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Johnny Kalsi, frontman of London-based outfit The Dhol Foundation, on racism, finding refuge in music and his upcoming debut gig in Delhi.
Back in the early '80s, on several evenings, a young Johnny Kalsi would come back home from school with his turban in his hand. The rampant racism against Indians in the UK at the time, he says, made him seek solace and revenge in music. "Abuses were hurled at us, and we were often picked on," he recalls. This period, however, led to an underground music movement that gave rise to a new genre — crossover — where Indian tunes mixed with electronica of the West.
If Nitin Sawhney was dabbling in Indian classical music at that time and Talvin Singh was busy with bass, Kalsi brought the dhol to the fore. Come February, his group, The Dhol Foundation, will have its debut performance in Delhi during the Fly Music Festival.
"My father has many cousins and so naturally, I have attended many weddings as a child. It was at all the ladies' sangeet functions where I saw my uncles playing the dhol and I just picked it up from there. I have no formal training as such," he says over the phone from London. Talking about his influences, Kalsi says that while growing up, he was exposed to the sur-taal of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and also high-energy Punjabi music, and was a fan of bands such as Led Zeppelin and Duran Duran. "Experimenting with these two extremes was the most natural phenomenon," says Kalsi, who is in his mid-forties.
After picking up the beats of the traditional Punjabi instrument, Kalsi joined a dhol band called Alaap in the late '80s, but after a few hundred music revellers requested him to teach how to play the dhol, he formed The Dhol Foundation — a music outfit as well as teaching group. "I had to create a syllabus for dhol since it doesn't have one traditionally," says Kalsi. After opening 14 institutes across the UK and teaching thousands, Kalsi is now a name to reckon with. "As children, when we used to go to India, our friends in the UK would ask us to bring back carrom boards. Later, they started asking for dhols," he says with a laugh.