Karsh Kale is sipping on peppermint tea at a Bandra café, nursing a nasty cough and a bad back. He’s 37, and two decades of DJing, composing and playing music around the world are beginning to take their toll.
“This back has taken a lot of abuse,” he says, with a wry smile. “Years of sitting in the studio, carrying heavy gear and enduring long-haul flights…”
Just the previous day, Kale spent all night at Bollywood composer Salim Merchant’s studio in Juhu, mixing songs for his episode of the upcoming season of Coke Studio India, a collaborative live music show that will begin airing early next month on MTV.
Like all sophomore seasons, this one aims to correct the mistakes of the first year, which, while popular, was criticised for being overtly Bollywood-ised and not as engrossing as its Pakistani counterpart.
Accordingly, instead of just one musician producer for the entire season — Leslie Lewis, last year — Season 2 of CSI will feature seven producers across seven episodes, with each one featuring different artistes and a different backing band. Kale’s episode will feature his fusion band.
“This is a much better idea, and I applaud Lewis, who is not part of this season, for going through with what must have been one hell of a tough job,” says Kale. “It isn’t easy keeping the band excited and coming up with exciting ideas for an entire season. I’m sure I would have run out of ideas by the third episode.”
Kale, primarily a drummer and tabla player, grew up in Long Island and Queens in New York. As a child, he was exposed to a wide range of music — everything from Indian classical to classic rock, folk and old Hindi film soundtracks — by his doctor father, a music lover who also sang and played the harmonium. Some of Kale’s earliest memories, he says, are of weekend jam sessions at their home, with neighbours, friends and family members.
Kale started playing the drums and tabla at age five; by 13, he was already playing cello in his school orchestra and learning to play the santoor, a gift from his father.
“I would go to concerts and study how musicians played their instruments, trying to understand the physicality and technique required,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to master any of them. I just wanted to learn to play them well enough to be able to compose on them.”
By a rough estimate, he can now play 20 instruments, including percussion devices such as the djembe and cajón.
In 1993, Kale moved to New York City to study music production and performance at NYU. By now, he had also been influenced by heavy metal, alternative, funk rock and early hip-hop bands.
Electronic or ‘jungle’ music — produced via a computer rather than actual instruments — was just beginning to make its presence felt.
“In that genre I saw the potential to collect all my disparate musical influences and express them in my own way,” says Kale.
Now, Kale is strengthening his association with India and its burgeoning independent music scene.
Over the past two years, he has participated more frequently in gigs, music festivals such as NH7 Weekender 2011 and film-scoring projects for films that include Karthik Calling Karthik (2010) and Soundtrack (2011).
In March, he released his latest album, Cinema, at Mumbai performance club Blue Frog, with a performance by his first-ever band in India — flautist Ajay Prasanna, DJ Jayant Luthra, guitarist Warren Mendonsa, bass player Johan Pais and drummer Jai Row Kavi.
This band will also be performing in his Coke Studio episode.
Next, Kale is considering buying a house in Mumbai. “This year, I’ve already spent more time here than I have back home,” he says.