Friday, 7 February 2014

One Man and His Dhol: Interview with TDF's Johnny Kalsi

Image courtesy of Asian Arts Agency
The Dhol Foundation are a group of drummers known for their very loud music. Their beats have a wide appeal and always get everyone on their feet dancing. I was lucky enough to get the TDF experience when the Asian Arts Agency got them to play in Bristol. An old Greek Revival style church seemed an unusual venue for a TDF gig, but no more unusual than other places they have played at including the Olympic Stadium, WOMAD and the Singapore Grand Prix.

After the concert, I caught up with the band's main man Johnny Kalsi.

Why is the dhol so appealing, both as an instrument to play and to watch?
I think it's the dominance, the loudness and the sheer power of the instrument that makes it appealing. I think kids love to make noise, like with a wooden spoon on a patila (pan), that's quite appealing to kids. That didn't go away from my head. I wanted to bang things, so I knew I was going to be a percussionist. My parents were Gurdwara goers where the tabla came first. I then went the obvious route of kirtan. I then took it down another path altogether. The dance element was in my blood for some years and I never let that go.

Out of all the people on stage with you, just one was a woman and she was playing the violin. Why do you think that dhol playing is such a dominant male dominated thing?
I did try and change this. I did try and get lots and lots of girls involved in playing dhol. I don't have any issues of girls playing dhol, I don't discriminate in any way shape or form. If any of them wants to pursue it and maintain it, it would be great. But the problem is their parents won't allow them to play on stage unless it's with a big ensemble. Unfortunately that's probably the only reason that there are no lady dhol players in the band. Plus we tour abroad, there are not many girls that would be allowed to come away with us.

Surely the issue isn’t about touring abroad, it’s just the men she's hanging out with?!

No! It's the parents! They wouldn't allow it. If my daughter was planning on going away for a couple of weeks with a band to play the dhol I would be unsure about it. There would be an element of I'm coming with you!

Image courtesy of Asian Arts Agency
What was it like closing the Olympics? Can anything beat that?
That it was a really special moment. Our dressing room was in the stadium and we were sharing a space with Stomp. It was quite an amazing experience to be there and to soak it all in. I don't think there's anything that can top 80,000 eyes on you at the same time plus 4.2 billion people around the world. It's just incredible, a really incredible moment to actually be in the middle of the stadium as well, not just playing around the outside and to be recognised.

You were part of the Drumming Ensemble at the 2011 Royal Variety Performance. How did you go about putting that together - it was spectacular!

I’ve met Luke, who looks after Stomp, before and we got together to do this project. It was really special to be able to do something like that. But we had to demonstrate our what our capabilities were and what we could do. I can only describe it as layers really, just adding layers to the whole thing. The actual physical act of putting it all together and remembering the choreography was just as important as remembering what were going to play.

Your shows are visual as well as aural. Who choreographs your dancing?

Back in the day, I just used to do these moves to the music because I write all the music and I know all the music. I like moving in a particular way. The band members just started copying me until all the members were doing the same thing. People watching the stage performance said that looks really good, because we were doing it all together. Then it turned into right we're going to choreograph this: we're going to do that in this song, we’re going to do this in that song. They just know it off by heart now, it's amazing.

During the interview Johnny whipped out his phone and proudly showed me who he had met at the Singapore Grand Prix!
It seems that you have played with everyone and done everything. Is there anything left to accomplish ?
I would really like to appear in some big pop artist’s video. Apart from Justin Bieber, not his! Am I allowed to say that?! I really like Ne-Yo. He is an amazing, incredible artist and I think that he's got a real passion about his music. When he sings he becomes the music. Whatever he does it's just amazing, I think it's great.

Another famous Desi drummer Talvin Singh modified his instrument by sticking a microphone in. How did you modify the dhol?

Most of our dhols are straight barrel dhols. I invented those dhols back in the early 80s and people looked at me and said what's that? I said it's dhol and they said it hasn't got that dome shape! I did a bit of research and you don't need that dome shape on the dhol. I put mics inside it to make it easier and more audible when you're playing big stadiums. Then the shops caught on and they started doing the same. Kids used to go into shops saying I want a dhol like Johnny Kalsi's. So they started doing straight barrel dhols.

The dhol is a bhangra instrument. Why did you feel the need to take it out of the bhangra genre?

I jumped out of Alaap and I jumped into world music bands. Asian Dub Foundation was one of my old bands. Fun-Da-Mental, Trans-Global Underground, Natacha Atlas are all my old bands. They were all the stepping stones and finally Afro Celt Sound System. At the time they were the biggest world music band on Peter Gabriel's label and it went from strength to strength. I was on all the albums it was just an amazing experience to be able to do something like that. I’m still in the band, I'm touring again this year and I love whatever we do and I bring those influences with The Dhol Foundation and they love what we do.

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