How well is it going for musician Karsh Kale? You could find out by watching the latest Kia TV commercial -- the one that features Kale's vocals on a raucous rock/techno song ("Atomizer") that he co-wrote. You could also turn on any computer with a Windows Vista Operating System, which uses two of Kale's India/fusion-influenced songs ("Distance" and "One Step Beyond") to create an uplifting mood for people working at a keyboard. Or you could listen to Kale's newest album, Cinema, which was released on April 26, 2011 and immediately climbed into iTunes' Top 10 World Albums.
An American of Indian descent, Kale reaches out to multiple genres of music to create hybridized soundscapes that stir the viscera as well as the imagination. Kale's is the new generation of Indian music -- a globally conscious music that mixes Hindi with English, tabla with steel drums, sitar with guitar, and Bansuri flute with synthetic beats. Kale, who performs at Yoshi's TONIGHT, Saturday, May 28, 2011, is the inheritor of an Indian music tradition that -- in America, anyway -- started with sitarist Ravi Shankar. In the 1950s, Shankar introduced the sounds of South Asia to a willing public. In 2007, he essentially blessed Kale's music by performing on the album Breathing Under Water, which Kale made with Shankar's second daughter, the sitarist Anoushka Shankar. Kale is 36. Anoushka Shankar is 29.
"He (Ravi) performed on two songs. He was very supportive," says Kale, while adding, "When artists come from a particular tradition, and they spend their career explaining that tradition and teaching that tradition, it's difficult to be able to see that tradition kind of torn apart. For my generation, if we don't (fuse musical styles), then we're denying something that's there. For me, Indian classical music, the blues, rock 'n' roll, hip hop -- it's all up for grabs. We grew up with all these influences."
Breathing Under Water also featured Sting, Norah Jones (Ravi Shankar's other daughter), and the Midival Punditz, the Indian duo who made a breakthrough with moody groove music on the soundtrack to Monsoon Wedding, the 2001 Mira Nair hit. Kale has collaborated with the Midival Punditz on Bollywood film scores, and Cinema, his fifth full-length album, has a cinematic feel to it. The title song, for instance, uses the soaring voice of classical Indian singer Vidhi Sharma against a backdrop of rising orchestration (with Kale providing electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards and other instrumentation) to take the listener on a satisfying arc. The similarly transportive "Joy," which also features Sharma, was inspired by Kale's 2008 visit to the Burning Man festival, and to the early morning music that's performed there.
Because Kale was not formally trained in Indian music, and learned to play tabla on his own, he felt untethered to any tradition or school, and has been more willing to experiment with overdubs, looping, mixing genres and the like. Artists outside of Indian music traditions have recognized that adventurousness. Three years ago, Yoko Ono asked Kale to be one of a select group of musicians/producers to remix John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance." Kale's version incorporates techniques he uses on Cinema: speedy tabla playing; a tempering tambura drone; and a soothing intro that segues into an atmospheric stretch of notes that ascend upward and upward. In Kale's version, Ono added newly recorded words, "three billion of us dreaming together, it's time for action, action is peace," that are taken along by Kale's otherworldly music.
"The album that I did the track on did reach No. 1 for a week on Billboard's dance charts," says Kale, whose name is pronounced "Kursh Kah-lay." "She (Ono) just recently posted my track on Twitter and Facebook; she's been really pushing that particular track. For my song, I wrote new chord progressions and tried to bring the song from a different perspective."
Kale's albums are released on the San Francisco-based label, Six Degrees Records. For Cinema, he created songs by considering how young people (and old) listen to music these days: Through earbuds as they walk down the street, sit in a cafe, or ride a bus. When Ravi Shankar shepherded Indian music to America, most people heard music through radio or stereo systems. For Cinema, film music was also, of course, a driving force.
"It really affected the arrangement of songs, of how I wanted to tell a story," says Kale in a phone interview from his New York home. "In the past, if I was playing more in clubs, I was tending more to arrange music that would make more sense in a club. Now, I'm thinking more in terms of people having their own experiences by putting on headphones and going on a journey. It was, take the influence of how a film score tells the story and put that into the record."
Karsh Kale performs Saturday, May 28, 2011, at Yoshi's in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit yoshis.com.