India's new age Grammy

Meet Bangalore boy Ricky Kej, who’s won the Grammy for best new age album

  • Published 12.02.15
Ricky Kej (left) and South African flutist Wouter Kellerman with the Grammy for Best New Age Album (Winds Of Samsara) in Los Angeles

It is not frustrating for me that people in India are not exposed to my music,” Ricky Kej told t2 a day after winning (with South African flutist Wouter Kellerman) the Best New Age Album Grammy for Winds Of Samsara in Los Angeles. The Bangalore-based musician has been around for more than a decade but somehow radio and TV stations in India don’t play his music often. All that will hopefully change even though the 33-year-old is not thinking about it.
Here’s more from the music composer-producer….

You are arriving from Los Angeles with a Grammy!
The Grammy you get on the day is a dummy but the actual Grammy is sent to your home. So I won’t be leaving LA with the Grammy. It will be sent to Bangalore. This is done because sometimes an award is shared and all the names need to be engraved on the Grammy. 

Has the feeling sunk in?
The feeling hasn’t sunk in at all. It’s a very surreal experience; I feel like I am in a dream or something. Getting a Grammy… or even getting nominated… had always seemed like an unattainable dream. Right now it feels very overwhelming. 

What was it like being among the best musicians in the world?
Being seated in the auditorium (Staples Center in Los Angeles) with all these people was overwhelming. When I was nominated, I felt very excited; that was an unreal experience. Everything came together when I actually walked the red carpet and sat in the auditorium with all these legends… musicians I have admired all my life. Once there, I started feeling the magnitude of what I was getting into. When I won the Grammy I was taken backstage for press interviews and stuff like that. The very first person to congratulate me was Hans Zimmer. I love him and he congratulated me. That was amazing. 

She (his wife Varsha) has been a part of the journey ever since the cutting of the album (Winds Of Samsara), the mixing process, promotions... she is very much a part of the album

In what ways will life change with this Grammy win?
I am sure life will change in a lot of ways but what won’t change is my constant endeavour to make music. I have always believed that music has to come from the heart; it has to be created as an extension of one’s self and emotions. And it should not be dictated because music is a form of art. For example, when Sam Smith won the Grammy, he thanked his ex-boyfriend, saying that if he hadn’t broken up with him (Sam), the album (In The Lonely Hour) wouldn’t have been recorded. A romantic failure inspired him to write the album; he didn’t write it because a director of a movie had asked him to write it. A director didn’t come and tell him that he has to write a song for a hero and a heroine and he would choose the playback singer…. 
When you are a musician in India, the first question that’s asked is “which film you have done music for”. For a singer it’s “which films have you sung for”. Why can’t singers start singing from their heart about things that have happened to them personally? That’s the kind of music I want to make –– something that’s an extension of myself and something that I believe in. 
During this trip there have been lots of meetings and talks of collaborations. These are humbling moments. Hopefully, the talks will continue. 

Any live performances you enjoyed during the Grammy Awards?
My favourite was the Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige performance (of Stay With Me). It was beautifully done and Sam Smith has such an amazing voice. As a spectacle, Madonna’s performance was a visual treat. It was spectacular.
What was the starting point for Winds Of Samsara?
We had mutual admiration for our respective Father of the Nation. Wouter (Kellerman) being from South Africa, he respects Nelson Mandela. And being from India, I admire Mahatma Gandhi. Then there is the fact that Gandhi lived in South Africa and Mandela had a soft corner for India. We really bonded on this aspect and worked together on two songs… slowly more compositions came along, influenced by these two great men. In about two years we had an album ready. We worked really, really hard on the album and brought it to a point where both of us were in love with our work. Now when I listen to the album, I love the music and the way the album has turned out. With the Grammy, more people agree with me that the album is great (laughs). 

Do you ever feel frustrated that having made music for several years and with so many albums to your name, not many people in India have heard your music?
Being a musician, I believe in making music that I feel from the heart without any compromise. My music will never get played on radio and television in India because it is not Bollywood music. I have to sell my music and entertain my audiences wherever they are. Since my music is very successful in the US, I will entertain audiences there. Even after Winds Of Samsara has won a Grammy, not a single radio station in India is playing my music. In the US Winds Of Samsara was number one on the radio charts and number one on the Billboard charts. It is not frustrating for me that people in India are not exposed to my music.

Musically, how have you evolved?
I would love to think that with every passing year or month I am getting better at what I do. When I made this album, I thought it was my best because every album has to be better than the previous. Also, this album is the culmination of my entire life in music. It’s not just technical details that go into the making of an album. It’s also real-life experiences. In the two years of making the album, all my life experiences have found a place. The album represents an evolution of myself in music. 

Have you started work on your next album?
I haven’t started on my next album but I have been talking with Wouter about it. We hope to finish the album by 2017. Since the album’s (Winds Of Samsara) release in July 2014, we have been in touch over the phone and constantly discussing ideas. There will come a moment when automatically the songs would start coming out and it would be the beginning of an album. 

You wanted to be a dentist? Is that correct? 
Well, I never wanted to be a dentist; it was never my intention. My parents were very worried when I told them I wanted to make a career out of music. After a lot of arguments, I had to make a deal with my father that I would do my dental degree and once I get the degree, I could do whatever I wanted. I had to honour the commitment and as soon as I finished the degree, I got into music... full-time. I didn’t practice for a single day.

You were born in the US but your family moved to India when you were seven-eight years old. Why?
I don’t exactly know the reason but I guess they wanted to raise my brother and me in India. Work often takes me to the US. Whenever I go to the US, I enjoy the first four-five days –– the food, the general ambience –– but after that I start missing Indian food. If you’re truly an Indian, it gets very difficult to live anywhere else. I guess my parents felt the same way. 

So, no plans to shift base….
I will continue to travel to the US but I will never settle down there because India is my home.

What’s on your to-do list after reaching India?
My first priority is to reach Bangalore. Honestly speaking, I wasn’t expecting a win and was very, very happy with the nomination. Now that I have won, I have to figure out what I need to do. I will sleep for sometime. I haven’t slept much in the last couple of days. Second, I need to answer all the messages that have been coming in on the phone, email and Twitter. 

Do you get to interact with musicians from Bengal?
The late Manna Dey used to live in Bangalore. I had a couple of interactions with him and that was a huge honour. But I never got to work with him. 

What are you listening to now?
Today, for some reason, I was listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s album Night Song.

Which was the first album you bought or enjoyed?
One of the early musicians I listened to was Michael Jackson, like most people in India. I guess it was his Thriller.… I kept listening to it again and again.

Finally, what has your wife (Varsha) got to say about the win?
She has been a part of the journey ever since the cutting of the album, the mixing process, promotions... she is very much a part of the album.

Meet Ricky Kej
Age: 33
Lives in: Bangalore
Achievement: Grammy for Best New Age Album for Winds Of Samsara, recorded with South African flutist Wouter Kellerman
On his CV: He has 12 albums to his credit and had composed music for the opening ceremony of Cricket World Cup 2011. He was nominated for a Cannes advertising award for his Nike jingle, and his previous album, Shanti Orchestra, was nominated for ZMR Award (New Orleans) and Hollywood Music in Media Awards. He runs Raveolution Studios in Bangalore where much of Winds Of Samsara was developed.
If not a music composer-producer: He would have been a dentist!

Mathures Paul
What is your message for Ricky Kej? Tell