Johnny Kalsi’s first paying gigs as a musician were playing Indian weddings in London, all-day affairs with nonstop music and dancing.
He recalls early mornings spent in the back of a van, sitting on top of a speaker, riding with his fellow musicians to the next show and not getting home until late at night.
These days, Kalsi plays around the world with his band the Dhol Foundation. He's performed for audiences of hundreds of thousands at Wembley Stadium and at the WOMAD Festival with his good friend and collaborator Peter Gabriel.
But the mission of the music is the same — to celebrate.
“We really have a laugh on stage,” Kalsi said in a recent phone interview from London. “We really do enjoy ourselves. That’s our main purpose and mission on that stage, is to get those people together to celebrate. Forget all their worries or where they’re from or people they’ve lost. Forget all that.”
While the Dhol Foundation has played all over the world, they haven’t performed much in the United States aside from the occasional corporate gig, Kalsi said. That changes this fall, when the Dhol Foundation embarks on its first U.S. tour, which includes a stop Friday night at the UW Memorial Union Terrace for the Madison World Music Festival.
Kalsi said he didn’t know much about Madison and had read up on the city’s history. Told that he should expect a big, dancing crowd to fill the lakeside, one can almost hear his face light up over the international call.
“I think they’re going to love it,” he said. “I’m very confident. It’s going to be quite amazing to be able to present what we have been doing to U.S. audiences.”
The heart of the Dhol Foundation is Kalsi and four or five other drummers, all in a line, playing the dohl hand drums in unison. The cylindrical drums are a modified version of a traditional dhol drum, an instrument from northern India. When people wanted to celebrate, whether it was a wedding, a good harvest, or an announcement that a baby was born, out came the dohl.
Kalsi’s grandparents were born in India while it was still under British rule, and used their status as British citizens to relocate to Kenya for work. When Idi Amin rose to power in the late 1960s in neighboring Uganda and began threatening to kill British citizens, Kalsi’s parents and older sisters moved to England.
Kalsi was born in Leeds, but soon moved to London. He began learning to play the tabla hand drums at 7, and then moved on to a traditional drum kit. By the time he was playing the dhol, it felt like the instrument he had spent his life searching for.
Leaving the wedding circuit, Kalsi began performing with a band called Aleep, and it was there that he developed a more commanding, passionate form of playing.
“I used to be quite timid when I first started in the band,” he said. “I gained a lot of confidence, and the monster that was inside of me playing this music came out. I played with full confidence and full passion after that.”
With his own group the Dhol Foundation, he began experimenting with mixing Eastern and Western musical influences together.
While there are numerous clips on YouTube of the group performing, Kalsi said it only gives a glimpse into how powerful and galvanizing the group's live shows can be. And no two are ever quite the same.
“There’s much room for improvisation,” Kalsi said. “When we’re playing together, four or five of us along the front line, we are completely listening to the language of each other. When people are playing their solos, we’re all looking at each other like ‘OK, I know what you’re saying.’ It’s nice.”
That unspoken communication and understanding ideally runs between the musicians and the audience as well. Kalsi said most of the members of the Foundation are Sikhs, which teaches that what’s important about people is what they share in common.
“Our religion isn’t about preaching,” he said. “It says religion comes second. First is humanity. It doesn’t matter what you’re born as, it doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, first and foremost is to be a good human being. We believe in humanity.”
And that’s something to celebrate.