Master percussionist Johnny Kalsi has a phenomenal musical pedigree. Though he’s most widely known for creating the Dhol Foundation, Kalsi has also been a member of Transglobal Underground, Afro Celt Sound System, and the pioneering British bhangra group Alaap. Kalsi’s music has appeared on the soundtracks of films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York and he’s collaborated with superstar artists ranging from Peter Gabriel to Cheb Khaled.
I recently spoke with Kalsi via phone from his home in London as we discussed his innovative work in the British bhangra music scene.
NUVO: Prior to forming the Dhol Foundation you were part of a very important and influential U.K. bhangra group called Alaap. How did you come to join Alaap?
Johnny Kalsi: Back in the day, oh crikey, we're going back to the '80s, Alaap had never really had a dhol player. It was kind of like an accidental audition, the band took a break half way and I came on with a DJ. They asked me to turn up at a studio where they were recording. I did, and they offered me some live gigs. From that point on I never looked back. It was 1986, which is quite ridiculous really. (laughs)
NUVO: The British bhangra movement was relatively fresh when you joined Alaap. In the days since you left Alaap the scene has produced huge acts like Panjabi MC who’ve scored major international hits. Would you have ever imagined the British bhangra scene would become such a massive global force?
Kalsi: No, I was a bit young then and we were still growing with the phenomenon and the whole bhangra movement. When I say the bhangra movement, I mean back then everyone wanted a live bhangra band at their party, or wedding, or function - as well as all the gigs. But no, I didn't envision it.
Looking back on it, being second generation British-Asian, my parents came over from Kenya. My whole family was born in Kenya and I was born in the U.K. Growing up I went to British schools and back then it was still a bit taboo to play your own music in public. People didn't appreciate our music or our culture. But they didn't know enough about it to be honest. Growing up there was lots of mixed feelings, even at school. I was one of probably five kids in my school that was Indian or of Indian descent. Everyone else was typically English, or white.
People didn't appreciate our music or our culture. But they didn't know enough about it. click to tweet
We had a mixture of friends and we got on. We would listen to whatever was current in the charts, which was probably Duran Duran, Boy George and Adam Ant. But at home we were listening to traditional stuff. Every Sunday there was one an Asian program that would come on. It was the only Asian program. It came on an obscure channel at six o'clock on a Sunday morning and all the Asian people would wake up to watch. (laughs)
It was quite interesting to see that wave take place. What I did understand from all that, was that there were maybe three or four guys from my generation who all took the same path. We'd listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or Noor Jehan from that Sunday morning Asian program. Those people were very influential in the Asian media and their songs, and ghazals and qawwalis actually were quite meaningful. But it had a Punjabi tilt to it and all the Punjabis we knew, my uncles and aunts all watched it.
So there was myself, Booby Friction, Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh. We all have kind of the same background were our parents came from abroad and settled. We were all listening to a mixture of music. So for our ears it was very natural to fuse the music. So being in Alaap and having that unique style - rather than playing an Indian groove on the drum kit, we would play a Western groove. That to our ears was much more natural.
So of course I took a bhangra route because of my Alaap background. Nitin Sawhney was playing guitar and he took a classical route. Talvin Singh took the Asian Underground route and mixed Indian sitar and vocals over drum and bass loops and added his tabla over the top which was quite mesmerizing. Bobby Friction came from a radical punk background and he would mix influences and beats and DJ grooves over the top of traditional Indian sounds. I was the only one that took the bhangra influence. Because ultimately the dhol itself in its DNA is a bhangra instrument. You can't get away from it.
NUVO: You mentioned coming up in the same generation as artists like Talvin Singh, Bobby Friction and Nitin Sawhney. Like you, these musicians became known for mixing South Asian music with electronic sounds.
For us in the U.S. it seemed like Talvin Singh was the mastermind of this fusion. His 1997 compilation Anokha - Soundz of the Asian Underground was the first widespread exposure for that sound in the states.
I’m curious if you were all listening to each other’s music and influencing each other, or if everyone developed their own ideas independently?
