if I talk to a blues harmonica person, they invariably have the album, and they love it!”

As Aki explained recently in an interview in Harmonica Happenings, the quarterly bible of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica, he developed Bollywood blues concept as a reaction to many peers being overwhelmingly consumed by in what they consider to be “blues authenticity” – playing authentic licks on authentic equipment and creating an aura of “black cred” while totally disregarding the fact that the music was created by African-Americans.

His furor for the idea increased as xenophobia and overt racism swept across the U.S. as the Trump administration came to power.

“I’d been in the U.S. about 18 years and had never seen that level of hostility toward immigrants,” Kumar says. “I’d always dealt with ‘go back home – you’re stealing our jobs’ knowing that I’d be a well-established, second-class citizen just because of the way things are.

“But I’d never imagined that the openness that the Trump campaign ran on that platform…how easily he was able to say those things.”

As a person of color himself – albeit not American born and bred, he wanted to use his voice to make a musical statement about his own ethnicity and heritage while also encompassing the blues.

imageIt was a path that took root thanks to the relationship Kumar built with Grammy-winning keyboard player Jim Pugh. A longtime member of the Robert Cray Band who also recorded and toured with Etta James, Pugh and Aki met while laying down tracks as sidemen in Andersen’s studio.

“Jim had just started Little Village Foundation as a musical non-profit/label,” he remembers. “He’d been seeking different kinds of talent in the Americana realm – folks who were exploring music in different directions. During one of our conversations, he asked me what I had going on. I told him I had this concept in my head to do a fusion album of sorts.

He jumped at the idea of doing that, and he was wa-a-ay more enthusiastic than I could ever have imagined. That made me go: ‘Okay! At least one other guy wants to put money behind this, so it might not be a bad idea! (laughs)’”

The end result was the 2016 Little Village release, Aki Goes to Bollywood. “To me, it became very important because we all know what was happening (politically) that year,” Kumar says.

“I had already proven my credentials in this blues scene by saying: ‘Hey, I’m a good student. I’ve done my part. I’ve learned all the vocabulary – and I’m going to keep doing it. But now you guys are going to have to understand who I am. I’m not just a guy who plays Little Walter licks. So here goes…”

As difficult as the concept might be for non-musicians to wrap their minds around, after trial and effort, it became a fairly simple transition because of the similarities between blues and the two traditional Indian styles of music, Hindustani in the north and Carnatic in the south, both of which, like blues create their distinctive sounds because of the use of microtones.

And the similarities run strong in other music, too, primarily from the Middle East and North Africa. Another Bay Area bluesman, chromatic master Big Harp George, dipped heavily into his ethnic background on his latest album, Living in the City.

“It was a natural fit,” Kumar says, “whether I thought about it consciously or not. It was actually a lot of experimentation on my part.”

The first disc was so well-received that Aki served up another platter of his hybrid with Hindi Man Blues in 2018, and now mixes in the music with his traditional blues at his performances, making sure to alternate English and Hindi lyrics so everyone in the audience can understand what he’s saying. He occasionally performs full sets of Bollywood blues accompanied by Andersen, Pugh and his regular playing partners – all of whom are dressed head-to-toe in Indian regalia for full effect.

“What I find very enriching is that I get up there and play a Jimmy Rogers song, then follow it with a Bollywood blues song, go back and do Jimmy Reed, an original song in Hindi and then an original blues in English,” he says. “The course of my show is unique.

“Blues lovers often find themselves in a position where they aren’t sure why they’re liking something that they’re listening to – but they’re liking it. And it makes me very happy that I’ve found a position that’s all my own.”

Both of the Bollywood albums did well, Kumar says, “and somehow – I don’t know how…possibly YouTube or Spotify – they caught the attention of an A&R person who worked for Sony Music in India.

“They reached out to me, said: ‘Hey, you’re doing interesting stuff. Do you want to work with us?’ I thought it was a scam at first until I talked to the guy on Skype.

image“I explained to him at the time that I was almost 40 and didn’t do anything pop or contemporary and that my music would be pretty much unrecognizable to any kids they might be selling Hindi hip-hop to. They said: ‘Let’s just try this. Just do your thing.’”

The resulting partnership produced the 2019 album Dilruba, on which Kumar delivered four originals and covered four others. It’s available as a digital download worldwide because the Indian market hasn’t produced physical copies of music for quite some time. And Aki filmed three hilarious, colorful videos to accompany the release.

He toured New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore that December just prior to the coronavirus epidemic. It was his first-ever chance to entertain in his homeland, where his efforts are laying down the foundation of the blues for a new audience. While the sounds are still foreign, he points out, if the blues captures one-100th of one percent of the population, that’s a pretty sizable number in a country of 1.4 billion people. “If my album helps in any way,” he says, “yay!”

Despite the current shutdown, Aki’s remained busy with “another album swimming in my head, which promises to be a stripped-down, bare-bones work without any of the heavy production. “One benefit of coronavirus,” he says, “is that I’ve set up a studio in the garage and been experimenting with recordings, and I just might try to do everything myself.”

Earlier this year, he and Pugh teamed once again for the digital single “Zindagi,” which follows in the format, but is delivered atop an uplifting reggae beat. When he spoke to Blues Blast, he was looking forward with fingers crossed to May and a planned outdoor concert in Berkeley, his first show in a year.

Meanwhile, he’s been busy taking drum lessons from June Core. “I actually played a 90-minute set behind a friend the other day, and came away from it feeling like I wasn’t the worst musician in the world (laughs)!” he jokes. Among his other projects has been trying to figure out how to mic a kit in the studio and teaching himself how to use free Garageband software to record his own material.

“I’ve also learned how to use multiple very old phones to do multi-camera video,” he says. “And I’ve been livestreaming doing that. As a result, I’ve gotten into the habit of posting one self-produced song each week to my YouTube channel and Facebook.”

The world’s changing rapidly, Kumar insists. The one thing he’d recommend to his fan base is “to be open-minded in your consumption of music and the arts. There’s gonna be more people like me infusing new ideas to the music that you love.

“To be fair, I learned a dozen Little Walter songs note-for-note when I first started out. Unfortunately, too many people play his songs the same way. But that’s not how Little Walter approached his own music. He didn’t play his songs the same way twice. He would have scoffed at it. Why should I do it that way?

“We should really be building on top of it and adding our own identity. Being rigid in clinging to sounds of the past isn’t always helpful because we’re all moving forward.”

Check out Aki’s music and – hopefully – where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.akikumar.com. And be sure to pay a visit to his YouTube channel, too.

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