Notes from all over: Ricky Kej, Stewart Copeland and music to save the planet
Ricky Kej knows how to make borders disappear. In 2014, he collaborated with South African musician Wouter Kellerman, a Facebook friend, and produced Winds of Samsara, a flute-based album that drew on Gandhi’s influence across South Africa and India. The album debuted at No 1 on the Billboard US New Age Albums Chart that year, a first for a person of Indian origin in a genre characterised by global sounds and Western winners. It also won a Grammy for Best New Age Album.
In the years since, Kej, 39, has been trying to top that feat while maintaining a hectic touring schedule. “In 2019, I played 71 concerts in 13 countries. In 2018, I had 60 gigs in 15 countries,” he says. “There was pressure to produce something new, but I wanted it to come organically, from the melodies that have been running in my head.”
As it has for many artists, the pandemic offered the perfect opportunity to hit pause on performing, spend time in the studio and create something new. “Early on, it was obvious that I needed to collaborate with different artists so the work would be diverse,” he says. “I needed a good soloist to be the soul of the album.”
He found one in Stewart Copeland, founding member and drummer with The Police, a man who jammed with Sting, and who rock fans might remember from the 1985 album and film The Rhythmatist, in which he plays the drums in a cage amid lions.
It’s been a more harmonious partnership than one might think. Copeland has had a stellar career as a film composer, and he’s worked with Kej before. “But that was on just one song, Shanti Samsara, in 2016. And it was all coordinated by the artist managers. There was no interaction with him,” Kej recalls. This time, he was determined to do it differently. “I worked up the courage to ask him to collaborate with me on a complete album.”
Divine Tides is the kind of world-music sound that’s pulling double duty as the pandemic rages. Copeland and Kej have collaborated from studios half a world away. They’ve got artists as diverse as the Bengaluru women’s choir, sitar maestro Sumarani, South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and American mezzo-soprano Geeta Novotny on common musical ground. That interconnectedness reflects in the album’s theme too, Kej says. “It’s a celebration of the natural world and a tribute to the resilience of the human species.”
The album was released last week. “One day during the Apocalypse, I got a call from Ricky Kej about making an album. He had assembled an amazing collection of deeply traditional musicians. The flow of ideas soon became a torrent of recording and music. The timpani were ringing! The crotales were singing! Making this record has been a unique adventure in both music and divine awareness,” Copeland has said in a statement.
For each of the nine songs on the album, Kej and Copeland are releasing music videos at intervals. The songs, rich ambient arrangements that layer unexpected instruments, vocals and melodies, reflect Kej’s long-held belief that music is an effective tool to protect the planet.
As a child in small town North Carolina, he says it hurt him to see locals treated the endemic lizards as pests. “Even then I wondered, is it an animal’s purpose to be killed?” These ideas stayed with him as his family moved to Bengaluru, Kej graduated as a dental surgeon, and forged a career producing commercial jingles and eventually his first album, in 2003.
His latest album, he hopes, will help Indians stop viewing environmental issues in isolation. “It’s not just a nature problem, it’s about survival, which means it’s a wealth inequality problem, it’s a women’s rights problem, it’s a food security problem, it’s a child rights problem.”
Listeners outside India tend to respond better to both the medium and the message. Kej says that in the US, Europe, even Russia and South Africa, there are dedicated radio stations, magazines, blogs and fans for New Age music, making it easier to reach one’s audience. Here, because most radio stations play mainstream music and film music dominates, it’s harder to create a market for listeners.
Can music save the world? You’ve got to do it right, Kej says. He’s played intimate sessions for powerful people who revise policies on air pollution. He’s also played arena-filling gigs. In both cases, he admits it can be a challenge. “Even I, at the end of a long day, would rather stream an old episode of Friends than a profound drama or documentary. So I’m always wondering how to spread a message at a concert without bumming people out.” He’s found his answer: just present the diversity of the world. “I don’t want to shame people into action, but I want them to love nature. People will only protect what they love.”