This Thursday, Aki Kumar brings his distinct flavor of blues to the SoFa Block Party in downtown San Jose. Kumar’s music is a unique blend of Bollywood-style vocals with blues instrumentation and rhythm. It is also uniquely Aki Kumar.
The music Kumar creates comes from “20 years of investment in traditional blues and almost 20 years of growing up in India,” he said. “This is a unique thing coming out of my cultural story.”
Kumar’s innovative Bollywood blues style has seen him reach great success in the Bay Area. Like all musicians, Kumar struggled during the pandemic, though he seems poised to swiftly bounce back. His last album, 2020’s Dilruba, was released in the first months of the pandemic, which stunted its reach. But this week, he has a gig booked nearly every day, including the Block Party.
Kumar says he’s always loved the blues. Something about its rhythmic richness and soulful expression spoke to him in a way he finds hard to describe. The significance of the genre as a mode of storytelling and expression in the Black community in the U.S. also had an impact on him.
“As I got more and more invested in it, just the nature of blues rhythm and blues as an art form and what it has meant to African American culture over centuries, that started to draw me in as well,” he says.
Kumar originally moved from Mumbai to attend San Jose State University. Once here, he began frequenting blues clubs and immersing himself in the vibrant blues scene of the Bay Area. One of his most memorable experiences was watching a performance by Mark Hummel, a renowned figure in the West Coast blues scene, at the Ivy Room. The raw, traditional blues sound captivated him.
Though Kumar has always been musically inclined, it wasn’t until he was in San Jose and working for Adobe that he started to think of his musicianship in a serious way.
“I never actually had the time or the resources to do that until I was in my mid-20s and I had a job that could pay for music lessons,” he says.
The moment when Bollywood met the blues in his own music, he says, was the kind that every artist hopes for—when “something that you haven’t consciously been working on, but maybe subconsciously” finally clicks.
“It literally happened in the shower,” Kumar says (a “Eureka” moment in true Archimedes fashion.)
With the release of his debut blues album in 2014, Don’t Hold Back, he decided to include one Bollywood-style track, the last song of the album. He was curious to see if the more traditional blues lovers would be amenable to the experimentation.
“I got nothing but positive feedback,” he says.
Since, he’s released a total of five studio albums with another currently in the works. This one will include lyrics in Marathi—a language predominantly spoken in the state of Maharashtra—as well as verses in Hindi and English.
Part of his drive towards this kind of multicultural musical expression, he says, was seeing the rise of “Trumpism” in the mid 2010s.
“I decided that I’m going to just represent, just come out and represent my cultural identity,” Kumar says. “That’s also fueled the drive for Bollywood.”
Despite being an unlikely combination, there are certain musical aspects that both blues and Bollywood music share. Bollywood itself is already a fusion.
“Often in Bollywood, you’d find Indian melodies based on Indian scales, but with a rock ’n’ roll rhythm,” Kumar explains. “There’s also the microtonality of Indian music and melodies that you can find in blues.”
Microtonality refers to tonal intervals smaller than the customary Western scale of twelve notes per octave. As Kumar points out, “what is [considered] a note is also very cultural.” While microtonality is characteristic of musical traditions across Asia and Africa, there’s also “a lot of that in blues folk singing,” Kumar explains. “And I love that.”
For his performance on Thursday, Kumar says he’ll perform “whatever the audience demands.” From a Muddy Waters cover to original Bollywood blues in Hindi and even some reggae, Kumar assures us we can “expect a lot of different things at the block party.”
SoFA Block Party
Thu, 5:30pm, Free
SoFA District, San Jose