NW Live Arts is delighted to introduce their new patron, Kuljit Bhamra. In this feature, NW Live Arts Artistic Director Caroline Heslop talks to Kuljit about his past musical achievements and hopes for the future of NW Live Arts.

Caroline Heslop: So Kuljit, we’re aware of the impact that you have made and continue to make, as a pioneering musician. Please tell us a bit more about your history and key moments for you in your work.

Kuljit Bhamra: Sure. Well, I wouldn’t describe myself as a pioneering musician – I’ll leave that for others to do! I started off life in a very strict Indian family in England, and my father always wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer and eventually I did become a civil engineer. I worked for Richmond Council for a while as assistant highway engineer, designing speed humps, but I always had a dream to play music professionally. I played tabla and as a young six-year-old boy, I used to accompany my mother on stage. It took quite a long time for the moment to hit me, where at a crossroads in my life I thought ‘you know what, I’m gonna hand in my notice and go into music full-time.’ Since that time, I’ve never really looked back. I already had made records that had become very successful, so people in the Indian community, the Punjabi community mainly, would know me as a pioneer of Bhangra music. Again, I wasn’t really a pioneer of anything, I was just enjoying fiddling around making music but many of those records became hugely successful and John Peel actually used to play a lot of my stuff on the radio.

So I opened a little recording studio and soon after that, in 2002, I got a booking from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company to be in a show. I’d never seen a show before and I’d never been to a West End Musical, so it was only when I got into rehearsals for Bombay Dreams that I realised it wasn’t one show that they were booking me for; it was many shows! I ended up being in Bombay Dreams for two years. I think what was really important for me to learn and sort of suited my personality of being very curious about things and also being very – I don’t know how to say this – happy to be alive. I think life is a miracle, and so I am always looking for ways to remind people of that, and remind myself of that, and I think music for me has become one of those vehicles.

Anyway, being in Bombay Dreams, the production company said to me ‘you need to find people who can step in for you when you can’t do the show – many shows have been running for twenty or twenty-five years’. The focus for Indian musicians is on making themselves indispensable, whereas in a show in the West End, you have to be replaceable. That was a brand new idea for me and it made me realise there wasn’t a way to score tabla music in a universally recognised manner. I also realised that people didn’t really know about the tabla or about Indian music, in spite of Sgt Pepper,The Beatles and Ravi Shankar; there still weren’t more non-Indian people playing Indian instruments, and so I began to try to understand what it was that was stopping people from doing that. I think the highlights of my life definitely include doing that show.

Onstage in Bombay Dreams

And then I think the next highlights were performing in film soundtracks. I began to be booked by Hollywood film producers, and also British ones, to play tabla in film scores and it made me realise that what people want from the tabla is the sound. So then I began to focus on being more of a sound merchant, which again sparked my curiosity and kept me still working on the tabla notation.

And then I think the final highlight in that sort of chapter of my life was receiving an MBE, which was mind-blowing, I have to say. Having been someone who caught polio at a very early age and I suffered a bit of abuse for that and then getting a job that my father really wanted for me and then leaving that job to choose something that my father thought was absolutely bonkers and then getting an MBE for that, was a real – it was just somebody saying to me, ‘you’re on the right track.’ So, yeah, I’ve had many joys and experiences – but those are the real highlights.

CH: Was your father pleased when you got the two-year job in Bombay Dreams? Did he think ‘oh, at least he’s got a regular job now?’

KB: Yeah, my father – he’s still very wonderful – he’s an engineer, so you know, when I’m sitting in my recording studio twiddling knobs and moving faders, he has no idea what I’m doing. But when I go out to a gig, he understands that because I’ve gone out to go to work, and then I come back. I think getting MBE was the real validation there. The amusing thing is that shortly after being honoured with an MBE, I was awarded an honorary doctorate from Exeter University so my father could finally say ‘my son’s a doctor!’ So anyway, he’s very proud of me now. He knows that I must be good at what I’m doing, because the Queen says I am!

CH: Very interesting how influential our parents are! So, perhaps just thinking back to 2018 which was when you and I met, you played in our first concert – I’d really love to know why you agreed to play with us in the first place.

KB: Well, there are a few reasons actually why I liked the idea of playing with NW Live. First of all, the company name has got the word ‘Live’ in it. I strongly believe that music is best live. Also, when I went to watch classical concerts at the Southbank or the Royal Albert Hall, I noticed that there was a very strong division between the audience and the performers. In an Indian music setting, it’s a very intimate process- when the musicians are performing, the audience members are participating in that. What attracts me about NW Live is the idea of taking music out to people, to the point that it’s nearly interactive – people are so close that they get the pure energy of the music and the performers feed off of that. And then there’s music that has unusual line-ups of instruments.

Also I thought, here’s an opportunity to have tabla music with a string quartet. Rather than a mix, it’s more likely to be something completely new. I love the overall selection of music of the NW Live programmes: ‘classical’ music – what people would expect classical music to be; and then other types of music such as tabla or kora music, which then come together. I can see the opportunity for me to bring my tablas into an environment where it’s no longer Indian, it’s just a bongo drum that makes a really nice sound. Other historically geolocated instruments – piano, guitar, marimba – have somehow transcended the boundary of their origins, but Indian music hasn’t really yet. We’re still obsessed with this East-meets-West idea, and I don’t think it does anyone any favours. East met West 200 years ago!

CH: So that really leads me to Keda music; tell us a little bit about what you’re doing there.

KB: I formed a company 5 years ago called Keda Music and myself and my partners Phil and Graham are working very strongly to make Indian drumming more accessible to everybody. Our mission really is to democratise Indian drumming and somehow remove that ‘mystique’ that’s still pervasive. Our tabla score notation is now fully developed and it’s reached a stage where we are being used in schools and organisations including the Purcell School and ‘Sound and Music’. We’re also working on making an electronic tabla! So yeah, I’m knocking down boundaries with Keda music.

Tabla takeover at the Royal Festival Hall

CH: So you’ve kind of said it, but can you say what it means to you to be a musician?

KB: For me, to be a musician is a real privilege, and an honour. So I feel blessed that I have been given these skills and to be a musician is a real honour and a privilege, to be able somehow to funnel that energy, whatever it is, and then engage with an audience inside of that energy.

CH: Thank you so much Kuljit. In the course of this conversation, I’ve thought of lots of projects I would like to develop! For instance, it’d be wonderful to do something with your community of tabla students.

KB: Well, and don’t see this as me hitting the eject button, but I would be delighted if I was replaced by one of my tabla students! Say for example that beautiful piece that you wrote last time. If someone else, perhaps one of my tabla students, could play that piece, it would be a real indication of how the notation is working well, and would show exactly the power of what you’re doing with NW Live.

NW Live Arts looks forward to Music & Renewal at 7:30pm on December 11th (in person) and 16th (online), which will feature Kuljit as both performer and composer! Find out more.