San Francisco (California), USA – On Broken English, London born and New York raised Karsh Kale balances his Indian heritage with rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop and atmospheric pop for his most diverse release to date. On this, his third studio release, Kale works with a talented cast of collaborators including MC Napoleon and vocalists Trixie Reiss (The Crystal Method), film composer Salim Merchant (one half of the “it” Bollywood composer team, Salim-Sulaiman) and Dierdre (Ekova).
Karsh Kale (pronounced Kursh Kah-Lay) has spent much of the past five years watching music critics try to describe his music as some kind of hybrid of Eastern and Western, or traditional and electronic. And it’s true that his early goal of bringing Indian classical music into the Western pop mainstream led him to create some genre-busting global electronic music.
Like his contemporary, Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., Kale has found a way to incorporate his roots into a thoroughly modern context. His first solo album, in 2001, Realize, established the young tabla-playing producer as a major force in the Asian Massive movement -a club-based phenomenon on several continents. Even then, Kale was telling reviewers that his goal was “to take this music to the next level.” Part of that meant live performance, and Kale’s follow up album, Liberation, was a highly polished, tightly-produced collection that Kale and his band could perform live. Another part of the “next level” was getting to a point where the South Asian elements were simply an accepted part of the mainstream pop vernacular. On his latest Broken English, Kale has cut a clear path through the World-Music underground and emerged with an album of truly global pop.
The opening track, “Manifest,” immediately claims the album’s musical territories, MC Napoleon raps while, Vishal Vaid sings, and their bilingual interplay is echoed by the programmed sounds of Western drums and the dhol (an Indian barrel drum). “Dancing at Sunset,” featuring vocals by new band member Todd Michaelsen, uses the language of rock and dance music, but with sinuous South Indian Carnatic strings and a tabla break that are integral to the texture of the song. Kale’s “Free Fall,” with singer Trixie Reiss (best known for her work with the Crystal Method) has “hit tune” written all over it. With Sabiha Khan contributing Indian vocals, the song not only combines the two women’s languages, but it also sets up an intriguing interplay between Reiss’s sexy delivery and Khan’s spiritual/ecstatic singing. All of this is accompanied by a heavy bass/drum rhythm section.
Recently, Karsh Kale has been increasingly adamant that words like “exotic” don’t really apply to his music. “This music comes from New York,” he told one writer. “It really shouldn’t be treated differently from any other music that comes from New York.” And he’s right: it’s the Bhangra and Bollywood of Jackson Heights, the hip hop of Brooklyn and the South Bronx, the electronica of the Chelsea nightclubs, and the rock-n-roll of the Lower East Side.
Part of what makes Kale a central figure on the emerging international music scene is that he’s as hard to pin down as his music. He lives and works in New York, but was born in London to an Indian family. His live band, which features singer Vishal Vaid, is equally capable of pushing the groove and cranking it up to eleven or of performing a traditional North Indian ghazal, a light-classical form of music and poetry that is centuries old.
For generations of young Americans like Kale, these different musical styles aren’t really so different at all – it’s simply the music they’ve grown up with. During the course of three records, Kale and crew have gone from a buoyant but conscious fusion of Asian and Western music to the current state of the art, which Kale has termed “rocktronic organica” – unapologetically Indian and thoroughly American.
As Karsh Kale suggests, Broken English is an organic mix of rock, rap, electronica, Indian classical, and Indian film music. Think of DNA with five strands instead of two. Trying to separate one from the others makes the whole thing fly apart. Broken English has several songs that are clearly South Asian in character. The lovely duet “Some Things Are O.K.” by Vishal Vaid and Sabiha Khan flows over washes of keyboard electronics and electric bass (played by Kale himself).
The album’s closer, “Rise Up,” features the title phrase repeated over a
heavily-caffeinated Indian folk rhythm. This collection of songs is more than the sum of its parts. Western-sounding songs like “City Lights” (a largely unplugged bit of indie rock featuring Kale himself on vocals) and “New Born Star” (chilly start, then classic electronica) blend seamlessly with their own South Asian elements and with the rest of the album.
Some of Kale’s strongest songs feature contributions from Six Degrees labelmates MIDIval PunditZ and Dierdre Dubois. “Beautiful” is a downtempo ballad driven by Kale’s bass and drum programming, with vocals by Sophie Michalitsianos (Sparklehorse) given an international accent by using samples from New Delhi beatmasters MIDIval PunditZ. “Innocence and Power” is a ballad set over a glistening backdrop of electric
instruments and acoustic piano that sounds like a kind of contemporary ghazal. The interplay of vocals by former lead singer of Ekova, Dierdre, and Vishal Vaid, blurs the distinction between two musical forms.
One of the most compelling effects of Kale’s transglobal music comes from the song “Louder Than Bombs,” in which Todd Michaelsen’s anti-war sentiment is, inexplicably deepened by Vishal Vaid’s Indian vocals.