Aki Kumar has taken half-century-old music from two countries and created something new.
The featured artist at next Tuesday’s Bluesdays at Palisades Tahoe merges Chicago blues from the 1950s and Indian movie soundtracks from the 1950s and ‘60s. He sings in both English and Hindi. Call it Bollywood blues.
A native of India, Kumar was 18 years old when he moved to California’s Silicon Valley. His life took another change years later upon discovering the music of Muddy Waters and amplified harmonica pioneer Little Walter.
“I had a day job as a software engineer forever,” Kumar told Tahoe Onstage. “I was in my mid-20s. The harmonica was very compelling to me. Unlike guitar and piano, it seemed mysterious. How do you get that kind of sound out of such a small instrument?”
Kumar took lessons from esteemed harmonica instructor David Barrett, and he attended Bay Area concerts fronted by harp players such as Mark Hummel, Gary Smith and Kim Wilson.
“I’ve always been an entertainer at heart so there was always a little bit of motivation to take what I was learning and make my way to the bandstand,” he said.
Getting hired as a blues harp player is as difficult as it is to find a free parking spot on Market Street, so Kumar started his own band. He played straight-ahead blues for more than 15 years.
“I kind of left my Indian side of my musical life behind and I needed to incorporate it,” he said. “The most formative years of my life growing up in India I wasn’t listening to any blues. I had no idea this genre existed. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. I grew up listening to everything from super traditional music to Indian spiritual music to more commercial Bollywood music to Mozart and Beethoven to Stevie Wonder. It was a wide range of musical influences. The retro songs from Bollywood music in the ‘50s and ‘60s, these are considered classics in India.
“What I have now is a unique kind of a fusion where I am able to take older Indian songs and present them with my blues band in a very blues influenced way.”
Kumar’s unique sound has brought a new demographic to blues venues.
Hummel, who played Bluesdays earlier this summer, is amazed with what Kumar has done.
“He’s attracted a ton of Indian people coming to his gigs when he plays around here and the other thing that’s really impressive is he brought a lot of young people into the fold,” Hummel said. “I see these young pretty girls at his gigs and their just Aki crazy. I haven’t seen anybody else do that. Besides being a great harmonica player, he’s moved into this area that nobody’s really touched.”
Ever since the 1980s when Stevie Ray Vaughan put blues in the mainstream, fans have coveted more crossover artists.
“Every single blues artist tries to bring something new to the table and not new in a frivolous way but new in a truly authentic way to represent and reflect their own personality,” Kumar said. “If everybody does that, I think we will have many Stevie Rays and we’re going to have a great resurgence in blues.”
Kumar’s songs have the potential to reach a lot of listeners, considering English and Hindi are the third and fourth most-spoken languages in the world.
Kumar has three albums: “Aki Goes to Bollywood” (2016), “Hindi Man Blues” (2018) and “Dilruba,” which was released by the Sony Music India label in 2020.
Tuesday’s appearance will be Kumar’s first in the Tahoe area. The closest he’s come was at Folsom’s Powerhouse Pub and Grass Valley.
Kumar will be joined on Palisades Tahoe’s new stage by Vance Ehlers, who has played bass in the band for almost a decade, June Core, a former longtime member of Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and a rising young guitarist, Rome Yamilov, who Kumar says is adept at playing in the early Muddy Waters style.
“That had so much interplay with guitar and harmonica,” Kumar said. “It takes somebody with a very good ear and a good musical sensibility to play that part. It’s very hard to find a good guitar player who can do that.”
The Village at Palisades Tahoe audience, which has been joyous and enthusiastic this summer, undoubtedly will remain ebullient on Tuesday.
“As performers come, he’s a rarity,” Hummel said. “He’s one of the most stage-natural musicians that I’ve met. He’s got a great demeanor onstage. He’s very witty onstage. He’s a natural.”
“I should hire Mark as my publicist,” Kumar said.
Village at Palisades
6-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays
- Aug. 2: Aki Kumar
- Aug. 9: J.C. Smith
- Aug. 16: Studebaker John & The Hawks
- Aug. 23: Eddie 9V
- Aug. 30: Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings