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Kuljit Bhamra

Kuljit Bhamra, 50, is one of the UK’s most influential British Asian musicians. 
Also a record producer and composer, he describes a busy week working on a multitude of projects.

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Planning and family

Monday is my scheduling day where I sort out the week’s priorities. I work from my home office in Southall, above my Red Fort Recording Studios. I trained as a civil engineer and looked set for a career designing speed humps for Richmond Council until I became a professional musician, but the engineer in me still informs the way I work. I’m strict about my timetable and like things to be regular. I’m up at 8am and have muesli and fruit, before I start at the computer and making calls. I get 90 emails a day and there’ll be a backlog if I’ve been away. I play in concerts all over the world, with many different groups and orchestras, as well as writing and arranging music for films and theatre productions, so there’s a lot to organise.

At 1.30pm, I break for pasta or a sandwich, then watch Columbo or the Discovery Channel and relax for a while. Unless I have a meeting, it’s back to the scheduling till supper. I eat with my daughter, Rupi, who has just completed her business degree, and my son, Dilraj, who’s doing his A-levels, then spend the evening in the studio playing and recording the tabla drums. I’m often asked to write jingles and play on other musicians’ CDs, so I record the tracks and mail them as audio files. Then it’s back on the computer until midnight. 
I go straight to sleep. I rarely wake in the night. If I do, it’s probably because I’ve had an idea in a dream and must write it down.

Composing in the studio

Tuesday is my composing day in the studio. I’ve written around 2,000 songs since I was 18, many for my own label, Keda Records. I’m currently composing music for a number of projects such as films and the Society of the Promotion of New Music (SPNM), where I’ve been artistic director. I’m the 2009 featured artist at the Salisbury International Arts Festival, so I’m working on an ‘ambient-soundscapes’ project with Tom Morrison and Judith Seelig. As part of the festival, I’ll be playing jazz with Andy Sheppard, who is one of my regular collaborators. I’m also working on early music as part of my Mantra project.

I began playing the tabla when I was six. My mother, Mohinder Kaur Bhamra, was 
the first British Asian female singer to work in England and popularise Punjabi folk 
songs. From the age of 11, I accompanied her at weddings and public functions. In the 
1980s, I pioneered the worldwide Bhangra phenomenon, combining traditional Punjabi rhythms with Western instruments and multitrack recording techniques to create a new dance-floor sound. A recent composing project is Bhangra Latina, on which I collaborate with Latin pianist, Alex Wilson.

I wind up at supper time. My parents live close by and sometimes my mother brings 
us one of her wonderful curries. I pack for the next three days’ touring.

Breaking down barriers

I drive to the Bury St Edmunds Festival. I love driving – I find it very relaxing and I do a lot of thinking and creating in the car, which is good as I drive around 1,000 miles a week. I was born in Kenya and contracted polio when I was 18 months old. It affected my left leg so I walk with a cane. Playing the tabla is a physical activity, so I get plenty of exercise. I love staying in hotels, as we’re always well looked after.

I arrive around 2.30pm, then relax in my room. The gig starts at 8pm, so we do a sound check at 5pm then have some food. Tonight, I’m performing one of our Mantra concerts, which is a new project dear to my heart. It’s a collaboration between me, sitar player Jonathan Mayer, the Orlando Consort singers and Pakistani vocalist Shahid Khan, and is inspired by the early musical fusions of Portuguese and Indian styles that occurred in the 1500s, when the Portuguese colonised Goa in India.

One of my passions is to demystify Indian music. East meets West, but they tend not to shake hands as the traditions are so different. Western music is linear, rigid and scored. Sitar music is elastic, cyclical and not written down: its skills are passed through oral tradition. Same with the tabla, which was traditionally played by the ‘Untouchables’ in the Indian caste system (which I detest, by the way). The concert gets loud applause. After the gig, we have a drink and relax.

Multicultural gig

After performing Thursday night in Bristol with our ten-piece Bhangra Latina band, I’m back on the road, heading for Chichester. This evening, I’m playing at the Festival with the Ku-Da Mix, an ensemble of multicultural musicians that I co-founded with David White. We met in 2005, when I was writing the Indian musical score for the West End show, The Far Pavilions, and began talking about creating a truly multicultural orchestra. The idea was to make a completely new sound. We got Arts Council funding, then Jude Kelly at METAL gave us the physical space to develop the idea. Reita Gadkari, who funded a large part of The Far Pavilions, gave us some private funding.

The Ku-Da Mix debuted at the Royal Festival Hall’s gala concert in June 2007, with 18 global musicians playing instruments that included the Indian tabla, the Armenian duduk, a Syrian qanun, the flamenco guitar, the Chinese erhu, the French horn and a Paraguayan harp. David takes care of the orchestral side of things and the conducting, and piano playing. I look after the musicians and play the percussion. Ku-Da Mix plays together eight times a year. I love the music I play because of the people I work with.
After the concert, we have a drink to chat over how things have gone that evening. Then it’s back to London. I wind down with a late night film before I sleep.

Recording at Abbey Road

I’m recording film music at Abbey Road today. I’ve worked on film scores for over 15 years. It began with my performance as an on-screen percussionist for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then developed to films such as Bhaji on the Beach, Bend it like Beckham, Wings of the Dove, The Four Feathers, Brick Lane and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I’m known as a ‘first call’ musician for film and gained that reputation in 2002, after performing in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams. I was the first British Indian to compose for a West End musical, helping with percussion arrangements on A R Rahman’s score.

Today, we’re recording for Shakila Taranum Maan’s new film, Winter of Love, for which I’ve composed the score. With film music, you come in, play, then go. I sit facing the conductor, wearing headphones and working with a 20- piece orchestra. The screen is in front of us and we play to the action in a scene. Putting audio to visual is a fascinating process. The film is being edited at the same time. Sometimes I’ll get a late-night call to say they’ve cut the scene and am asked to come in and play it again.
We work scene-by-scene, then break to watch a scene with the creative team. They play it back and make comments. Then I’ll go back and play my bit again. It’s a very particular process. Afterwards, I drive home to chill out with my girlfriend, Ricky.

The Tablature project

Sunday is my creating day for my own projects. I spend the morning in my studio, doing 
my own stuff. I’m currently working on an album that takes tabla to a different level. I explore the sounds: for instance, if you pitch it down, electronically, it sounds incredible. I’m constantly trying to break barriers.

After supper, I work on my Tablature project, in which I’m developing a notation system for tabla – a written system that has never existed in history before. It will make the tabla more accessible and allow people to learn it more easily. I know how the structure will look. The hardest part is making it work practically and getting it out, educationally.

My intention is to have Indian instruments not be Indian anymore: to just be instruments. And not just solo instruments, stuck out the front, but an integral part of everyday sound – which the tabla is, if you turn on the television. But it’s layered on through computers, not performed as part of an orchestra. Tablas should be in orchestras the same as violins and cellos – I’ve played Bach Fugues with Joanna McGregor. I’m proud that I’ve raised the profile of tabla and inspired more people to play it.

Whatever I set out to do on Monday, I complete on Sunday and finish the week. Then I flop and my brain just stops.

Sheridan Winn


working-lives, musician
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