“Grammy award winning music composer Ricky Kej speaks to Supriya Samuel of The Luxury Collection”
It was on February 8th, 2015, that the world got to experience the brilliance of one of the youngest Indian music composers, Ricky Kej as he created history by winning the award for the best new age album, ‘Winds of Samsara’ at the 57th Grammy Awards. I recall waking up the next morning to fi nd the front pages of all the newspapers in my house fl ooded with pictures of Kej. My musical instinct kicked in and made me immediately Google the artist and listen to his album. As I listened to the fi rst song in the album I fi rst thought it sounded like a very clear genre of fusion. But as the album kept on playing one song after another, the magic kept unraveling, revealing an amalgamation of different cultural infl uences and sounds. A rendition so clear that I couldn’t stop listening.
2 years later, and I found myself sitting in front of the man himself at his very own studio, speaking to him about all that he has experienced as a music composer both before and after winning the Grammy. Speaking of his early life and his introduction to music, Ricky Kej fondly remembers watching Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live, “I was 12 years old and watching him was an eye opening experience at that age. The kind of emotion he would bring to his music and his voice were both incredible. It was almost a spiritual and divine experience where it felt like I was being transported to a completely different world.” It was after watching Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that Kej became more convinced that music was his calling.
As a child, Ricky was always fascinated with sound, “My ears were more important than my eyes,” he says. “While my classmates were more interested in watching cartoons and television, I was more inclined to my music system and the cassette collection I took immense pride in.”
Things took a big turn for Ricky when he had to decide between music and a socially acceptable career. It wasn’t easy, especially since he came from a family with three generations of doctors. “I always wanted to pursue music but my parents thought I was completely crazy and after much debate and discussion with my father, we fi nally reached a compromise that I would get myself a degree in dental surgery and thereafter pursue whatever I wanted to do in my life.”
“I wasn’t afraid to pursue music professionally”
musicality,” he explains. Two years into the band and Kej moved on to becoming a full time music composer. He set up his own studio in Bangalore where he would spend hours composing music for radio jingles and TV commercials. “Making music my profession meant being my own boss and as rosy as it may seem, it can be very dangerous. I have often noticed people using their creativity as an excuse for their laziness. So I decided that I needed to discipline myself and be in the studio by 7:30 am and leave the studio only when I needed to have dinner.” Kej explains that this was the only way he could practice, sharpen his skill in music and give it the commitment it required.
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The Grammy award winning album, Winds of Samsara which brought together South African Flautist Wouter Kellerman and Kej, was inspired by two iconic personalities – Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. “I shared my compositions with him – while he added South African-ness to it, I added Indian-ness to his compositions. We then collaborated with musicians from all over the world and in 2 and half years the album was ready,” Kej shares.
“It’s the film industry which is going to be the main content creators when it comes to music in India.”
Even before I could ask him how he felt about it, in a matter of fact tone Kej said, “I am lucky I wasn’t afraid. I realized that if fear was my motivation then I would have pursued the path of a dentist, started my own practice and earned a living, but I would have never been truly passionate about my job. All I’d be thinking would be to get home and play music.”
After completing 4 years of dentistry, Kej played for a band called Angel Dust, a progressive rock band from Bangalore. “The band gave me the experience of playing live and working in a collaborative atmosphere where you need to respect each one’s decisions and Winds of Samsara is Kej’s 14th studio album. Unfortunately none of his earlier albums were released in India – the reason, India is a predominantly film music market. “By and large it’s the film industry which is going to be the main content creator when it comes to music in India.
Hence I realised that for my music, my audience is always going to be outside India.” Kej goes on to quote legends in Indian classical music such as Pandit Ravishankar & Zakir Hussain, who moved abroad to sell their music and make a living out of it. Kej has collaborated with both international and national musicians. He produced a benefit album titled “2 Unite All” with Peter Gabriel.
The album features Stewart Copeland, the drummer from the English rock band The Police, drummer Rick Allen of the English rock band Def Leppard, Serj Tankian, front man of American rock band System of a Down and Grammy Award-winning opera singer Sasha Cooke. “The album was created as a fund raiser for medical and surgical supplies for people affected in the Gaza & Middle-East conflict and all proceeds of the album went to the cause,” Kej says.
“Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi inspired me to dedicate my life and work towards the environment and continue to make music about that”
Kej has been often associated with environmental causes and events. He considers himself as not only a musician but also a passionate conservationist. After his Grammy win, he met with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. What he thought would be just a photo opportunity with the P.M., turned out to be an hour long philosophical discussion.
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“He inspired me to dedicate my life and work towards the environment and continue to make music about that.” For Kej that was just the push he needed to create yet another outstanding album titled ‘Shanti Samsara – World Music for Environmental Consciousness’ which was launched at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference by Prime Minister Modi himself.
“If I’m able to compose a song right up to the time I die, that for me is success.”
Kej has seen success at a young age and has been widely appreciated for the uniqueness and originality of his music. “If I’m able to compose a song right up to the time I die, that for me is success.” He explains that the primary purpose of an artist is not entertainment and that it is to make a difference in this world.
For aspiring artists, Kej’s advice – “You need to be far more hardworking than if you were in a traditional career path, you need to be an entrepreneur and learn how to present and market yourself, you need to be an all-rounder!”
How would you define luxury?
Anything that makes you stress free is luxurious. When Wouter Kellerman came to India, I took him to a coconut vendor whom I paid 30 Rupees. Later that day he posted on social media – ‘the ultimate luxury is having coconut water at half a dollar’ So for him, that was luxury.
A luxury item you can’t live without
For the amount I spend on my golden retriever, he will defi nitely be the luxury in my life I can’t live without.
Best travel experience
The trip I made to Los Angeles for the Grammys in 2015 was a special experience not just because I was nominated for a Grammy but also because I was sitting in the front row surrounded by legends of the music industry whom I grew up listening to.
Your most honest critic
I am very harsh on myself and a lot of scrutiny goes into the music I compose. Hence I consider myself to be my best and most honest critic.