SOUL MAN: Aki Kumar finds success merging the music of his homeland with the blues. Photo by Harry Who.
The blues is a beguiling art form. Tangled up in this country’s legacy of slavery and oppression it is first and foremost a folk tradition. It requires no formal training to play and can be sung without instrumental accompaniment. And yet, its simplicity often obscures its power and scope.
Though it is most certainly a uniquely American art form, it is also a universal language. It lies at the root of rock & roll and African highlife music. It informed the psychedelic guitar work of Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, as well as the off-top lyrical freestyling of hip-hop. And though he didn’t realize it until much later in his life, the music that first grew out of the muggy American South has always been with Aki Kumar—even when he was a child, listening to Bollywood tunes in his native India.
Kumar has come a long way since those days—geographically and otherwise. He now lives in San Jose with his wife, Rachel. The couple own a home together in Cambrian Park and spend their days like many couples do, with one exception: while she goes off to work at her job in the tech sector, Kumar stays home, or else heads off to meet up with his band. At night, after Rachel comes home from work, Kumar goes club-hopping.
He’s no deadbeat. It’s not the drink or women he’s interested in. His vice is the blues.
Kumar regularly hosts jam sessions at a variety of bars around Silicon Valley; he also plays harmonica and sings at the helm of his very own band. They’ve recently garnered accolades from local and national media outlets on the heels of the 2016 release Aki Goes to Bollywood—an innovative melding of blues and contemporary Indian pop.
Kumar was profiled by the San Francisco Chronicle in late September, in advance of his appearance at the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, and he even grabbed the attention of “The World,” a syndicated Public Radio International program that airs on local NPR affiliate KQED. And for good reason.
Whether viewed through the prism of blues, world music or straightforward pop songwriting, Aki Goes to Bollywood is excellent. It is at once familiar and novel, traditional and experimental, lightheartedly fun and deeply soulful. And by some accounts it never should have worked out so well.
Back to Bombay
Sitting on a weather-beaten couch next to a old upright piano, we look out upon a long, straight drag of Union Avenue, not far from Good Samaritan Hospital and Leigh High School. Kumar is running late, delayed at a nearby restaurant where he and the rest of his band often enjoy spicy, tangy, slow-cooked meats. It’s not barbeque, as one might expect. These bluesmen enjoy the Indian cuisine prepared at the nearby Rangoli restaurant.
Striding up to the porch, Kumar is dressed in all black, his eyes hidden behind wayfarer sunglasses, his hair slicked to the side. A simple gold chain hangs around his neck, encircling the collar of his shirt—a bit of flash in an otherwise understated outfit.
He greets us—the sound engineer and me—and we enter the house. Crossing the threshold into what once served as a living room, we are surrounded by guitars, amplifiers and keyboards. In one corner there is a drum kit; next to that, another upright piano. In the kitchen, in the space where a dinner table ought to be, there is a grand piano. An already narrow hallway has been further constricted by stacks of vintage amps and speaker cabinets. Squeezing past these dusty rock & roll relics, we come to the garage, which is dominated not by a car or boxes of junk but a large soundboard. On the living room side, a hole has been punched through the wall and a Plexiglass window installed.
“This place is the epicenter for all blues coming out of Northern California,” Kumar says, eyeing the myriad album covers tacked to the walls. It’s called Greaseland Studios.
It was here that Kumar recorded Aki Goes to Bollywood with the help of Greaseland proprietor Christoffer “Kid” Andersen, a respected blues guitarist and producer, and Jim Pugh, the founder of Little Village Foundation, a nonprofit that works with undiscovered blues musicians to bring their work to a wider audience. Little Village produced Aki Goes to Bollywood.
The contemporary American songbook brims with odes to both coming and going. R&B divas have long belted out ballads excoriating two-timing lovers, and one well-known San Francisco band helps close out bars all over the country with a little ditty about catching a midnight train bound for anywhere.
It makes sense, considering that all pop music has its roots in the blues. Way before Biggie Smalls, L.L. Cool J, or even Led Zeppelin penned odes to heading to California, blues players were well acquainted with their suitcases. Still, as common as this pop music trope is to American ears, in the hands of Kumar and his band, it is transformed into something entirely new and exotic.
On “Back to Bombay,” Aki Goes to Bollywood’s closing track, Kumar pines for his homeland as a twangy sitar bounds up and down a bluesy scale. “I’m going back to India, where pretty women are,” he moans, pausing mid-verse to puff on his harmonica. The instrument’s reedy buzz is, as always, reminiscent of a steam engine’s lonesome whistle—only now, instead of picturing a chugging locomotive cutting through the American South, the listener is transported to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in West Bengal.
“It’s an interesting amalgamation of the two ideas,” says Pugh, keyboardist in Kumar’s band. “But it’s not a forced amalgamation.”
Originally from Chicago, Pugh moved to Oakland in his youth and now runs Little Village out of Solvang, Calif. He originally was turned on to Kumar after hearing his more traditional Chicago blues style tunes, which prior to Bollywood had already begun earning the him a reputation as a rising star in the blues world.
