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Afro Celt Sound System’s Johnny Kalsi on Bollywood lifting their tune

Ahead of their performance in the city, Johnny Kalsi, the dhol player of Afro Celt Sound System, opens up about his experiments with the dhol, and having his beats stolen by Bollywood

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Jun 06, 2017 17:11 IST
HT48Hours,Afro Celt Sound System,SulaFest
Johhny Kalsi of Afro Celt Sound System(Photo courtesy: SulaFest)

Ahead of their performance in the city, Johnny Kalsi, the dhol player of Afro Celt Sound System, opens up about his experiments with the dhol, and having his beats stolen by Bollywood.

It’s hard to miss the 50-year-old turban-clad dhol player of the British fusion outfit, Afro Celt Sound System, when you watch their videos on YouTube. Johnny Kalsi jumps across the stage with the dhol, playing away to glory. This weekend, the percussionist will be in the country with his band to perform at the SulaFest in Nashik.

We spoke to the artist over the phone while he was on a tour through Scotland. He sounded a tad disappointed that he couldn’t follow the India vs England cricket series due to his hectic schedule. “The festival season is underway. We don’t have time for anything else right now. We are performing across Scotland this weekend. We reach India on the 3rd,” says Kalsi, adding that he visits India often and loves being in Chandigarh the most since he has a lot of friends there. But he quickly points out, “I have friends in Mumbai too. Composers Salim-Sulaiman are buddies.”

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The self-taught artist is grateful to his parents and their deep sense of Indian roots for paving the first steps in music for him. He remembers waking up at 6am as a child every weekend to listen to BBC’s Indian music programme, Nayi Zindagi, Naya Jivan. He jokes about it saying, “BBC strategically timed the show at an hour when the foreigners would be fast asleep. My parents were glued to it, and would religiously watch it.” They were his first lessons in Indian music: watching Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Noor Jehan perform on the show every second week.

True to his roots, he started learning the tabla at age seven. As he grew up, he was fascinated by the dhols at the local gurudwara. Bhangra beats, Kalsi says, is at the core of the instrument, but he was interested in exploring its versatility.

In 1992, he formed the band, Afro Celt Sound System with fellow musicians Simon Emmerson, a Grammy Award-nominated British producer, and guitarist and Senegal-based pop star Baaba Maal. But much before that, he was touring all over the world with the international bhangra band, Alaap. “During one of those tours, I had met Adnan Sami, and we have remained friends ever since.”

With a friend circle that includes Bollywood composers, it’s only natural to wonder why he has not collaborated with any of them. However, Kalsi says he had a close encounter with Bollywood once, albeit indirectly. The closest his band has come to Bollywood is when composer Sandeep Chowta “blatantly lifted” their song, Eireaan, for Kambakht Ishq in Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya (2001). “We tried to make noise about it, but nothing happened. I guess on our tour, we will just play our song and let our music do the talking,” he laughs.

Be there

What: Afro Celt Sound System will perform on February 5.

Where: Sula Vineyards, Nashik

Tickets: Rs 2,500 onward on

First Published: Feb 02, 2017 16:54 IST