Kalsi: The sound was around a lot before that album. It wasn't new to our ears because Talvin was doing it long before Anokha. He played on Alaap's double album. He toured with Alaap back in 1990. He toured with Alaap when we went to Pakistan.
The electronic element came out of experimentation click to tweet
But there was an awareness of what everybody else was doing with their stuff. Of course even in the U.K. the Anokha thing was a big movement and a big wave. We liked what each other did, and whenever our paths have crossed we greet each other, shake hands and give each other a hug. We all understand that we've grown up together and we know where everybody's come from.
NUVO: Do you remember when you first started combining your dhol with electric sounds?
Kalsi: The electronic element came out of experimentation. I remember being in a studio with TJ Rehmi and he was slowing down hip-hop beats. He would slow them down to do the programming and then he would speed them up to ridiculous tempos. I thought it was kind of outrageous. So he'd program at 60 bpm and speed it up to like 180 bpm to make drum and bass loops. I thought it was fascinating but it didn't sound right to my ears. But when it all came out and started attacking the Asian underground scene everyone was loving it.
NUVO: When you heard TJ Rehmi doing these experiments, did you immediately hear a place for your dhol in those rhythms? Did you immediately see a place for your contribution in electronic music?
Kalsi: Yeah, completely. There was a track Rehmi and I did called "Who Killed Bhangra?” It was one of our showcase tracks we'd do onstage before we even had an album. His statement was that bhangra was actually dying because everyone started doing the electronic thing.
I don't think bhangra died, I think it just took a left turn. In the bhangra scene now there's hardly anything coming out of the U.K. It's all coming out of India and that started with the DJs. They were getting vocals from India and producing in a U.K. sort of style. But the producers out in India cottoned on to how we were doing the programming.
NUVO: The dhol is such a powerful instrument and it really commands attention when it’s played. Everytime I see a dhol player perform, I have a string physical response to the instrument. I’m curious if you can recall the first time you saw a dhol player perform?
Kalsi: My dad had like seventeen cousin-sisters. They were all around about the same age within about five years of each other and they all had to get married. So across that time I was dragged along to wedding after wedding. I had one particular uncle who kept a dhol drum under wraps and he'd only pull it out during a wedding. That became the highlight of me going to a wedding. Otherwise it was boring for a kid. But this came along and it was an absolute eye-opener. I was mesmerized. So I guess that first sort of influence was there from my uncle.
I never really expected I would end up picking up this instrument and having it become the love of my life. But it is a very powerful instrument, you're absolutely right. I think that it was the power that drew me to it. When you hear that drum the first reaction people get is that overwhelming feeling. I do remember getting that, and thinking "I want to do that." And I did.
The style I ended up with was my own style, but it was molded from playing with the band Alaap. The musicians in Alaap didn't really move around a lot. I came along and started playing with a little more passion and emotion and with a lot of facial expression because I play from the heart. I feel the music and I loved it and I was using my eyebrows and facial expression and people loved it.
In India the discipline is very different. Your taught not to make any facial expression at all to stop people from ticking. When I say ticking I mean they develop different facial expressions for different beats they play and that becomes a tick. It ties itself to the beat and they can't play that beat without pulling a face.
NUVO: Johnny, you've taken bhangra music in so many different directions through your work with Dhol Foundation. Do you still have new ideas for bhangra music, and new places you want to take the dhol?
Kalsi: Yes, totally. I want to expose my drum to Jay-Z and Beyonce. I went them to hear the power of it and I want them to hear the potential in it. I want Eminem to do a rap over my beats. I don't even care if it becomes a hit, I just want to expose the drum to the artists.
Sometimes you get the opportunity to work with people like I've done. Those opportunities don't come around that often, but when they do it's a breath of fresh air. And I think it's fresh air for the people that use it for their creative thing. The interesting band I exposed my drum to was Led Zeppelin. That was back in 1997 and I got to tour with them for six weeks. It was the time of my life to watch them and help them out where they needed it and become friends with Robert.
In all of this the most important part is to expose what we do to the masses. The dhol is just a barrel with two sides and two skins, but the potential and the sound you can give rhythmically - there are so many artists out there that need to hear this.