Tabla Beat Scientist: Karsh Kaleby Hirsh Sawhney
It’s a Wednesday night at Manhattan’s smoky Kush bar, and off in a corner spinning music is resident DJ Karsh Kale. Sporting a long goatee and a crown of black curls, Kale pays fierce attention to the music he’s playing, occasionally scanning the crowd— a mix of white, black, and Asian people—to gauge their reaction to it. Kale mixes dance beats, guitar licks, electronica, and classical Indian music, layering them together to create a universal, harmonious sound.
Brooklyn-based Kale is not only a DJ, but also a composer, producer, and tabla virtuoso. To record his most recent album, Liberation (Six Degrees), he collaborated with veteran bassist and fusion guru Bill Laswell and legendary tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, as well as the Madras Chamber Orchestra, which has recorded soundtracks for many Bollywood films. It’s hard to put a label on Liberation—the album represents the sum of Kale’s diverse musical personas. Recorded with his band Realize, Liberation is equal parts techno and rock, but infused with the emotional depth of classical Indian music. “I’ve explained it to people as ‘Asiatic cinematic rocktronica,’” Kale facetiously explains over the telephone on the eve of a mini-tour of the Midwest. “But it’s music, and I always feel like that kind of thing in the end closes people’s minds up instead of opening them.”
Kale has been called the leader of the “Asian massive movement,” which explores the fusion and improvisation of South Asian, Middle Eastern, electronic, and rock music. In 2001 he performed live with his mentor Zakir Hussain for the first time, along with Ustad Sultan Khan and Laswell, as part of the group Tabla Beat Science. He describes the concert as a “rite of passage.” Kale recently returned from a month-long tour that brought him to Bombay, Delhi, Dubai, and Paris, playing gigs with both Tabla Beat Science and Laswell’s band Material. (Since 1979, Material has featured an array of artists who are renowned for their inventiveness, including William S. Burroughs, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, and Herbie Hancock.)
How did Kale get to where he is? He grew up on Long Island by way of England and Jackson Heights, the hub of New York’s South Asian immigrant community. As a long-haired suburban teenager in an Indian family in the eighties, he was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Jon Bonham and jazz-rock pioneer John McLaughlin. Meanwhile, he taught himself how to play tabla by sitting alone in his bedroom and listening to Zakir Hussain albums. While he was growing up, classical Indian music was something private for Kale, and the seemingly dissonant aspects of his musical vocabulary—rock, electronic, and classical Indian music—remained separate.
Kale moved to New York City in 1993 to attend NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he was able to feed his eclectic musical interests. Around the same time, he made his entrance on the New York DJ scene, and it was at this point that he began to fuse the splintered aspects of his musical and personal identity together, creating a unique sound that was representative of all his parts.
“I’m trying basically to explain who it is that I am,” Kale says. “And I exist in all of these different worlds, and I work with artists from all of these different worlds. When I come to work on my own solo work, all of it comes out at once. So it’s really about my own identity and hoping that people identify with that identity. Not just South Asians, but people around the world.”
Kale’s music is informed by past and present, and gives listeners a glimpse of the future of music and culture. It isn’t defined by rigid geographical locations, but rather transgresses borders of nationality, culture, and community. Perhaps for this reason, industry executives have decided to sell Kale’s music as “world music.” Unfortunately, that label often serves to place walls around artists like Kale and can prevent them from entering the mainstream. Kale is striving to bring his music out of the world music or electronica sections right now, by playing to audiences from Belgium to Dubai to Colorado.
“It’s not about India,” Kale explains, “nor is it about America—it’s about everywhere. I don’t really agree with the whole idea of ‘world music,’ because it’s basically ‘other music.’” “Basically, anything that’s not mainstream, not from America, and generally not English-speaking, goes to the world music section. If it’s a pop artist from England, it’ll be on the charts, but if it’s a pop artist from France, it’ll be in the world music section. That I don’t agree with. I think that it just keeps America’s view of art and music very insular, and doesn’t let people really open up on a general scale.”