Music is the message: Ricky Kej

Ricky Kej, the multi-Grammy Award-winning musician, feels that awards only give an artist a platform to do bigger and better things for the causes he/she is dedicated to

Music is the message: Ricky Kej

Roshmila Bhattacharya

Even if you are not into music, chances are that you would have heard of Ricky Kej who has become a household name after winning a second Grammy recently. A qualified dental surgeon, he talks about creating an award-winning album during the pandemic, working remotely with the legendary Stewart Copeland.

Since Divine Tides was a follow up to Winds of Samsara which had bagged you the Grammy for Best New Age Album in 2015, were you expecting to win again this year?

There were no expectations as the Grammys are the biggest musical awards. Internationally acclaimed artists who have been nominated 20-25 times, are still to win it. Even BTS, by far the most popular band on this planet, have yet to take a Grammy home.

I was just excited to have collaborated with my childhood musical idol, Stewart Copeland. Divine Tides is one of my best works. I love playing the songs and listening to people’s feedback.

The album released in June 2021, and was very successful. Still, the Grammy nomination in November was a huge surprise.

Stewart Copeland and you collaborated remotely during the pandemic. How difficult was that?

I’m familiar with the process because since the last seven to eight years, most of my collaborations have been happening remotely with musicians around the world, technology ensuring that the recordings are of the highest quality. It was just that because of the pandemic, Stewart and I couldn’t have met even if we wanted to.

The videos enhance the appeal of Divine Tides songs.

I’m blessed that some fantastic filmmakers collaborated with me. I played the music, told them what I had in mind, and they just took over. Some of the videos were shot in the North-East, some in the Western Ghats and some in Ladakh.

We chose to film some of the songs like ‘Mother Earth’ on a set due to the pandemic restrictions. We created a rain forest and then, because the story of India’s biodiversity is linked to the monsoons, which influence everything from our food to our economy, I suggested that halfway through the video, it should rain. We brought in a couple of rain machines and, voila, we had our monsoon shower!

More than a 100 artists and technicians have worked on this album, 60 of them Indian. The music comes with the message of environmental conservation, sustainable development and co-existence.

You can either shame people into action by talking about gloom and doom or bring about a change by showcasing love and positivity. I prefer drawing people in rather than pushing them away so every song is a celebration of nature’s beauty and promotes living in harmony.

What’s the next big cause you want to be associated with?

Climate change remains the biggest existential threat we face as a species. And climate action understandably took a backseat during the pandemic.

In India, it’s further complicated. Thanks to my travels in rural India to understand sustainable agriculture and collaborate with tribal musicians, I’ve realised that we face two types of problems: survival and thriving. Climate and environment are thriving problems while survival problems are more immediate, like hunger, poverty, health, education, gender equality and gender violence.

To get people to buy into the environment and climate change, you have to first address their survival problems. Else when you tell a person living in abject poverty that you want to make the world a better place for his grandchildren, he’s going to turn around and ask, “Yeah sure, but where is our next meal coming from now?”

We need to realistically focus on sustainable development which will have minimal impact on the environment while ensuring no one gets left behind.

Causes need money. Have awards brought in more funding?

I don’t have my own foundation nor do I ask anyone for money. Money comes from concerts I am hired for and the royalty from my music.

Titles and awards lend credibility to the work I am doing. Tomorrow, if I need to speak to a government or inter-government official on an issue, they become my calling cards.

You also released a book?

Yes, it was launched last October by Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, with a foreword by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. ‘Women of the Records’ which I produced with author-historian Vikram Sampath, features 25 inspiring Indian women who in the early 1900, when the Gramophone Company of London came to India, ignoring social taboos, embraced technology to record their voices in a three-minute Shellac showcasing Hindustani classical music.

They became superstars and the toast of royalty till the men they had left behind waged an anti-Nautch campaign against them. They were banned as common prostitutes and their music was lost.

Our book is a work of historical reconstruction, featuring not just the inspiring stories, but also the songs of these women, including Gauhar Jaan, Zohra Bai, Hirabai Barodekar and Indu Bala among others.

Seventy-eight RPMs, sourced by the Archives of Indian Music (AIM) in pitiable condition from flea markets and shanties, were sent to an expert in LA. Michael Graves digitized and mastered these tracks which have been compiled in a CD that comes along with the book.

You are a man of many talents. Aren’t you also a qualified dental surgeon?

Yeah, but that degree was only for my parents. From day one, I wanted to become a professional musician, but they considered music more of a hobby than a career. By the time I was in my second and third year of dentistry, I was making a good living from music.

Falu Shah, the other Indian-origin winner this year for Best Children’s Album for A Colourful World, says she would like to add an Emmy, a Golden Globe and even an Oscar to her Grammy. What about you?

My goal is not to win awards, but to make a more environmentally conscious society. Awards only give you a platform to do bigger and better things in this direction.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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