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Aki Kumar
went to the
US to become
a software
But the boy
from Mumbai
ended up
making waves
as a bluesman
in California


Aki SingS
The BlueS

Y NEWEST discovery of a bluesman is a
34-year-old harmonica player and singer who
has been creating ripples – some of it still subterranean – in California’s Bay Area but whose
story began in Mumbai. Aki (full name: Akarsha) Kumar
was born in Mumbai and moved to the US only in 1998 when
he was 18, ostensibly to study like thousands of Indian students do. He became a software engineer in the US, again
like many young Indians who go to the US become. Those
Indians quickly fall in step with the pursuit of ‘the Great
American Dream’ and live the life of what we here call NRIs,
some of whom many of us saw waving at the cameras at a
particular event at the Madison Square Garden stadium not
long ago. Only, in Aki Kumar’s case, things took a deliciously interesting twist. He began playing the blues. First parttime and then, when his blues career began flourishing – he
started getting regular gigs – he turned full-time.
I discovered Kumar on a recent episode of the Bandana

Sanjoy Narayan

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Blues podcast, which I think is the best weekly blues podcast I have heard but more on that later. The song I heard on
the podcast was Mumbai Express, an original composition
by Kumar and an instrumental that seemed to be influenced
by Junior Parker’s famous blues standard from the 1950s,
Mystery Train. On Mumbai Express, a lively track, Kumar
shows how versatile he’s on the harmonica and has, as part
of his band, an accomplished guitarist, Kid Anderson. Interestingly, like Kumar, Anderson, a Norwegian, moved to the
US only in his early 20s. On Mumbai Express, the duo’s licks
complement each other perfectly.
After listening to a bluesman who’s named Aki Kumar
(the podcast didn’t spell out any details; for those, I had to
scour the Net, including Kumar’s Web page where you can
get a free track if you sign up, by the way), I had to explore
the bluesman’s oeuvre. The only full-length I found (besides
several videos on the Web) was Don’t Hold Back, an album
released earlier this year. On most of the 13 tracks, besides


Aki Kumar’s sound is easy-on-the-ear tenor; his lyrics, clear and well
pronounced. His album Don’t Hold Back, released earlier this year,
deserves a place in any blues fan’s collection

playing his harmonica, Kumar also sings (he has an easy-onthe-ear tenor and, what’s more, his lyrics are clear and well
pronounced). Kumar’s sound is closest to the Chicago style
of urban blues and on the album, besides Kid Anderson,
there are other excellent musicians – including guitarists
Jon Lawton, Johnny Cat Soubrand and Rusty Zinn; bassist
Vance Ehlers; and drummer June Core.
On the album, besides his three original compositions,
Kumar has covered other bluesmen’s songs, not all of them
very common – Hank Ballard’s Hoochie Coochie Coo and
Memphis Slim’s Wish Me Well are two of them. There’s a
Bollywood surprise too in the end when he sings (along
with Lisa Leuchner Anderson) Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh, a
Hindi film song of the 1960s originally sung
by Lata Mangeshkar. Kumar, my research on
the Web revealed, grew up in Mumbai listening to a mix of western and Indian music.
I’m guessing Bollywood music made up a lot
of his listening fare.
For a musician whose entry into the
acutely competitive blues scene in the US
has been fairly late, the fact that Kumar has
already made a splash in the West Coast area
is commendable. The videos on YouTube and
elsewhere (and there are plenty) of gigs in
various clubs are great to watch and the album deserves a
place in any blues fan’s collection. Here’s hoping he plays a
gig in India sometime soon.
Tailpiece: I mentioned the Bandana Blues podcast
where I heard Aki Kumar first. It’s a weekly podcast done by
two blues aficionados – Beardo (based in the US) and Spinner
(based in The Hague) – and each of its episodes is nearly two
hours long. It’s the most passionately put together podcast
I’ve come across and every installment has a selection of
musicians from the US and Europe that anybody who loves
the blues cannot afford to miss. Recently, on Show #564, the
range was stunning: from British 1960s’ band Cream (bassist
Jack Bruce had just died so it was appropriate) to Paul Rodgers to Frank Zappa to Larry Coryell, it was a delightful panoply of blues and blues rock. A bonus: it also had a track from
composer Carla Bley’s jazz opera, Escalator Over the Hill, on
which, incidentally, Jack Bruce also plays.
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NOVEMBER 9, 2014