Tag Archives: Fusion

Aki Kumar Fuses Blues With Hindi and Makes It Familiar

Aki Kumar is a blues musician and artist from the Bay Area. Over the years he has developed his identity as a musician and what it means to be Indian in a traditional Blues world. Now as a well-established musician and artist, redefining and breaking the barriers of genre, I chat with him to understand his growth and work as an artist. 

“Toxic masculinity is the biggest hurdle in my world. It’s the ‘macho bravado’ that I needed to get out of myself.” 

He elaborated on the importance of getting out of the man box and how the presence of toxic masculinity has affected many women in the Blues world. He details his understanding of appreciation vs appropriation, the importance of the Indian community and the barriers of toxic masculinity in the blues world, and how he overcame the divide in the music world, to create a fusion of those worlds. 

IC: Where do you feel you stand in music right now and going ahead? Where are you headed? 

AK: I’m headed towards running away from the label of ‘genre authenticity’ which is really what caused me to first try to not represent my Indianness and then go completely the other way. Blues has been heavily appropriated in the US by the white audience that consumes it. When I was starting out in the Blues scene, I played and performed with my white peers, following their tastes and catering to a white audience. But even they know in the back of their heads that they’re not the authentic torchbearers of this genre. It’s always been Black music and in fact, black musicians have been denied their rightful ownership for several decades. I realized I was chasing an authenticity that these guys (white musicians) were not going to find. What’s authentic for a Desi boy is to be Desi as best as you can. But moving forward I’m going to try and break away even more from these predefined notions of what is authentic and what isn’t. The only authentic thing to me is just me and if a song comes to my head I’m gonna represent it my way. 

IC: What message do you have for the people that look up to you? 

AK: I hope someone is inspired by what I’m doing. The thing I would like to tell people is to really find yourself in your art. I myself didn’t realize this when I was starting out because I came from a traditional standpoint. But despite that, you have to find your voice. It’s a journey and when you find it is up to your circumstances but it is the most important aspect of artistry, otherwise you’re just reduced to an authentic mimic of something that already exists. 

IC: As an Indian immigrant in the States, how important is it to speak from an Indian perspective, in your music?

AK: It has been a journey to be honest because the first ten years of existing in the US was just ‘hey do I have my visa? Where’s my visa? Is everything stamped? I don’t want to get a drunk driving ticket cause then I’ll get deported.’ Until I realize that there are more people here (in the States) and there’s a history here. It’s a process of growth and I think everyone goes through it. 

One of the things I find with the Indian community is that we can be caught on the fence. A lot of folks are not sure about how to thread this needle where they want to be nationalistic in the Indian sense but they can’t embrace American nationalism cause that’s toxic to them. So they end up being liberal in the United States in many ways and embracing the freedom they enjoy here and then being rigidly conservative in India. This is a liberalism of convenience where you’re saying ‘oh I’m going to embrace the aspects of a democracy or being liberal when they benefit me but if they’d not benefit someone else I don’t care’. This is something I would like to address because they need to be aware of this. If you care about inequality it has to be in all aspects. 

IC: Where do you think the rise in fusion music puts India in the global music market?

AK: I think India is going to be a powerhouse, it already is. There is so much variety and talent in India and the consumer market is also in India. If all the music was made in India and listened to in India, it would be a powerhouse even if no one knew about it. The next century belongs to India culturally speaking. There’s so much regional music and so much potential for fusion, which has already been happening. Bollywood, for example, is fusion music. We are a masala of cultures. Everything gets blended in and we make something good out of it. However, it is important that we don’t appropriate cultures in fusion. If you’re going to bring cultures together through music, be aware of what you’re doing and educate yourself on the genres and history behind styles of music. If you want to do fusion, be a master of your domain.

IC: You explore a lot of genres and with fusion, there is bound to be criticism from both communities of Bollywood and traditional blues. How do you deal with that?

