Grammy-winning musician Ricky Kej speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about his collaborative projects, his international performances, and making music for the environment.
Ricky Kej, 36, is a musician who has earned great acclaim in the international scene with his refreshing take on world music. In 2015, he won a Grammy for his album Winds of Samsara, done in collaboration with the South African flautist Wouter Kellerman.
Besides being a composer and producer, Kej is also a conservationist, creating awareness of the environment and spreading educational messages about the climate crisis through his music.
The Bengaluru native has made 15 studio albums, more than 3,000 jingles and composed the theme song for Cricket World Cup 2011. He speaks to Guardian 20 about his music, his awards and his climate activism.
Q. You finished your degree in dentistry and then decided to pursue a career in music. How did that transition happen?
A. There was never any transition per se. I have always been a musician, and always planned to be a musician. From a very young age, I wanted music to be my hobby, profession, career and bread and butter. I did a degree in dental surgery only because my parents forced me to complete it. I had made a deal with my father that once I complete my dental degree, my life will be my own. So the minute I got my degree, I handed it over to my parents and became a fulltime musician. I did not practice dentistry even for a day.
Q. Tell us about your album Winds of Samsara, which won a Grammy in 2015.
A. It was around 2012 that I met the South African flute player Wouter Kellerman. We admired each other’s work and wanted to work together. So while discussing ideas for a potential collaboration, I mentioned that I had just composed a piece of music based on the ideals of peace by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of my nation. It was a huge coincidence that Wouter was working on a piece of music inspired by Nelson Mandela, the father of his nation. Through our discussions we realised that there was a whole lot of cross-pollination here—Mahatma Gandhi spent his formative years in South Africa and Nelson Mandela was heavily inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. So Wouter started to add South African-ness to my music, I started to add Indian-ness to his music. While doing this, we became the best of friends, travelled across the globe and in two-and-a-half years we had an album ready, Winds of Samsara.
Q. You’ve worked extensively as a musician both in India and overseas. How does the Indian music industry compare with its Western counterparts?
A. It is quite different, because in India 99% of all music content is created by the movie industry, whether Bollywood or the regional industries. Bollywood is so tightly integrated with the music industry that when I tell people in India that I am a composer, the first question I am asked is “Which Film?” So music in India is always commissioned to a musician, and is based on the sensibilities of a script or a director. Composers have stopped making music from the heart, stopped focusing on issues that are affecting them personally. All over the world, history is chronicled through music. If one were to look at the USA as an example, their mainstream music has chronicled the history of the Dust Bowl era, slavery, Industrial Revolution, World War, Vietnam War, the hippie era, 9/11, etc. Whereas in India, every piece of mainstream music is either an “item song” or a “love song”. We have so many issues in India, and people feel strongly about those issues, but there is no mainstream music created on these topics.
Q. You are known for fusing different genres of music. Tell us about the artistes who influenced you.
A. My influences are many and from various countries and cultures. I love the style of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Peter Gabriel and A.R. Rahman, because they have never let genre boundaries define them. All they did was make music that they strongly believed in, and collaborated with some of the best musicians and individuals across the globe. In my last album, Shanti Samsara, I collaborated with native American flute players, a Gaelic, Hebrew and South African choir, Korean, Turkish, Senegalese singers, Azerbaijani musicians, a koto player from Japan, Maori musicians… It was such a fulfilling experience to bring all these different cultures, traditions and people together through the universal language of music.
Q. You have performed at various prestigious venues across the world. How has that experience been?
A. My greatest experience has been performing at the United Nations General Assembly, New York. I performed on the main stage, the same place where every world leader has stood and every major treaty has been signed. There was so much history in that room and it was quite an overwhelming experience. Another fantastic experience was performing at the Vidhana Soudha, in Karnataka. Recently I also got the amazing opportunity to perform at India Gate in New Delhi for the World Environment Day celebrations. It was a huge dream come true. Performing at these historic venues reflects a lot on my music and I am always grateful for these opportunities.
Q. What drove you to make the world mindful about the environment through your music?
A. I have always been a strong conservationist and environmentalist, along with being a musician. It was through my music that I fell in love with our natural world. I found a deep connection within music and nature. As a child, I realised that I loved hanging around with animals and within nature than I did with humans. And I would see personality in every single animal I saw. At that young age, I was definitely a weird child. After I won the Grammy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited me to his office and we had an hour long philosophical discussion. He knew I was a strong conservationist and he inspired me to dedicate my life and my music to the sole cause of environmental consciousness. This was the push I needed, and ever since then all of my music has been about “the environment” and about raising awareness of climate change.
Q. Tell us about your future plans.
A. I will continue making music for the environment, and raising awareness of the beauty of our natural world, and thinking about what we need to do to sustain and regenerate. I am now spending a lot of my time focusing on children, because if we are speaking about creating a more environmentally conscious society, then we need to start with the children.