Kailash Kher: From Playing God to Touring the U.S.
By Aarti Virani - WSJ India Realtime
It was a career first for singer Kailash Kher when he took on the voice of God for the soundtrack of an upcoming Bollywood film. “I was literally on cloud nine,” said the 38-year-old artist, exuding childlike glee at a Manhattan press conference last Thursday, kicking off a month-long U.S. tour with his band, Kailasa.
Rustic, unbridled vocals (often compared to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), a Sufi-inspired sensibility and an infectious sense of humor have all contributed to Mr. Kher’s rapid musical ascent. It’s a journey he began in 2001, leaving Delhi for Mumbai, doling out 50 rupees ($1) a day to rent a bed amongst cotton laborers. “It was a totally non-artistic world,” explained Mr. Kher. “It was an atmosphere where people lost control and I think in some ways, witnessing that was even more important than my musical education.”
After a short-lived stint in the advertising arena, where he belted out jingles for brands like Nakshatra Diamonds and Citibank—“that’s when I learnt singers have to send invoices, too,” Mr. Kher acknowledged—he joined forces with musician brothers Paresh and Naresh Kamath, paving the way for Kailasa, named after the Hindu god Lord Shiva’s Himalayan abode.
“Kailasa’s music is basically a reflection of our three personalities,” Mr. Kher shared. “When people were working on remixes, we were being as real as you can be. We’ve never followed any particular trend but have created many.”
The band’s fourth album, “Rangeele,” which released in January, harnesses the trio’s pioneering spirit. “I think our music seems genuine to audiences because a lot of other music starts with someone throwing money on the table and saying, ‘that song was a hit, I also want a hit,’” said Paresh Kamath, 40, lead guitarist for the band. “Rangeele was a complete detour for us,” he added. “We decided not to take our typical tabla and dholak sound into account, played with electric guitars and distortion pedals and went all out.”
The outcome is an earthy and textured collection, even bluesy at times, holding its own in a market often monopolized by frothy Hindi film tunes. “Bollywood can be like a black hole,” admitted Naresh Kamath, 36, Kailasa’s bass guitarist. “They’ll take something that has a vibe of its own, suck it in and supersize it.”
Mr. Kher, who was largely unacquainted with Western music before meeting the Kamaths, credits them for boosting his international street cred. “We got him a Michael Jackson CD in 2004 to inaugurate his new stereo system, and he just kind of looked at the thing blankly,” the brothers recounted with a few chuckles. “I now listen to Frank Sinatra, Coldplay and even Carlos Santana,” revealed Mr. Kher with a shy smile.
Though he’s graced world-renowned venues like the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and the Royal Festival Hall in London, Mr. Kher singled out his fans in Karachi, where Kailasa made their Pakistani debut in April. “It was pure reciprocation…the audience there matched the energy we had on stage,” he recalled, undeterred by the chaos surrounding the event (city police had to intervene at the gates to stop the sale of black tickets.)
As the band jets across the U.S. this month, they’ll hit locales with sizable South Asian communities including North Carolina (May 5), New Jersey (May 11), Washington, D.C. (May 12) and Texas (May 13), among others. Having performed approximately 800 concerts in their nine years together, Kailasa is particularly committed to cementing a spot in the global live music scene. “I always wondered how acts gained worldwide popularity,” Mr. Kher mused. “And I’m now realizing it’s less about a common language and more about a soul connect.”