After the initial success of Kumar’s debut album, Don’t Hold Back, Pugh asked him if he had an idea of where he would go with this next record. Kumar shared his idea for combining Bollywood tunes with the blues. Pugh thought it was perfect.
After all, Bollywood music—first popularized in Bollywood films before becoming a stand-alone musical genre—was heavily influenced by Western music, including rock & roll, and reaching back further, blues and jazz.
“Bollywood is already a fusion music,” Kumar says. “It fuses Indian traditional music with Western trends.”
These days that means much of Bollywood music is a combination of Indian modes and electronic dance music. But that’s never been Kumar’s style.
A Life of Music
As a child, Kumar grew up idolizing many of his country’s musical stars, like Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, R.D. Burman and S.D. Burman. “My mom would always sing the Bollywood songs at home,” he says. “Those songs are just part of my musical DNA if you want to call it that.”
It wasn’t until after he moved from India to San Jose that he discovered the blues.
Kumar studied computer science at San Jose State University and landed a job at Adobe shortly after graduating in the early 2000s. Though he had a passion for his work, he soon found himself drawn to many of the local blues bars and clubs in Silicon Valley—like JJ’s Blues in San Jose and The Mojo Lounge in Fremont. It wasn’t long before he recalled the cheap harmonica he had as a child, connecting the memory of making simple chords with the mastery demonstrated by the harmonica players he was seeing on stage. Kumar had found his way into the blues.
“It’s so simple, but it can really hit you hard,” Kumar says of the harmonica. “It’s so emotional.”
While still at Adobe, Kumar sought out David Barrett, a highly respected blues harmonica player who gives lessons at The School of the Blues in San Jose. By day Kumar worked in a cubicle, by night he was attending blues jams and sharpening the skills Barrett taught him.
Eventually things got serious, and Kumar joined up with Tip of the Top. The quartet started gigging across the Bay Area and by 2013, Kumar was ready to make the leap. When it became apparent that his department at Adobe would be phased out, he saw the writing on the wall as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. He consulted with his wife, Rachel, his college sweetheart, and when his gig at Adobe ended, he walked away from corporate life for good.
While Kumar says he has had his doubts—about whether he was any good, whether he was having a midlife crisis, whether pursuing the blues would end up ruining his marriage—he now is unequivocal. “I definitely miss the paycheck,” he says. But the rest? He waves his hand, as if brushing the dust off the top of his harmonica case. It was the right call.
Rachel has also come around, Kumar says. “She’s watched this whole transition take place,” he says, from the open-mic nights and joining a band to his decision to leave high tech. “I think she is definitely more on board now. She sees that everything I’m doing is quite genuine—it’s not just some pipe dream.”
Kumar is grateful for Rachel’s belief in him. “Without her support I’d be forced to move into a much smaller place and live like a hobo,” he jokes, adding that leaving Adobe wasn’t as hard as one might presume. After all, he had been moving toward a career in blues for seven years before he took the plunge. “In many ways, the career change was inevitable.”
His biggest doubts were still to come.
Kumar now helps pay the bills with money he earns as a working musician and recording artist. He hosts regular blues jams at a number of Bay Area clubs and has a sponsorship deal with Seydel harmonicas.
In addition to the favorable press, Kumar has received ringing endorsements from some of the region’s top blues players, including Rick Estrin, Mark Hummel and his harmonica teacher, Barrett. Even Dan Aykroyd—a.k.a. Elwood Blues—has signed off on Kumar’s work. The actor, comedian and blues enthusiast raved about Kumar’s playing, calling it “really hot stuff” on his weekly syndicated radio show and podcast, “Elwood’s BluesMobile.”
Kumar recently played one of his biggest shows ever at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park. “It was amazing,” he says.
However, it was never guaranteed that his music would be so well received. In fact, Kumar, Andersen and Pugh have all been pleasantly surprised with the reaction of fans.
“I was worried that it wouldn’t work musically,” Kumar says, “that the fusion would fall flat on its face and the musical product would be dilute—neither Bollywood nor blues. I was also worried that I’d upset purists and fans on both sides.”
That’s not what happened.
Andersen recalls one of the first times he and Pugh performed the Bollywood material with Kumar: “The place blew up,” Andersen says, noting that old-school, died-in-the-wool blues fans seem to be eating up Kumar’s latest effort—even though he is singing in Hindi and putting a decidedly non-traditional twist on a genre full of staunch traditionalists.
Speculating as to why his new record has been attracting so much positive attention, Kumar suspects that the album’s novelty likely has something to do with it. “I don’t think there’s been a project like this before,” he says. “It definitely grabs attention.”
But Andersen believes there is another reason Kumar has found success—and it has nothing to do with any shtick; it’s Kumar’s authenticity that makes his music so potent.
“He sings and plays that shit like he’s from there,” Anderson says, referring to Kumar’s ability to channel the power, emotion and genuine feel of Chicago blues and delta blues. It doesn’t matter what language Kumar is singing in, he adds, or whether he is being supported by a steel guitar or sitar.
“I love this,” Andersen says, remembering the feeling he had the first time he played the material from Aki Goes to Bollywood. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who is going to dig it. But I love it.”