You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, as he is just over five feet tall, but Indian singer Kailash Kher is big…in fact, he’s huge. In a country with nearly a billion people, Kher’s enormous voice and supersized personality have helped him to rise above the crowd and reach stratospheric heights of fame. Not only is Kher one of Bollywood’s most recognizable playback singers and a judge on the immensely popular Indian Idol TV show, Kailash Kher and his band Kailasa have broken beyond the media dominance of the Indian film industry to become one of the subcontinent’s most successful musical groups.
Thanks to the success of the film Slumdog Millionaire, the global fascination with Indian culture has never been greater as people are discovering the dynamic appeal of Bollywood movies and music. Bollywood songs are recorded by a select group of vocalists, most of whom work behind the scenes in recording studios giving voice to the actors who lip sync their words on screen. Kailash Kher’s striking voice, which embodies the ancient history of India in its earthy soulfulness, is one of the most recognized in the Bollywood scene these days, but Kher has broken the mold by also becoming a popular recording artist and performer outside of the studio walls.
In fact, one of Kher’s early supporters in building his unique artistic career was A.R. Rahman, the Oscar-winning composer of Slumdog Millionaire and Bollywood’s best-known international figure. “The moment I heard him,” Rahman has noted, “I knew that here was a voice that was so wonderful, and which had its own unique space. Kailash Kher’s voice has something that had been lacking a lot [in Bollywood]…it has pure soul.” Kher has sung on numerous Rahman soundtracks, and Rahman even went so far as to present Kher’s debut album in 2006, offering his official stamp of approval and giving notice that this was a truly special talent.
Kailash Kher’s rise from obscurity to stardom in just a few short years is the classic ragas to riches story, but even though Kher has been blowing people away with his powerful voice since he was just four years old, it wasn’t always certain that he would make a living with music. Kher’s father was a passionate amateur musician, and even though Kher was a devout music student, his parents encouraged him to pursue a more reliable career in the import/export business. Luckily for music afficionados, this attempt was a dismal failure and Kher moved to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the capital of India’s entertainment industry, to seek his fortune as a singer.
The rest, as they say, is history. Kher struggled for a while, living in cheap residence hotels and eking out whatever musical work he could find to make ends meet. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, his big break came in 2004 with the song “Allah Ke Bande” from the movie Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, which remains one of Bollywood’s most beloved anthems. Kher has since performed on over one hundred and fifty Hindi film soundtracks, has sung in over fourteen languages on a number of regional Indian films, not to mention recording more than four hundred radio and television advertising jingles.
While most successful playback singers remain content with a life as a work-for-hire journeyman, punching the clock and singing whatever they are instructed to, Kher had a more expansive artistic vision. He teamed up with two young musicians
and composers, the brothers Naresh and Paresh Kamath, to form the band Kailasa with whom he has released three albums.
Their work, which straddles folk and pop music, is an anomaly in India, as there are just a handful of successful recording artists working outside of the Bollywood or Indian classical music realms.
Indeed, one of the secrets to Kher’s success is his integrity as an artistic and creative force. The music of Kailash Kher & Kailasa has a deep-rooted soulfulness that comes from the rich folk and classical traditions that are their greatest inspiration. The songs on Yatra (Nomadic Souls), feature elements of spiritual Sufi chants, the Gypsy rhythms of Rajasthan, Punjabi dance beats and other regional styles, performed on a wide range of traditional instruments. At the same time, the songs have a thoroughly modern feel, with electric guitars, driving beats and subtle electronic effects that bridge the divide between the past and the future.
For their international debut, Kailash and his bandmates revisited some of their favorite tracks, rerecording them with a global audience in mind. They stripped down the instrumentation to emphasize the acoustic and organic aspect of their sound, and adjusted the arrangements and mix to help better reflect the essence of the songs. Two of their greatest hits, “Teri Deewani” and “Joban Chaalke” are presented in unplugged, acoustic versions that offer a fresh perspective on classic songs that are familiar to millions of Indian fans. The songs “Guru Ghantal” and “Turiya Turiya” were written exclusively for Yatra (Nomadic Souls). “Guru Ghantal” is a funky, polyrhythmic jam with lyrics that encourage the listener to “Go nuts, go mad, get into a trance.” The music is one vehicle to this state of trance, but the song also suggests some external support: “Hold your breath, take a drag, close your eyes…Light up the colorful opiate…Break out of the prison of your mind.” With lyrics based on the philosophy of a 12-Century Persian saint, “Turiya Turiya” is a catchy hit with a funky and irresistible reggae-flavored groove.
While his voice alone is enough to make him a star, Kher has always thought outside of the box, putting in the extra effort to make his mark as a songwriter, lyricist and performer. The international release of Yatra (Nomadic Souls) and their extensive touring plans in the coming year reflect Kailash Kher & Kailasa’s desire to build an audience in the rest of the world. This summer, Kher performed in front of large, adoring crowds at the Celebrate Brooklyn festival and San Francisco’s Stern Grove among other prestigious venues. This fall, the group returns to grace the stages of LA’s Hollywood Bowl, San Francisco’s historic Fillmore, not to mention a performance at Texas Stadium in Dallas, where an audience of up to 80,000 people is expected. Texas is known for thinking large, so Kailash Kher should feel right at home.
Cumbancha is embarking on a substantial marketing and promotion campaign to reach both the 3.5 million Indians living in North America as well as the broader world music market. To build awareness, the Beatles-esque track “Na Batati Tu (Na Dhin Dhin Dhin Na)” is being offered as a free download at http://kailashkher.bandcamp.com. Cumbancha has also developed a promotional partnership with MTV Iggy, a new, cutting-edge MTV brand focused on presenting breakthrough music to a global audience. With Yatra (Nomadic Souls) Kailash Kher should earn a well-deserved place on the list of international music’s biggest stars.