AK: There has been a lot of support, which I was really worried about in the beginning but a lot of folks got what was going on primarily because musically what I did with the fusion, worked. Most people who listened to it without prejudice found it smooth. The criticism comes from people who are so fixated on genre-centric music that they have established rules for what is and what isn’t fitting of blues music. In fact, all of the criticism has been from white people. Black people typically won’t go that way because they themselves have been oppressed in the ownership of the genre they created. So I don’t pay much attention to that part. In Bollywood music, it’s mostly people who say ‘oh that’s Kishore Kumar and he’s my favorite artist, but you don’t sound like him.’ I’m not Kishore Kumar that’s why I don’t sing like him. Nobody has really criticized me in a way that has stuck and after five years, if no one has found a way to give you truly insightful criticism, then maybe you’ve done something right. 

IC: Your track Zindagi that you released this year, is extremely comforting and hopeful, what made you release such a song during this time?

AK: I wrote the track a year before I actually did a video. I’m very proud to say that I wrote it in Hindi which has been a bit of a tricky thing for me because I don’t speak Hindi fluently. But it was part of the process of trying to write something more positive because typically I write cleverly worded attack songs to express my frustrations with the political or social climate. But then I thought that as an artist I need to find myself a more positive form of expression. Given the pandemic and how we landed last year, I had a feeling that if I put something positive right now it’s gonna seem lame cause people are not feeling positive right now. But there was hope of vaccines and the administration changing. Everything was building up to a more positive year. So I feel now is a time to put zindagi out there to help people feel hopeful. 

IC: The song was more reggae than blues, was there a reason for that?

AK: I’ve been on this old school Ska and Rocksteady journey which are precursors to reggae, and I’m the kind of person that steadily listens to one genre of music in extreme depth to really find its roots. I realized the things that appealed to me about the blues— the core nature of the rhythm being in place and this tonal vocality that just cuts through with a message, all of that is in ska and rocksteady because that’s the foundation of black music. I know reggae has kind of been a part of my musical listening even before I moved to the US like A.R Rahman’s Dil Hai Chota Sa’ is complete reggae, so I knew the genre and I just thought it would be perfect for the song.


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Cambodian, Odissi, Jazz Artists

Ancient Contemporary: Odissi, Jazz, & Cambodian Classical

Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts. 

“Children are taught racism. Children are taught diversity. They don’t see it; they only see human. Two words: education and exposure. What are children educated about and what are they exposed to?” Coleen Lorenz, artistic director of New Ground Theater asked, and went on to affirm that she loves the Arts because they are the symbol of universal being-ness, of who we are at birth

This was part of the conversation when Coleen; Niharika Mohanty, artistic director of Guru Shradha Dance; Charya Burt, classical Cambodian dancer and teacher; and I met for the sixth episode, Ancient Contemporary, of Mosaic Connect, an online series designed to explore our common humanity through the performing arts. 

The episode aired when the country was in the grip of civil unrest. Shelter-in-Place had, on the one hand, unified us, on the other hand, protests against police brutality seemed to have uncovered a series of deep fractures among us…and within us. All of us, it seemed, were questioning our identity and purpose. More importantly, we all seemed to be looking at ourselves and each other with new eyes, asking ourselves the question – Where do I belong?

Some were looking to rediscover or reclaim their identity and some were challenging their neighbor’s very right to be included as Americans.

Programming at Mosaic Silicon Valley addresses this issue: how to move multicultural American communities from diversity and inclusion to belonging. We highlight the common roots or representations of any two artforms, such as in Ancient Contemporary, which mediated a course between Odissi and Modern Contemporary one the one side; Odissi and Classical Cambodian on the other. This was done deliberately, to create awareness about our common humanity and celebrate our beautifully rich traditions. Thus, the online episode showcased each style and artist, as well as their collaborations and was followed by discussion.

Mosaic Fellow, Charya emphasizes in Ancient Contemporary, “Arts can provide a model that is inclusive. For culture based artists like us, Arts can provide us with dignity, cultural identity, and pride to those in the community.” 

