BACK IN 1980, when only the rare Western musician showed up to perform in India, the little-known The Time & Talents Club in Bombay, made up mostly of Parsi women, managed a coup. They got The Police, a top British rock band of that period, to perform at a fundraising concert at Rang Bhavan, an open theatre. Billed as Mumbai’s first foreign rock concert, the trio of Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers made the concert the most talked about event of that period. A YouTube video of that concert shows the excitement of that moment, of policemen and middle-aged Parsi women standing guard, as large crowds, made up of mostly men dressed in the staid clothes of that era, thrash their heads, even while the occasional face looks on as if to ask what the fuss is all about.
The musician Ricky Kej, son of a Marwari and Punjabi couple, wasn’t born then. That would happen a year later in the US, but according to reports, he grew up listening to accounts of that concert from his father. By the time the family relocated to Bengaluru, the eight-year-old Kej, already a fan of the band’s music, especially its drummer Copeland, had posters of The Police up on his bedroom walls. Kej has now won a Grammy, a third in his career, for an album he created along with Copeland. The award was also shared by its mix engineer Eric Schilling and producer Herbert Waltl.
This album Divine Tides, which beats the works of well-known names like the singer Christina Aguilera and electronic music duo The Chainsmokers to win in the ‘Best Immersive Audio Album’ category, actually won Kej and Copeland a Grammy last year too. They then won in the ‘Best New Age Album’ category. A new immersive audio version of the album, released last year, had made it eligible for the Grammys once again.
Despite Kej’s father having a deep interest in music, the idea of him forging a career in music wasn’t always welcome. Kej was training to become a dentist. He pursued music on the side, becoming a part of Bengaluru’s rock scene and performing for radio commercials that came his way. When he decided to focus on a career in music, these ad jingles became a large aspect of it. According to some estimates, he performed in over 3,500 ad jingles, and he describes this experience in his interviews as the best music education he could receive. But over time, he moved away from the commercial space to focus more on independent music.
Divine Tides is in many ways reflective of Kej’s personality. Known to espouse environmental causes, he has fashioned it as an ode to the environment. It consists of nine songs, and most of it is dedicated to and inspired by various facets of nature, from the Himalayas to the concept of the planet as Mother Earth. But had the pandemic not struck, this album would probably not have come into existence. The life of a modern-day musician, of constant travel and various concert gigs, had always come in the way of Kej’s plans to create a follow-up album to his 2015 Grammy-winning Winds of Samsara. Forced indoors in 2020, he finally began work on it. He however felt the need for a collaborator of Copeland’s prowess and stature. A common friend introduced the two, and to Kej’s shock, Copeland agreed to his proposal. Over the course of a year, emailing audio files to each other, and meeting up over Zoom and on the phone, the two created an album almost entirely online. The two only met in person for the first time a few days before the Grammy Awards last year.
While Kej’s early musical influences and interests were eclectic, and his work is an amalgamation of multiple genres, the sounds and sensibilities of his music tend to be distinctly Indian. He describes this as his way of expression. “It’s like an Italian might be fluent in English but if he has to curse someone, it would be in Italian,” he once told a newspaper. “That’s exactly how my music functions.”