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- Posted on Sep 15th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Yeah, we know. Silly.
Well, meet Kailash Kher.
No, he's never going to be a judge on 'American Idol.' But he is a judge on 'Indian Idol,' that huge nation's franchise of the TV juggernaut. And he is coming to America, with his first U.S. album, 'Yatra (Nomad Souls),' and a series of shows, including one Sept. 20 at the Hollywood Bowl on a bill headed by the Ravi Shankar Centre Ensemble, his daughter Anoushka Shankar and the Jodhpur-based music-dance collective Rhythm of Rajasthan.
During our stay in India in January (subject of a previous Around the World), we got hooked on 'Indian Idol," not least for the episode in which the contestants -- including eventual winner Sourabhee Debbarma -- were tasked with highlighting the folk styles of their respective home regions, with Kher offering coaching and truly expert commentary. Imagine Randy Jackson trying to guide a contestant in ways to incorporate true Delta blues or Appalachian balladry into contemporary pop. The term "mockery" comes to mind, in all senses of the term. But not here. Not with someone who's making music of his own that sounds like this:
Kailash Kher, 'Kaise Main Kahoon'
"That's something I brought to the show," Kher, 35, says by phone from his home in Mumbai, having just returned from a week in Kashmir. "Wherever you come from you have your own roots, your own identity. Let me feel that in you. If everyone is trying to copy only one style, then there is no charm of newness. Everything becomes monotonous very soon. I asked them because some people came from Gujarat, from Punjab, every state. And every state in India has a rich culture and rich music. So that way if we intend to see some real India and real art, then definitely we need to make them realize that something out of the box will definitely click."
Kher should know. A few years ago, he brought the Sufi roots of his musical grounding into the wild world of Bollywood -- the dominant force of Indian pop music. Growing up in Delhi, he was influenced heavily by his father, a singer, and the works of Pandit Kumar Gandharva, who brought Sufi folk elements into an Indian classical setting. Kher in turn brought that, as well as other folk styles he'd studied, into a more modern setting, putting together the band Kailasa.
"I started working on this music in 2002 and we entered into the film industry in 2003," he says. "In the beginning, people were a bit apprehensive whether this music will work or not."
But work it did. Kher quickly became a go-to guy for Bollywood tracks. Today his Web site's discography lists 56 film soundtracks in which he appears, from 2003's 'Andaaz' to this year's big hits 'Chandni Chowk to China' and 'Delhi 6.' And many of those songs have become huge pop hits. He's got a long way to go to rival the playback queens, sisters Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar, who have many thousands of film songs to their names, but still. And more than that, the Kher sound is spread.
"After we experimented with our sound, our kind of compositions, in films people started trying to do at least one track of that kind of music," he says. "When it worked it became the precedent, the benchmark. We became trendsetters of Sufi song, and today we always hear in big films someone or another trying to do Sufi compositions."
The success spun off into a career outside of film songs, with the release of his first own album in 2006, a second in 2007 and third this year, each spawning its own hits. It was one of those songs, 'Tauba Tauba,' that happened to be heard in 2007 by Cumbancha Records founder Jacob Edgar while in an autorickshaw in India's southern Kerala region. Edgar immediately set to finding out about the artist and, ultimately, signing him to the world music label. Well, it is a pretty catchy song:
Kailash Kher, 'Tauba Tauba'
That's actually an "international version" of the song, one of several remakes done for 'Yatra.' It's not that Kher thinks he needs to patronize the Western listeners by de-Indianizing the music or anything. He just wanted to make sure the material on this album was fresh -- to him and his fans.
"When we produced our album in 2006, we never know who it was going to do, but the moment it got released and then almost for a year and a half it was No. 1 in every chart for film music," he says. "When this miracle happened and this chart-buster happened we were thrilled. Then when Jacob heard these tracks, he wanted to release some of the songs from the album. Since they were already known and big, we thought that if we do the same songs and same production it doesn't seem right. So we did new productions, more emotional. More simple and more emotion. Less production but very, very tight production, very organic."
There's already a built-in internationalism befitting his 'Idol' role. He cites the collaborations of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder with the great Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (as heard on the soundtrack of the 1996 movie 'Dead Man Walking') as ear-opening. He's also a big fan of Carlos Santana and has recently been taken with the music of fellow Cumbancha artist Habib Koité, a Malian singer-guitarist. There are some holes in his internationalism, though: You certainly won't find any 'American Idol' judges who had never heard anything by Michael Jackson -- as with Kher, until one of his bandmates played him 'Billie Jean' in the studio a couple of years ago.
Of course, even his fellow 'Indian Idol' judges (let alone their American counterparts) are not particularly familiar with the core influences of his approach -- the 14th-, 15th- and 16th-century Sufi poets in which his father started schooling him when he was just four.
"I developed naturally the taste toward this very intense philosophical poetry," he says, recalling his days as a singing prodigy.
In his teens, he says, he started attending whatever Indian folk festivals he could, wherever he could all over the country.
"In almost every part of India I have heard music, and very intense music which is not popular," he says. "That is my training. Even today I have sung more than 200 film songs, many of them chartbusters, and still I stick to the same kind of taste."
Ellen, are you paying attention?