That pride is the basis of our collaborations. In contrast to the “Melting Pot” model, we welcome artists as they are, to build bridges organically, through discovery and connections.

Niharika was wondrous of the fluidity of vocabulary in the Jazz Contemporary style.

Coleen was impressed by the level of complexity incorporated in Odissi dance.

Charya was amazed at the similarities that her artform and Odissi had, to temple sculpture and mythology.

Clips from both explorations are included in Ancient ContemporaryLet us explore our identity and shared futures through the arts practiced in America today. Let diversity not be relegated to the label “ethnic” which by its very definition, excludes. Instead, let’s come together and include one another in this wonderful American mosaic. Let us be unafraid to express ourselves truly, in order that we may fully Belong. To sum up in Niharika’s words, “There is an ultimate truth. We are One. We stem from the same roots. Arts are more than ever, an expression of who we are.” 

Watch it all come together in the video below!

Follow the Mosaic movement here!


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

Co-improv-id with Saxophone and Sitar

Staying inspired requires energy in the best of times. Doing so while sheltering-in-place, dealing with canceled shows, complete lack of a real audience, and asynchronous, socially distant jam sessions strikes a discordant note in the life of artists and art organizations alike.

In the face of these odds, Sangam Arts’ Mosaic Silicon Valley initiative and San Jose Jazz are continuing to bring harmony into our lives. On Thursday, Sept 24, “Making the Mosaic” will bring us not just music, but a premier collaboration between two musicians from different cultures, Saxophonist George Brooks and Sitarist Arjun Verma. The two musician-composer-educators will first improvise in words and then in melody, virtually.

“Making the Mosaic has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to get to know Arjun as a composer and performer. It has been a unique experience in that we have not been able to be in the same space as we developed the material for this program,” shared Brooks. ”To stay true to the spirit of improvisation, which sits at the core of jazz and Indian classical music performance, the final layers of the performances are recorded live and in single takes.  It has been demanding work, but very rewarding.”

The musicians have been creative not just in their art, but in overcoming the challenges of collaborating during shelter-in-place. Since they did not have the option of working with an actual band, they created a virtual band using layers of sitar, saxophone, and bass clarinet.

Mosaic Silicon Valley’s mission is to connect communities through inter-cultural art. The organization purposefully commissions work that brings together high-caliber artists from disparate cultures with the goal of celebrating the differences while highlighting the common threads. As co-founder Usha Srinivasan puts it, “We see artists as the ambassadors to their cultures; when we bring them together, we bring entire communities together.”

Verma is a Mosaic Fellow and believes that “All music from every corner of this planet has the same fundamental building blocks, and when we, as artists, reach across the boundaries of musical genre, we realize this fact. More importantly, we realize the same is true about our humanity. Indian classical music shares an important feature along with jazz: the use of improvisation, or ‘composing on the spot’ as my teacher Ali Akbar Khan described it.  This gives us the freedom to express ourselves spontaneously through music in a way that is extremely fresh and personal.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCXsA0xq47I&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=MosaicSiliconValley

“Making The Mosaic: Improvisation in Jazz and Indian Classical Music” is a FREE event on Thursday, September 24 at 7PM PST. Register at https://sangamarts.org/making-the-mosaic/


Priya Das is the Co-founder and VP- Programming Strategy, Mosaic Silicon Valley, and a dedicated advocate for the classical arts.

A Texan Qawwali for Mahatma Gandhi

Vaishnava jana toh is known as Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite bhajan. It is commonly sung, instrumentally rendered, and danced to at various devotional or cross-cultural Indian gatherings. Sonny Mehta, founder of the Austin, Texas-based band Riyaaz Qawwali (Riyaaz) presented it in the Qawwali style and hasn’t looked back. The Huffington Post recently included it in its “Daily Meditations” column and featured the group, as did NPR.

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Qawwali is characterized by an intense Sufi undertone of attempting a communion with the Divine. This underpinning is what keeps Mehta inspired. “The music is unlike any other, due to the melodies and upbeat rhythmic cycles commonly used. Everything one hears in Qawwali can be addressed to a lover and to the Beloved. There are so many parts of this art … can be a life-long catalyst for inspiration.”

