On the Dhol. Johnny Kalsi, The Dhol Foundation

Johnny Kalsi, The Dhol Foundation
Johnny Kalsi, The Dhol Foundation
Anyone will tell you that the world has become smaller. We now have opportunities to immerse ourselves in the richness of other cultures through world cinema and world music. Whether that translates to a growth in global citizenship or not depends on whether or not we can break down cultural barriers without forcing our culture on to another culture. If we keep an open mind and willingness to expand our cultural experiences by partaking in world music and cinema we can unearth that which is beautiful in the world. And if we never find peace in the outer world, we can still find it inside ourselves because we choose alternative paths.

Thanks to world music artists such as Afro Celt Sound System, TransGlobal Underground, Lo’Jo and other groups that fuse together music from African, Asian and European cultures, we are seeing the a sort of musical aftermath of once powerful imperialist empires. For those of us who strongly disagree with imperialism, the world music revolution has begun to heal wounds sustained by the victims of imperialism. African drums melt into Iranian vocal tracks laced with Indian classical music and embellished with electric guitar and it sounds as though everyone in the world is talking at once. And it’s the most beautiful sound when those who were once silenced are now shouting above the noise.

I recently interviewed Dhol player Johnny Kalsi while he was in Seattle appearing as a guest musician for The Children of the Revolution’s record release extravaganza. Kalsi who fell in love with the Indian drum while still in his formative years has forged a career from the instrument joining such musical acts as Afro Celt Sound System, TransGlobal Underground and other fusion groups. Kalsi, a generation removed from British imperialism rediscovered his roots and blended traditional Indian music with Western sounds with his solo project, The Dhol Foundation (and no it’s not a charity). TDF’s debut release, Big Drum, Small World is both ethereal and groovy while featuring 42 dhol players from Kalsi’s drum school, luscious vocals by Natacha Atlas and an array of talented musicians. One listen to the track Tere Bina will have you hooked.

Patty-Lynne Herlevi: When I was looking at press clippings I became confused because the journalists couldn’t agree where you were born. Were you born in Leeds or Kenya?

Johnny Kalsi: Leeds. My parents were from Kenya. They were born there. That’s just one of the mix ups. I am of Kenya descent that confuses everyone because my image isn’t African at all.

PLH: Yes, but plenty of East Indians come from Kenya. Look at Ghandi.

JK: Yeah, there’s a whole population of Indians. East Africa is littered with Asians.My grandparents moved over in the early 1930’s.

PLH: Because they wanted to get out of India?

JK: Yeah, totally. And because of the colonization thing and they were born in the British colonies.

PLH: What part of India were they from? Are they Pakistani or Indian?

JK: Punjab. It’s just under Pakistan.

PLH: What first attracted you to the dhol (drum)?

JK: If I had a dollar for every time that questioned got asked, it’s amazing. During my childhood my father had many cousins and I was kind of dragged along to their weddings as time went on. And each Indian wedding they would have a group of ladies from the relatives and they would come and sing songs about weddings. And they would play a smaller version of the dhol called a dholek and you play it with your hands. So as a child, that’s really where I got the inspiration to play that small instrument. Then as time went on, at school I was a jazz drum player, a jazz kit drum and I was in a jazz trio. Then I learned tabla for about six weeks and then from tabla I picked up the dhol. And it was just the sound that really sucked me in.

I don’t know, I can literally see spirits dancing in the air when I play it. It’s a gorgeous sound. And to have an ensemble playing them really adds to the flavor. They start singing and I hear harmonies.

PLH: It’s an incredible instrument.

JK: (Johnny points to his dhol in its case). That’s my baby over there.

PLH: Make sure it’s insured. Do you feel that there’s an energetic force behind the sound of this instrument that led you on a path to perform with such groups as Afro Celt Sound System and TransGlobal Underground, just to name two? I believe that when you follow your heart doors open up. Has this been your experience?

JK: Yeah, totally, one after the other. During my career with the Asian band, I used to play with a band called Alaap. I found myself yawning on stage after 6 years and just thought, ‘OK, I’m really not progressing here. I need to do something, think about what I’ll be playing and stuff like that.’ So I ventured out with a band called Fundamental. And I thought that was a real eye-opener for me.

PLH: So how did you become involved with TransGlobal Underground?

JK: TransGlobal Underground was also on Nation Records and because Fundamental all are also on Nation Records, it was a stepping stone, really. Through TransGlobal, I met Natacha Atlas and during my time with TGU, Natacha started going solo and doing her own stuff. And the guys in TGU helped her set up her own band so that she could start doing gigs on her own.

PLH: Does she still perform or record with TGU?

JK: Occasionally, at requests and if she’s free. And if she feels like doing it, but other than that I think that the world has got to know that Trans-Global is a separate entity than Natacha Atlas. Because when I was in the group we were turning up at festivals in the early days of Natacha leaving and they would say ‘where’s Natacha?’ And we would say, ‘well, you didn’t book Natacha Atlas. You booked TransGlobal Underground.’ That was in the early days before everyone knew that she was going solo.

