East Is Eden
This music comes from New York," says Karsh Kale, a key figure in what has been dubbed the Asian Massive movement, about his music. "It really shouldn't be treated any differently than any other music that comes from New York."
Born in London to Indian parents and raised in New York, Kale doesn't just believe in the concept of biculturalism; he embodies it. Melding East and West, technology and tradition, hedonism and higher thought, Kale, along with Cheb i Sabbah, the MIDIval PunditZ, Zakhm and others, is bringing a visionary blend of Indian traditionalism and transglobal futurism to clubs across the map. "These musicians are actually in India, Japan and all over the States," Kale notes. "It's a category of artists that represents a whole world."
Just don't call it world music.
"This music is inevitably thrown into that category along with, say, a Senegalese folk artist," says Kale. "This doesn't give respect to any of these forms of music. They get thrown into a world-music or exotic-music category. But with my music, I know where it comes from, and I know that it's not coming from an exotic place."
Kale believes his music transcends the limitations of those labels and allows his audience to take ownership. "I think that when people come to see this music live or even when they come hear a DJ set, they walk away feeling like it's their music," he says, "and not something that comes from somewhere else."
Hailing from the East Coast has helped influence Kale's eclectic musical choices. His initial efforts were collaborations with renegade producer Bill Laswell on a track by Sting and a disc by Tabla Beat Science, the latter of which assured him a place in the growing world-dance scene. He went on to score the soundtrack for the film Chutney Popcorn while also releasing the EP Classical Science Fiction From India. His first full-length solo release, in 2001, was the propulsive and hypnotic Realize, which was followed by Redesign, a more upbeat remix of his debut that involved various members of the Asian Massive collective and others. Kale's Moog-powered pulsations, skittering rhythms and sensual sounds all came together to make up the subdued mood music of his current release, Liberation.
Kale has been involved in countless collaborations, working with an array of artists such as DJ Spooky, Herbie Hancock and System of a Down's Serj Tankian. These efforts reveal an artist capable of showing a refreshing detachment from his work. "My favorite part of a project is putting a song together over a period of months and then seeing it come back as something completely different," Kale says of his tracks that have been remixed by various artists. He compares the process to the way Indian musicians approach songs in a classical raga performance. "It's all about someone reinterpreting your work. What I get back are not just remixes; they have really remade the song."
Live, Kale envisions his songs as active performances, not merely aural wallpaper, a background for dancing. When he's spinning, the turntable isn't his sole instrument. While performing with Realize, his live band, Kale summons driving polyrhythms from his electric tabla, not to mention the workout that he gives the trap drums. "The songs on the record were created to be performed," Kale offers. "We also treat them the way Indian musicians traditionally do -- looking at the songs as a repertoire that can be reinterpreted. So a bhajan can be a drum-and-bass tune, and vice-versa." Kale says the tabla, a paired hand drum of northern India, is key to his art. It is a unique drum, capable of various tonal qualities; it ultimately proved to be his muse early on.
"The epiphany really came from seeing Zakir Hussain live for the first time," recalls Kale. "He made the tabla accessible and made it speak in so many different languages. That kind of opened up a door. I realized that it's not about everything that he's saying, but about the possibilities that he's showing."
Before seeing Hussain, Kale drew much of his musical inspiration from his love of the drum kit -- an affair that led him to idolize the free-swinging grooves of John Bonham along with the intellectual rhythms of Neil Peart. Until that time, Kale had either played classical music on the tabla or rock music on the drum set and never brought the two together. To the young Kale, the tabla virtuoso proved to be the perfect combination of Western rock star and Eastern traditionalist.
Seeing Hussain perform broadened more than just Kale's musical perspective. At that point, he had also kept his Indian friends and white friends conveniently compartmentalized. "Growing up in Long Island, I was going to suburban schools where two kids out of four thousand were Asian. You have a different identity," he recalls. "As any kind of immigrant coming to America, you have to reinvent your culture. It all needs to make sense, and you need to put it into context for yourself so that you're not constantly torn between two worlds. You're actually making a world for yourself as opposed to having someone else tell you what it means."
That philosophy of reinvention carried over, literally, to his instrument. After arriving at New York University, he started to push the tabla to another place. Frustrated by musicians who treated the ancient instrument as an ornament, as well as by his inability to hear his favorite rhythms in a live setting, he rigged the drum with an internal miking system, plugging cables into the side and feeding it to a mixer. The innovation, which involves no triggers, enhances the natural frequencies of the drum itself. It is all part of Kale's quest to keep his forays into technology as organic as possible.
"There are people who can use the newest software and make new tracks, and that's cool in and of itself -- but it tends to be something very disposable," says Kale. "I'm personally more into music that can stand the test of time a little bit. But how to do that properly is not just as easy as playing one thing on top of another. For me, it's not just about slapping sounds together to have experimental reactions. I prefer the people who are digging a little deeper as far as what this music means and actually having it come from a personal place."
Ultimately, Kale's quest for a more organic approach to electronic music and a more electronic approach to organic music has succeeded in blurring borders, both musically and culturally.
"I think at our shows, it's always been a mixed audience of people who normally wouldn't necessarily come together," says Kale. "They just kind of feel the same thing for a moment. It's not really about this music as much as the power of this type of thing. People are just vibing and listening, and we try and mix those two elements together when we play live so people can really kind of bliss out."
If there must be a label stamped on what he does, Kale has a remix of his own to offer: "I call it Indian classical science-fiction music -- from New York."
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