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Music can break all cultural barriers: Grammy winners Ricky Kej, Wouter Kellerman

Music can break all cultural barriers, say Grammy winners, Indian composer Ricky Kej and South African flautist Wouter Kellerman.

brunch Updated: Jun 14, 2015 16:50 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times
Winds of Samsara,Ricky Kej,Wouter Kellerman

If you want to be matter-of-fact and, well, soulless about it, here’s how to win a Grammy:
1. Write lyrics based on the thoughts of those who stood for non-violence and peace like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
2. Set those lyrics to melodies composed by an Indian and a South African flautist.
3. Have those melodies played by 120 musicians from five continents.
4. Wow the world.

But the thing about music is that if it’s soulless, it isn’t music. It’s muzak. And muzak is not a word you can use in connection with Winds of Samsara, a collaboration between Indian composer Ricky Kej and South African flautist Wouter Kellerman, which won a Grammy for Best New Age Album (2015, a first for an Indian composer in this category).

And this would never have happened if 33-year-old Kej hadn’t had the courage of his convictions.

The oral and the aural
“I decided to choose music as a career when I was in Class 11 or 12,” says Kej who, along with his collaborator Wouter Kellerman, was recently in Delhi for the South African Freedom Day celebrations hosted by the South Africa High Commission.

“My parents were pretty upset about it as my father is a third-generation doctor and my older brother was halfway through his dentistry course. So I made a deal with my father to complete a degree in dental surgery and then do whatever I wanted.”

To keep the faith with his own choice of career, Kej combined his study of oral medicine with formal training in both Indian and Western classical music. And when he completed his degree in dental surgery, he handed it to his father and went off to do his own thing.

Born into a half-Marwari and half-Punjabi family, Kej moved from North Carolina to Bangalore at the age of eight and has been living there since, though he also has American citizenship now.

His musical career began with a Bangalore-based rock band called Angel Dust: Kej was the keyboard ist. Two years later, he got on to composing full time. He set up his own studio, Raveolution, and composed music for over 3,000 ad jingles.

By 2008, he was pretty well-known abroad. But not in India. “Whenever I told people that I’m a composer, they would ask which films I’d done,” says Kej. “So to validate my work, I decided to work for Kannada films.”

His first movie break came from Ramesh Arvind, the well-known filmmaker, after a chance meeting. “I admire him hugely, and thought this was the way to popularise my music. But it doesn’t work that way,” says Kej.

“I realised that if I did film music, I would be known only for that. And I didn’t want my legacy to be something which is not reflective of my personality. Whenever Adele breaks up with someone, she comes out with an album. When John Mayer falls in love, he writes an album.”

So three films and the official song for the opening ceremony of the 2011 Cricket World Cup later, Kej decided to get back to his true calling. “I believe very strongly that music can bring the whole world together,” he says. “For Winds of Samsara, we travelled across five continents and used 120 musicians. Most of them don’t even understand the language and some come from war-torn territories, but everything has come together so beautifully and harmoniously. This album shows how music knows no boundaries and how people can live together in peace and unity.”

The album made its debut at #1 on the US Billboard New Age Albums Chart in August 2014, a first for a person of Indian origin.

The collaboration
Though it was Kej who came up with the concept of Winds of Samsara, it was the collaboration with Kellerman that did the trick. “I had seen Wouter perform at the closing ceremony of FIFA in South Africa and listened to his album,” says Kej. “Then I approached him to play for a song for another album.”

Kellerman was fascinated by Kej’s music too. “When I heard the song, it simply blew my mind,” he says. “I played it to my daughter and even she was blown away. I said to her ‘I’m going to pull out all stops to impress this guy’.”

The two of them got along, and then Kellerman realised that his country had a strong connection with Kej’s – Mahatma Gandhi and how he inspired Nelson Mandela. “So we decided to write a song each for Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi to spread the message of peace, prosperity, tolerance and love through instrumental music,” recalls Kellerman.

Almost before they knew it, however, they had a whole album. As the album came together, so did other inspirations for its songs.

“I want to spread good energy; that’s the main idea behind my work and Ricky’s too,” says Kellerman. “You can convey the message of love through instrumental music, and, when you make cross-cultural music, you automatically introduce people to other cultures. Once you listen to someone else’s music you understand them better.”

And so the album was named Winds of Samsara – ‘Winds’ as a reference to Kellerman’s flute and ‘Samsara’ for more esoteric reasons. “The word means different things in different cultures,” says Kej.

“In Hindu culture, it means the world around us, our families or even the individual, while in Buddhist culture, it means the cycle of life.” Kellerman has a different take on it. “Whenever I think of ‘Samsara’, I think of a provocative planet, with flowers, plants and animals. But people can interpret it in their own way.”

Notes of inspiration
Kej’s music wasn’t Kellerman’s first brush with music from India. “I really admire the work of AR Rahman,” he says. “I was trying to do the flute melody of the piece called Mumbai from his film Bombay (1995), but couldn’t get it right. I also love pandit Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar’s work.”

Kej went on to work with Rahman on an official remix of Jai Ho, from the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire.

Another inspiration for Kej is the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – though he thinks Nusrat’s nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is pretty inspiring too. “Nobody is ever going to reach that height in sufi music again,” he says.

“Nusrat Saab’s album Monk inspired me the most: it combines western and sufi music. He also did some music for Dead Man Walking (1996). He and Rahman never tried to create a sufi song or rock song or Indian song. They just tried to create a great song.”

Great songs happened on the Winds of Samsara album, and the Grammy has changed Kej’s life to some extent. “You get opportunities to make music,” he explains. “But it also depends on how old you are when you get the Grammy. For me, it has been energising. I have started phase two of my career with much more vigour.”

Kej and Kellerman are forging ahead. They are working on an album with symphonies and choirs, based on the South African and Indian cultures.

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From HT Brunch, June 14
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First Published: Jun 13, 2015 16:13 IST