The cousins of music

We haven't heard from the Colonial Cousins in a long time. And yet, as we sink into a couch with sequined cushions with Hariharan and Lesle Lewis for company, we are transported back to when we first heard Sa Ni Dha Pa, many, many years ago. It was probably one of the few songs that we could happily listen to with our parents, a song that bridged the generation gap in families across urban India.

Colonial Cousins Hariharan and Lesle Lewis
Colonial Cousins Hariharan and Lesle Lewis are releasing their fourth album 10 years after their last

As Lewis strums the guitar and the duo glides into a song from their newly-released album Once More that soulful feeling is back. We are listening to Sajnave, a simple, acoustic song that is filled with melancholia and solitude. And then suddenly, the two of them burst into a fun, fast-paced number, Janaabe Ali. Hariharan mock-hits Lewis with a cushion, and we smile.

Once more. “We have been toying with the idea of releasing a new album for five years now,” Lewis tells us. “It’s just that there is no platform in our country to release independent music. From the start of the millennium till two years ago, this genre had barely advanced.” Their previous album, Aatma, released in April 2001. The Colonial Cousins owe some of their greatest compositions to impulse. They first realised the potential of their music while awaiting the script of a jingle they were composing for an ad agency, in November 1992.

Lewis started strumming a mix of his characteristic jazz, folk and blues; Hariharan joined in with his distinctive Indian classical singing, and soon they realised the magic of that moment. Similarly, their new album happened when Hariharan invited Lewis to his house in Karjat. “We woke up after a post-lunch nap, and decided that we had to do this,” says Hariharan. “All the songs from this album were born then. The whole album was completed, right from writing the lyrics to recording to mixing, in just 12 days.”

Once More has crossover strains in its first song, Aaiyo Re, that celebrates the joy a farmer feels when the first drops of rain quench the soil’s thirst. The duo has also tried to add a feel of heavy metal with their song Kaise Samjhaye, to attract newer audiences who prefer a contemporary riff. “This one is aggressively Indian,” says Lewis. “We have attempted to bring in fresh sounds, but at the same time, spirituality is also part of our music.” Perhaps this can be best seen with Radhe Govind Gopal, an introspective song that is a rejoinder to their 1996 song Krishna.

Over the years, Lewis produced Coke Studio India while Hariharan collaborated with Strings and then Daler Mehendi. Both of them worked on the soundtrack of Tamil movie, Chikku Bukku, in 2010. “We have been busy as independent musicians,” says Lewis. “When we compose together, it’s so effortless. Sometimes, I find myself talking in Hindi while Hari talks in English.” Their limited edition box set will include a vinyl record, a cassette as well as a CD of their album which is a perfect example of their fusion style. And just in case you’ve been wondering all along the two are not really cousins. 

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