Riyaaz’s most recent album called Ishq, was released in March and is a ghazal album highlighting evergreen poets Mirza Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Amir Khussrau, and a living poet, Tahir Faraz. The first album, Kashti, is available on iTunes.

Listening to the group’s tracks through the years, it becomes apparent that they have continuously worked on perfecting their sound, with innovations of their own. Right off the bat, one notices the violin in the ensemble, uncommon in this genre. Riyaaz’s originality shines through in the selection of the songs themselves and in the creation of their Qawwali avatars. Inadequacies in tonal quality in a few of the early works are more than made up for in the sentiment, which arguably is the truer test of a qawwali. Vaishanava jana toh, for example, has notational improvisations that Sufiana lovers have come to expect, as does the bhajan, “Pyaare kanha bajaye bansuri.”  The second volume of Ishq includes “Maye ni Maye,” a tribute to motherhood. Its folksy language is weaved through the fabric of chorus deliberation, intertwined with the tenacious rhythm and cycles of the qawwali style. The meditative quality that Riyaaz has been able to capture with every beat and syllable makes it remarkable. “Rone se aur ishq mein” brings home the Divine drama of Riyaaz’s qawwali starting with surrender, petulance, and despair: through Mehta’s crescendo, the poet speculates, “Tumhari berukhi par bhi lootadi zindagi humne; agar tum meherbaan hote, hamara haal kya hota?” (I spent a lifetime embracing your rejection; should you have reciprocated, I wonder what my condition would be?)

The ethos and pathos of this music makes it challenging for practitioners and organizers alike. About the first, Mehta says, “Being able to reach our own goals and standards, practicing enough, learning enough about the music and the poetry—these are struggles for any artist … Two weekends every month, we take our individual practice and build a combined sound. [Qawwali] requires knowledge of lyrics that is deeper than just mere translations. Practices are spent on musical and linguistic growth.” Many in the ensemble have been trained classically, Western and Indian. Mehta himself was initiated into classical music by his grandfather, who would insist that he hold a note for long periods. After that, he pursued his training for 16 more years, with various teachers. He continues to cultivate his interest in Urdu and Punjabi poetry under the guidance of experts in the field.

 Mehta asserts: “Bringing Qawwali on to a professional performing stage is harder than you would think. The stage is heavily biased towards Bollywood, who consider us classical but classical music stages consider us semi-classical. Quoting from a poem … dyar-e-ishq mein, apna makaam paida kar (Through the frontiers of love; stake your own claim).”

His claim paid off, when in 2013, Riyaaz was chosen by prominent music composer Philip Glass for the presentation of “In The Spirit: Music from the World’s Great Traditions” at the Garrison Institute in New York City. Mehta proudly reminisces, “He picked four musicians from around the world. It was an exhilarating experience, with fantastic audience response. The best part was that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Saheb had performed his first U.S. concert at that venue!” Interestingly, Glass is very familiar with the Mahatma, having produced his own musical “Satyagraha” which premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in 2008. Khan needs no introduction; his performances are what made Sufi Qawwali popular in niche circles in the last two decades.

Mehta is committed to expanding the borders of both, his musical medium of choice and geographical listenership. He is in talks with a television network regarding “The Riyaaz Experience.” It is planned as an 8-episode series that looks at Qawwali in the new homeland, collaborations with other art forms; including expert opinions from University of Texas and Harvard Universities. Of non-South Asian audiences, Mehta says, “We have fared well, because we try to break the art down into universal truths: love for the Beloved, inner search for the truth, harmony among one another. These audiences have given us the love that boosted us early on. A quote again: “Jab tak bika na tha, koi puuchta na tha, tune mujhe khareed kar anmol kar diya.” (When I was in the market, nobody valued me; you made a bid for me, and I became invaluable.)”

Riyaaz’s second album, Ishq, will be available on iTunes in May.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz, and other genres.