It's only been in the last few years that North Americans have begun to learn about the mysterious world of Bollywood. Unlike Hollywood in the United States, which is an actual place and where more than one type of movie is made, the name Bollywood refers to a very specific type of movie made in India. Ornate, lush, opulent, and flamboyant, a Bollywood movie is first and foremost a musical. Filled with singing and dancing, they are popular all across South East Asia, one of the few things able to effortlessly bridge the divide between the multitude of languages, cultures and religions that are concentrated in this one region of the world.
While elements of Bollywood have been making their presence felt in some movies released in the West, Bend It Like Beckman, The Guru, and My Bollywood Bride (released in North America on DVD as My Faraway Bride), the majority of people in North America would probably still look at you funny if you said the word Bollywood to them. I have a feeling that those who do know about Bollywood, tend to think of it as quaint because the movies eschew sex and violence and aren't very realistic. However since the majority of what comes out of Hollywood has very little basis in reality and is less honest about sexuality than the average "Adult Film", the condescending attitude towards Boolywood would be laughable if it weren't so pathetic.
For while it's true that the story lines of the films themselves are rather simplistic and formulaic, most people watch them for the music and the dancing. Bollywood "phillum" music sells and sells, and the playback singers, those singing the songs, as very rarely does the actor on screen sing, are some of the most popular figures in India. While there have been some compilation of music by Bollywood singers released in North America, there has never been a CD released by a singer from India with an international audience in mind. Kailash Kher is probably one of the most popular singers in India right now, and aside from his film work, he and his band Kailasa, have become one of the most successful popular music groups as well. So it only makes sense that they are the ones to attempt to breakthrough over here, and their first international release, Yatra (Nomadic Souls) on the Cumbancha label, will be in stores as of September 15, '09.
While some of the songs have been freshly written for this CD, many of them are their biggest hits from India that they've reworked for an international audience. However, that doesn't mean they have done something ugly like merely paste on some effects or a few electronic drum tracks to songs to make them sound more American. In fact, unless you are familiar with the original versions of these songs, or well versed in Indian popular music, you wouldn't know they have had made any concessions to Western audiences.
Now I don't know about anybody else, but Bollywood music always puts a smile on my face. There's something about it that's so infectious and full of life that you can't helped but break into a grin when you hear it. So when I heard the first song on Yatra, "Kaise Main Kahoon" that was my reaction, even though the song's meaning isn't exactly cheerful as it talks about the helplessness of falling in love. On the other hand the music is so effervescent that it's hard not to get carried away by it in spite of lyrics when translated into English that say things like "But I doubt that she even knows that I exist". Of course, this is one of the difficulties of listening to music from other cultures is that the clues we are used to hearing in a song that tell us the emotional feelings of the person its about are different from those we are accustomed to.
Yet when I listened to it a second time, even without having checked the lyrics, I began to notice inflections in Kher's voice that I had missed before, and wondered at the seemingly plaintive notes that were being expressed. It's important for us to realize when listening to this music that just because a tune is lively or up tempo it is not an indication of its emotional mood. We are used to songs where the music is as subtle as a brick wall when it comes to expressing a mood – slow ballad means love song and swelling strings means high emotions. With a song like this it's important to listen to the inflections in the singer's voice as there are more clues to be found there than in the music.
As the CD continued though I noticed a decided change in what they were doing musically as they began to sound less like the soundtrack to a Bollywood film and the songs became more intimate as the disc progressed. Even more interesting is how they have made subtle shifts in some of the songs to incorporate Western elements. On the second song of the disc, "Dilruba", for instance Kher describes in his notes how he and the band have adapted the rhythmic patterns of a 13th century style of music called qawwali by adding elements of funk and reggae to it. What's nice is they have actually managed to do this without it sounding jarring or intrusive. It doesn't sound like anything has been grafted on to the song unnaturally, but more like this is the way the song has always been played.
India is a multicultural nation and Kher and Kailasa do their best to reflect that in their music, drawing upon such diverse sources as the mystical poems of the Sufi where divine love is expressed in terms of human love, philosophies that form the basis for the Sikh faith of the Punjabi region, and the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. At the same time they utilize different musical styles from the various regions of India, the Middle East, whilr incorporating elements of Jazz and other Western influences. Like the song mentioned earlier with its funk and reggae tinged rhythms, the blending of musical styles is done seamlessly ensuring that each song retains its original cultural uniqueness while giving Western listeners something familiar to hold onto as the means to find their way into the song.
For those of you who have some knowledge of Indian music, whether it be the traditional classical music from the various regions of India or the phillum music of Bollywood, you'll hear some familiar sounds on this disc. However even if you've never listened to any music at all from the country, it represents a unique opportunity to experience it for the first time. Not only will you be amazed at Kher's abilities as a vocalist and the virtuosity of the musicians in Kailasa, but you can't helped being swept off your feet by the splendor of the music itself. It will be different from almost anything you've ever heard before, but you shouldn't let that stop you, as its an experience not to be missed.