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music

What America Sounds Like
The music of Aki Kumar and Aireene Espiritu
By Priya Das

T

alent “that wouldn’t otherwise be
heard” is what Jim Pugh, founder
of Little Village Foundation, looks
for and then goes about promoting. “It’s
like pebbles on the beach. You pick up
one and it’s beautiful, but when you hold
four together the commonality emerges.
It’s breathtaking, and the bigger picture of
what America really sounds like leaps out
at you,” he says on his blog.
Every year, Village promotes a few
hitherto unknown artists—this year features two South Asians, Aki Kumar and
Aireene Espiritu.
Kumar gave up a career in software to
create a music genre which Pugh called
“Muddy meets Mumbai,” singing 1960s
Bollywood songs in blues or jazz tones.
The album has popular Hindi numbers
such as “Jaanu Meri Jaan,” “Badan Pe Sitaare,” “Baar Baar Dekho,” and “Chala Jaata
Hoon.” They sound different, rendered
in Kumar’s voice that has an American
country twang. While non-Indian audiences have been appreciating these, what’s
more interesting is Aki’s take on the blues.
In “Home is Prison” and “Going to Bombay,” Kumar certainly sounds more in
his own groove and one hopes that he
commits to this sub-genre in the future,
perhaps singing them in Hindi.
I asked Kumar a few questions about
his music.
IC: Why the blues?
AK: I didn’t find the blues, the blues
found me. If you talk to any real blues
lover, they will tell you that there is something so compelling and undeniable about
this music that you have no choice but to
fall in love with it. The same happened
to me. My journey into the blues was
through American Rock ’n‘ Roll—mostly
music from the 50s and 60s—which I took
a strong liking to in my late teens.
IC: Do you consider Bollywood from 195060 to be “Blueswood?”
44 | INDIA CURRENTS | West Coast Edition | June 2016

5 to full time musician?
AK: When I started dabbling in the
blues harmonica, it was nothing more
than a hobby. I would occasionally play
with my colleagues or friends who were
just looking to get together and have
fun. As time went on, I improved as a
musician and a performer. I found myself
collaborating with many local blues musicians, attending jams and even performing my own shows. I was leading a very
fulfilling but sometimes strenuous double
life—software engineer during the day,
blues musician at night. In the last few
years, especially, it became very obvious
that I had a true passion for the blues and
that if I didn’t pursue it wholeheartedly, I
would be denying myself the opportunity
of a lifetime.

P

Aki Kumar

AK: Haha, not “Blueswood” in the
pure sense but, yes. If you listen to Bollywood music from the era, you will find
that blues, swing, jazz, Rock ’n‘ Roll had a
huge influence on it. I suppose those Bollywood music directors and artists were
just trying to stay hip and keep up with
musical trends in the West.
IC: Who has been your favorite audience—city and profile/ethnicity?
AK: That is very tough to say, because
I have had a great time performing all over
the world to some incredibly loving and
receptive audiences. I recently wrapped up
a short tour of Finland with Chicago blues
guitarist Rockin’ Johnny and I must say I
had such a good time performing to the
blues lovin’ crowds there that I’m eager to
go back again, soon!
IC: How did you make the jump from 9 to

hilippines originated Espiritu, on the
other hand, has always been on the
move—she literally lives out of her car.
Pugh was reminded of the reigning blues
queen Sugar Pie DeSanto (who is part
Filipino) and doing a tribute was the original idea behind the album “Back Where I
Belong.” However, it became much more
than that, encompassing Espiritu’s whole
style, which in her own words, is an “umbrella of Americana—a mix of country,
blues, bluegrass, gospel, and folk,” and
some Filipino folk songs. I asked Espiritu
about her musical journey.
IC: How would you describe your own
discovery of a musical identity?
AE: I remember the first time I became obsessed with a song. I was 10.
Shortly after we moved to the United
States, we lived with my aunt and her family for a couple of years. I found a cassette
tape in their basement and put it on out of
curiosity. The first song played and I found
myself playing it over and over. I would
think about the song during the day, the

different layers, simultaneous notes
and looked forward to coming home
to repeat play again. The song was
Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” I
knew then that I wanted to play
music.
IC: The album has some Filipino
tracks: How did that come about?
AE: At family gatherings, my
uncles, aunts, mom, would sing and
dance. I never sang along, just enjoyed watching everyone and listening. I thought someday I’d like to
record them playing these Filipino
songs. “Bayan Ko” (My Country) is
a patriotic song about yearning to be free.
“Oras Na” (It’s Time) is about conquering
fear and following your heart. “Dukha”
(Poor) is about being poor.
IC: Do you visit the Philippines often,
what do you seek in those visits?
AE: I try to go almost every year
ever since my grandmother moved back
in 2009. She’s in her 90s so time is precious. I love going to the province where
she lives, disconnected to technology and
just “be.” Up until last year there was no
internet, no cell phone service. So my fam-

2015 would be the year I’d settle
down, but the year came and went
and I never felt the longing to have
my own place again. I like spending
time with friends in different places
and meeting new ones, collecting their
stories, visiting new places, landscapes,
and cultures. On the flip side, it’s also
exhausting constantly planning schedules, loading and unloading my things
which includes my kitchen, instruments, office, clothes. Still, the pluses
outweigh the minuses and I wouldn’t
trade my experiences for anything. I
imagine eventually I’ll want a place
again, but I don’t see it anytime soon.

Aireene Espiritu

ily hang out in the living room and share
stories of growing up in the province. We
would wake up at 4 a.m. and wait for the
man on a bicycle to pass through town
with freshly baked hot pan de sal (Filipino
bread), have meriendas (snacks, appetizers, desserts). Family, food, and stories.
That’s what I look forward to.
IC: Would you rather continue living the
life of a traveler—does that provide the canvas
or the colors for your music?
AE: For now, yes, I prefer to be traveling. Last year I told myself that maybe

n
Kumar and Espiritu will play at the The
Freight & Salvage, Berkeley, on June 9. The
albums are set for release on July 15. More
info at thefreight.org and littlevillagefoundation.com/
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world
music and avidly tracks intersecting points
between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

June 2016| West Coast Edition | www.indiacurrents.com | 45