“Music is not an embellishment, it is an essential part of life," says Kuljit Bhamra. “There’s always bottlenecks of words and thoughts for me. But when I play my drums or I’m composing, it’s in a world where words don’t exist—if I could, I would play to you now rather than talk.”
Kenyan-born, London-raised, Bhamra is the great pioneer of the British bhangra sound; across almost five decades, his work as a producer and musician has led to collaborations as diverse as live performances with the BBC concert orchestra, and recordings with Ringo Starr, the jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard and the Sugababes. But it is when playing the tabla that he feels at his most articulate—he describes the instrument as his "voicebox" and playing it as something akin to “carrying on a conversation”.
Self-taught from the age of six, Bhamra, now 53, came of age in time for the emergence of the bhangra sound in the 1980s, delighting in its melding of traditional Punjabi intonation and western rock. Yet he maintains that musically his heart is not always dancing. “Bhangra is playful,” he says, “but I’ve got a dark, melancholic side to me. I don’t like major keys, I like minor keys, and I think deep down there’s a real sadness I’ve always had."
Others sometimes suggest his melancholy disposition might be due to having contracted polio at the age of one, and needing a leg brace ever since. “But I’m not really sad about my leg," he insists. "Because I’ve never run, I don’t know what it’s like not to have that, and I’m not in any pain. I think my sadness is that life’s amazing but it’s so short. I want to see everything, but there’s not enough time. We’re really such a small event in the life of the planet. We’re like a burp! Not even that. Maybe a hiccup! I find that amazing and glorious and precious, but at the same time deep down I find it sad.”
His current passion is a long-cherished project of a Bollywood Christmas album, complete with comedy sketches and Punjabi pastiches of famous carols. "I’ve done it because I need to do it,” he says gleefully, “and because it’s got everything of me in it—the serious music and the comedy side.” He is also working with the BBC to produce a Bollywood “Carmen”, scheduled for May 2013. “That’s really, really challenging,” he says. “If you think about arias like ‘Toreador’ or ‘Habanera’, they don’t lend themselves to Indian melodic structures—although in theory you could say, in terms of sound, Spanish music and Indian music come from the same palette."
Bhamra’s personal palette is cool. “I had my colours read a few years ago," he explains, "and she said I was a ‘winter’—which I think means I’m a blue-based person.” So he was startled but delighted by how at home he felt in this grey cashmere suit and fuchsia shirt—and was particularly surprised by the success of the mustardy tie. "Yellow,” he explains, “usually makes me look ill." Does he see colour when he composes, like a synaesthete? “I know some people who do," he says. “I don’t see colour in my music, but I do see the process as like painting—painting with emotion and sound.”
Grey three-piece 100% cashmere suit, £4,890, by Ermenegildo Zegna Couture; magenta cotton shirt, £125, by Timothy Everest; purple silk pocket square, £45, by Gieves & Hawkes; silk tie, £105, by Etro; embossed cane, £50, by Classic Canes; 51-30 PU watch, £340, by Nixon; shoes, model’s own.
STOCKISTS zegna.com timothyeverest.co.uk gievesandhawkes.com etro.com classiccanes.co.uk nixon.com