PLH: I know that Natacha appeared at WOMAD one year as a solo act.

JK: Yes. I was there. That was the year the Afro-Celts played as well.

PLH: I missed WOMAD that year. You run a drum school (The Dhol Foundation), perform, record and tour with countless world music acts, but where do you get the energy to do all of those things?

JK: I don’t really know. To be honest with you, I just go with the flow and just take each day as it comes, really. And for the school thing, that’s pretty much running itself now because I’ve trained guys how to teach as well as, how to play. So I don’t have to be there.

PLH: So now you’re the director of the school?

JK: Yeah, I just view it from a far and I make sure that everyone’s happy with their lessons and things like that.

PLH: It’s an incredible idea to start a drum school.

JK: Yeah, I only did it because I was stuck trying to learn the instrument myself and I didn’t want see all of these other kids getting stuck learning the instrument. So I said fine, I’ll start a school.

PLH: So are the students mostly comprised of East Indians?

JK: A majority of them are, but I do have a couple of English girls and this one Scottish girl, she’s fantastic. She puts some of the Indian guys down. She’s a really good drummer. And girls playing the drum are unheard of traditionally. It’s mainly a male-dominated thing.

PLH: And yet women have a good sense of rhythm.

JK: I should hope so.

PLH: I mean women make good drummers.

JK: Yeah, I believe you. Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz’s drummer) is a good friend of mine.

PLH: I read that in 1998 a couple Bollywood directors had asked you to appear in their films. Did anything ever come of that?

JK: That never quite came off. Sunny Deol he was looking for some dohl drummers to appear in a movie called Border. And that time we had a sent out a resume but we didn’t have a product and I think that’s what let us down the most. But now we do have an album out and we’ve already done one movie called Bollywood Queen.

PLH: So was the film produced in India?

JK: No, in England. It’s an English movie, but with Asian and English actors. The Dhol Foundation will be featured in the film that is great.

PLH: Well, the film, East of East that consisted of Asian-English actors was also produced in England.

JK: Oh, yeah.

PLH: I know the film did well in England but failed at the box office here. I personally found it funny but some viewers only focused on the domestic abuse that appeared in the film.

JK: But that’s the reality of those days. They didn’t know any different, but yeah, it was (abusive). I thought it was funny.

PLH: I didn’t notice the abusive aspects but the humor of the film.

JK: I think they only portrayed it as a normal domestic movie, but basically what they were trying to show was the importance to the traditions of the way that the sons were getting married and things like that. And the fact that one of them turned Gay, which didn’t help.

PLH: And while we’re on the topic of films, have you seen any of Satyajit Ray, Deepa Mehta or Mira Nair’s films?

JK: Are these Indian Bollywood movies?

PLH: No, Satyajit made films in Bombay, but the films were art house films for the most part. He’s considered a master of cinema.

JK: Is Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen) on that list as well?

PLH: No, but I have heard of the director. I haven’t seen any of his films yet.

JK: I have seen some of his stuff, but I haven’t heard of the other people.

PLH: Dohl drums make appearances in Ray’s films because he started out as a musician. He’s a multitalented director who shot, edited, directed and composed music for his films.

JK: Wow, that’s amazing. What are the titles of his films?

PLH: He made several films, but the ones that come to mind are part of the Apu Trilogy. The trilogy is a film cycle that follows the life of Apu from an impoverished and heartbreaking boyhood to his adult years and the birth of his son. I recall there being religious ceremonies in the films that featured drumming and dancers falling into trances. The films are all in Hindi.

JK: So you saw the films with subtitles?

PLH: Yeah. Mira Nair, who was born in India but I believe lives in Kenya now is considered one of the top female directors from India. Her films are controversial. Deepa Mehta who was born in India but now lives in Canada and directs controversial films. She directed a series called Fire, Earth and Water, but Water was never produced because the production was shut down due to riots due to the film’s subject matter. This all happened because she was portraying a prostitute and the Indians didn’t want those sorts of images coming out of India. Her film Fire was banned in India because it portrayed a love affair between two married women.

JK: It’s not so much the era, but I think people have moved on since the early stages of film making especially in India. Despite the fact that every Indian parent wants their children to have a Western education and things like that, which is why they have created stuff in which the traditional Indians are offended, be it a kissing scene or something else.

PLH: Or in the portrayal of lesbian sex or sex at all.

JK: Yeah, stuff like and Indians are outraged.

PLH: Mehta ran into problems because of her portrayal of lesbians.

JK: But it’s reality, but people don’t like to, even with prostitution like you mentioned, that’s a reality as well.

PLH: The portrayal of prostitution is what hurt Mehta the most. She skirted around issues of lesbians in her film Fire and was able to make the film. Although I think it was banned in India. But the portrayal of prostitution in the film Water completely shut her film down.

