Aki sings the blues.
He became a software engineer in the US, again like many young Indians who go to the US become. Those Indians quickly fall in step with the pursuit of 'the Great American Dream' and live the life of what we here call NRIs, some of whom many of us saw waving at the cameras at a particular event at the Madison Square Garden stadium not long ago.
Only, in Aki Kumar's case, things took a deliciously interesting twist. He began playing the blues. First part-time and then, when his blues career began flourishing-he started getting regular gigs-he turned full-time.
I discovered Kumar on a recent episode of the Bandana Blues podcast, which I think is the best weekly blues podcast I have heard but more on that later.
The song I heard on the podcast was Mumbai Express, an original composition by Kumar and an instrumental that seemed to be influenced by Junior Parker's famous blues standard from the 1950s, Mystery Train.
Also watch: Aki Kumar Blues Band
On Mumbai Express, a lively track, Kumar shows how versatile he's on the harmonica and has as part of his band an accomplished guitarist, Kid Anderson. Interestingly, like Kumar, Anderson, a Norwegian, moved to the US only in his early 20s. On Mumbai Express, the duo's licks complement each other perfectly.
After listening to a bluesman who's named Aki Kumar (the podcast didn't spell out any details; for those, I had to scour the net, including Kumar's web page where you can get a free track if you sign up, by the way), I had to explore the bluesman's oeuvre.
The only full-length I found (besides several videos on the web) was Don't Hold Back, an album released earlier this year. On most of the 13 tracks, besides playing his harmonica, Kumar also sings (he has an easy-on-the-ear tenor and, what's more, his lyrics are clear and well pronounced).
Kumar's sound is closest to the Chicago style of urban blues and on the album, besides Kid Anderson, there are other excellent musicians- including guitarists Jon Lawton, Johnny Cat Soubrand and Rusty Zinn; bassist Vance Ehlers; and drummer June Core.
On the album, besides his three original compositions, Kumar has covered other bluesmen's songs, not all of them very common-Hank Ballard's Hoochie Coochie Coo and Memphis Slim's Wish Me Well are two of them.
There's a Bollywood surprise too in the end when he sings (along with Lisa Leuchner Anderson) Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh, a Hindi film song of the 1960s originally sung by Lata Mangeshkar.
Also watch: Aki Kumar Band, "Presenting JUKE"
Kumar, my research on the web revealed, grew up in Mumbai listening to a mix of western and Indian music. I'm guessing Bollywood music made up a lot of his listening fare.
For a musician whose entry into the acutely competitive blues scene in the US has been fairly late, the fact that Kumar has already made a splash in the West Coast area is commendable.
The videos on YouTube and elsewhere (and there are plenty) of gigs in various clubs are great to watch and the album deserves a place in any blues fan's collection. Here's hoping he plays a gig in India sometime soon.
Tailpiece: I mentioned the Bandana Blues podcast where I heard Aki Kumar first. It's a weekly podcast done by two blues aficionados-Beardo (based in the US) and Spinner (based in The Hague)-and each of its episodes is nearly two hours long.
It's the most passionately put together podcast I've come across and every instalment has a selection of musicians from the US and Europe that anybody who loves the blues cannot afford to miss.
Recently, on Show #564, the range was stunning: from British 1960's band Cream (bassist Jack Bruce had just died so it was appropriate) to Paul Rodgers to Frank Zappa to Larry Coryell, it was a delightful panoply of blues and blues rock.
A bonus: it also had a track from composer Carla Bley's jazz opera, Escalator Over the Hill, on which, incidentally, Jack Bruce also plays.
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