The only reason I don’t want to do Bollywood is because I don’t want to muddle my identity. Someone in the West may listen to my music and think that's what I do," says Grammy Award winner Ricky Kej as he chats to us over coffee at a suburban five-star. "It’s not like Bollywood where they know that if Rahman does an item song, it’s just for that movie. For example, in San Francisco, they know of Jai Ho, and then, they know a Ravi Shankar. I want to be known like that. Identity is everything."
Everyone in the West knows of Kej for sure. The 34-year-old Punjabi-Marwari musician, who now divides his time between Bengaluru and Manhattan, had already released 14 world music albums before his 2015 album, Winds of Samsara (a collaboration with South African flautist Wouter Kellerman) won the Grammy for Best New Age album. And, suddenly, India knew him too. His next, Shanti Samsara — World Music for Environmental Consciousness — was released in November by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The album celebrated nature through different cultures — nearly 300 musicians collaborated and the big names included Amitabh Bachchan, Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir, ‘singing nun’ Ani Choying Drolma.
This August, he plans to release the second edition of Shanti Samsara, with seven additional tracks. It features, among others, Patti Austin, an American R&B singer who sang with Michael Jackson on Off The Wall and singers from Yanni’s orchestra.
And the sound? Well, it’s more from his New Age and World Music kitty. "The difference between the two is slight. New Age is more meditative and less groove, high on emotion and low on melody. World Music is music from all over the world, usually folk music, which could be groovy, soft, uptemp, downtemp. The main thing is when you hear it, you should feel the world is one," he says. Kej’s music is what most Indians first got familiar with in the ’90s with albums like Buddha Bar, which Kej was also a part of. "Yes, that album got us noticed. But it’s really Pandit Ravi Shankar who I hold responsible for making sure I exist. He has put Indian music on the map," he says. As has Kej now. After his Grammy win, he is on a mission to spread awareness about climate change and conservation. Before the August release, Kej will release a documentary and a few videos. The documentary deals with Kiribati, a little island in the South Pacific that will go completely under water in the next 20 years due to rising water levels. The video talks of the effects of urbanisation on elephants. "People knew me before the Grammy, especially in America. But after the Grammy, a lot more people take me seriously and are listening to what I have to say, especially in India, where you need some kind of international acclaim to be noticed."
Kej realises that he could only do all of this as he is obsessed with music but also knows that he gave up a lot for it. "I trained to be a dentist because that was a condition my parents laid down for letting me pursue music. For Indians, giving up a proper job is a big thing." But maybe, living your dream and trying to change the world is an even bigger one? "Yes! I never wanted to do pop because that kind of music always has a set parameter of what needs to be done. I wanted to make music that said something. if it doesn’t, there is no use."