Talent “that wouldn’t otherwise be heard” is what Jim Pugh, founder of Little Village Foundation, looks for and then goes about promoting. “It’s like pebbles on the beach. You pick up one and it’s beautiful, but when you hold four together the commonality emerges. It’s breathtaking, and the bigger picture of what America really sounds like leaps out at you,” he says on his blog.
Every year, Village promotes a few hitherto unknown artists—this year features two South Asians, Aki Kumar and Aireene Espiritu.
Kumar gave up a career in software to create a music genre which Pugh called “Muddy meets Mumbai,” singing 1960s Bollywood songs in blues or jazz tones. The album has popular Hindi numbers such as “Jaanu Meri Jaan,” “Badan Pe Sitaare,” “Baar Baar Dekho,” and “Chala Jaata Hoon.” They sound different, rendered in Kumar’s voice that has an American country twang. While non-Indian audiences have been appreciating these, what’s more interesting is Aki’s take on the blues. In “Home is Prison” and “Going to Bombay,” Kumar certainly sounds more in his own groove and one hopes that he commits to this sub-genre in the future, perhaps singing them in Hindi.
I asked Kumar a few questions about his music.
IC: Why the blues?
AK: I didn’t find the blues, the blues found me. If you talk to any real blues lover, they will tell you that there is something so compelling and undeniable about this music that you have no choice but to fall in love with it. The same happened to me. My journey into the blues was through American Rock ’n‘ Roll—mostly music from the 50s and 60s—which I took a strong liking to in my late teens.
IC: Do you consider Bollywood from 1950-60 to be “Blueswood?”
AK: Haha, not “Blueswood” in the pure sense but, yes. If you listen to Bollywood music from the era, you will find that blues, swing, jazz, Rock ’n‘ Roll had a huge influence on it. I suppose those Bollywood music directors and artists were just trying to stay hip and keep up with musical trends in the West.
IC: Who has been your favorite audience—city and profile/ethnicity?
AK: That is very tough to say, because I have had a great time performing all over the world to some incredibly loving and receptive audiences. I recently wrapped up a short tour of Finland with Chicago blues guitarist Rockin’ Johnny and I must say I had such a good time performing to the blues lovin’ crowds there that I’m eager to go back again, soon!
IC: How did you make the jump from 9 to 5 to full time musician?
AK: When I started dabbling in the blues harmonica, it was nothing more than a hobby. I would occasionally play with my colleagues or friends who were just looking to get together and have fun. As time went on, I improved as a musician and a performer. I found myself collaborating with many local blues musicians, attending jams and even performing my own shows. I was leading a very fulfilling but sometimes strenuous double life—software engineer during the day, blues musician at night. In the last few years, especially, it became very obvious that I had a true passion for the blues and that if I didn’t pursue it wholeheartedly, I would be denying myself the opportunity of a lifetime.
Philippines originated Espiritu, on the other hand, has always been on the move—she literally lives out of her car. Pugh was reminded of the reigning blues queen Sugar Pie DeSanto (who is part Filipino) and doing a tribute was the original idea behind the album “Back Where I Belong.” However, it became much more than that, encompassing Espiritu’s whole style, which in her own words, is an “umbrella of Americana—a mix of country, blues, bluegrass, gospel, and folk,” and some Filipino folk songs. I asked Espiritu about her musical journey.
IC: How would you describe your own discovery of a musical identity?
AE: I remember the first time I became obsessed with a song. I was 10. Shortly after we moved to the United States, we lived with my aunt and her family for a couple of years. I found a cassette tape in their basement and put it on out of curiosity. The first song played and I found myself playing it over and over. I would think about the song during the day, the different layers, simultaneous notes and looked forward to coming home to repeat play again. The song was Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” I knew then that I wanted to play music.
IC: The album has some Filipino tracks: How did that come about?
AE: At family gatherings, my uncles, aunts, mom, would sing and dance. I never sang along, just enjoyed watching everyone and listening. I thought someday I’d like to record them playing these Filipino songs. “Bayan Ko” (My Country) is a patriotic song about yearning to be free. “Oras Na” (It’s Time) is about conquering fear and following your heart. “Dukha” (Poor) is about being poor.
IC: Do you visit the Philippines often, what do you seek in those visits?
AE: I try to go almost every year ever since my grandmother moved back in 2009. She’s in her 90s so time is precious. I love going to the province where she lives, disconnected to technology and just “be.” Up until last year there was no internet, no cell phone service. So my family hang out in the living room and share stories of growing up in the province. We would wake up at 4 a.m. and wait for the man on a bicycle to pass through town with freshly baked hot pan de sal (Filipino bread), have meriendas (snacks, appetizers, desserts). Family, food, and stories. That’s what I look forward to.
IC: Would you rather continue living the life of a traveler—does that provide the canvas or the colors for your music?
AE: For now, yes, I prefer to be traveling. Last year I told myself that maybe 2015 would be the year I’d settle down, but the year came and went and I never felt the longing to have my own place again. I like spending time with friends in different places and meeting new ones, collecting their stories, visiting new places, landscapes, and cultures. On the flip side, it’s also exhausting constantly planning schedules, loading and unloading my things which includes my kitchen, instruments, office, clothes. Still, the pluses outweigh the minuses and I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. I imagine eventually I’ll want a place again, but I don’t see it anytime soon.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.