JK: See, now that’s really hypocritical because there’s thousands of prostitutes in India and all over the world. There’s good and bad in everything.

PLH: The Indians that rioted didn’t want the Western world to see that side of India.

JK: And probably because most of the guys who go to those prostitutes are married.

PLH: I think part of the problem is that a woman director was making a film about a prostitute.

JK: They do portray prostitution in Indian films, but in a really subtle way. They do it through music and its called amujila…is that guys would go and throw money at a girl that’s dancing…And the highest bidder would win a night with the woman.

PLH: Now that’s sick. Who were your musical influences when you were growing up and are they still your musical influences?

JK: I went through stages, really of going through typical British acts that were thrust in my face like Duran Duran.

PLH: Oh, Duran Duran. They exploited India (Sri Lanka) with their music video productions.

JK: (Laugh) Also there was Pink Floyd, The Specials, Madness and stuff like that and not so much of the Indian stuff. In fact, at that time for me when I was growing up, Indian music was all the wailing music and sitar. And I thought that it was boring, but in fact, I didn’t read into the music. I was just listening out for tempos and things like that and the fact that the music was extremely classical, traditional ragas, I didn’t appreciate or understand it. But if I hear it now there’s so much more I’m looking for and there’s so much more to hear in a piece of music like that even if it is just sitar and tabla. In a very classical piece I now look for so many different things.

PLH: Living in the US, we were exposed mostly to Indian classical music or classical music fused with rock music with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And I think this was mostly because the Baby Boomer generation had turned Ravi Shankar into a minor guru. So that would constitute my exposure to Indian music.

JK: I guess that it would.

PLH: I realize that Canadians and the British would have had more exposure to Indian music because of the larger Indian populations in those countries.

JK: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there’s a really serious kind of crossover between kids that have been brought up in different ways with different backgrounds. And they have heard different music that has influenced their upbringing and now they’re listening to the total opposite of what they were used to. But being second generation British-Asian that basically has altered the traditional aspect of my drumming. And now I’ve been influenced by all of the English stuff and all of the Western beats so now I just mix the two together. You know, and now I have the perfect blend. I think it works really well and where you want it to you can be the master and control exactly where you want the Western parts to stand out and where you want the traditional parts to stand out. So I think that it’s a perfect balance.

So yeah, I had a lot of that when was recording the album and thinking about the tracks and how we’re going to lay things down. It was pretty incredible to hear the different, I don’t know if you want to call Western music a tradition. I don’t think that it is.

PLH: Well, there are various traditions within Western music. There’s the tradition of jazz, folk and classical music.

JK: Yeah, I know, but it’s all divided up. But in the same way, the Indian music is divided up like that as well. And I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize.

PLH: I think that some people do know that, but I was confused with the terms Punjabi and Bhangra.

JK: Punjabi is a language of the Punjabs.

PLH: And what region are the Punjabs from?

JK: Well, Punjab now is split right down the middle, right on the border of Lahore and Amritsar. They’re right next door to each other.

PLH: So that’s the partition between India and Pakistan. So are Punjabi people Muslim?

JK: No, it’s Sikh predominantly, but it’s Muslim as well. Punjab used to be together and everyone who lived in Punjab would speak Punjabi. There’s different dialects around India as there are in Africa. In the south of India, you’ve got the Madras, Calcutta and the rest of it. They speak their own language.

It’s the same as Europe. The French don’t understand the German people but they live right next door to each to other. And then there’s Flemish which nobody understands (laughs). And there’s all of that in Europe and they live right next door to each other. And you think how did you get different languages? But that’s happened everywhere and it’s the same. A Marathi person might not understand Madras or Punjabi but they all understand Hindi. Hindi is the standard. And in [West] Africa it’s French.

PLH: Why did you place your musical act and drum school under the same moniker, The Dohl Foundation?

JK: Because a lot of the guys that were taught through The Dohl Foundation also played on the album, basically and simply for that reason. On one of the tracks, there are 42 of us.

PLH: That’s loud!

JK: Yes, it’s the last track on the album.

PLH: Will you continue making albums for The Dohl Foundation?

JK: Absolutely, yeah, I’m already getting ideas together for the second one, now that things are quieting down a little bit.

PLH: So are you going to bring different styles and instruments into the production of the second album?

JK: Yeah, absolutely. I enjoyed my time in Bombay, but I don’t have any direct family in Bombay or any part of India.

PLH: So did you record your album in Bombay?

JK: I recorded three of the tracks in Bombay and I had a great time doing it. So my intentions are to go back there and maybe do another three tracks for the second one as well. I would like to use the same formula as the first album. You know my worse nightmare is someone writing in or phoning up and saying, ‘your first album was much better.’ (Laughs). That would really kill me.

PLH: Don’t take it personally.

JK: I know, but you would like to have the same sort of reviews, but some albums take more growing than others.

This interview took place at WOMAD USA, July 2001. It was originally published in Cranky Crow Whole Music.