TIPPING THE TOPS!
For harmonica players of the country, who have long been relegated to the shadows, there is now a reason to smile. A fellow musician has done the fraternity and the entire country proud by winning a international music competition. I am talking about Aki Kumar, who recently released album, Tip of The Top, won the SF Bay Area edition of the International Blues Challenge last Sunday. Aki and the team are now on their way to Memphis as the official Bay Area representatives at the International Blues Challenge next year.
Though hailing from our very own Mumbai, very little is known of Aki in the Indian music circuit. But this young man has been blazing across certain influential quarters of the global music circuit with his harmonica. His latest album – Tip of the Top – had been earning rave reviews from people all over before it won the prestigious title last Sunday. And to make it all the more merrier, he also got the chance to open for Blues legend Robert Cray at Fox Theater in Redwood City last Friday.
Aki – short for Akarsha Kumar – was born and raised in Mumbai before he moved to the States. His initial middle-class roots and the subsequent Silicon Valley credentials do present an unlikely backstory for one of India’s finest Blues harmonica players. Talking about his introduction to the world of music, he reminisces, “While neither of my parents were formal musicians, they exposed me to the world of music at a very early age. I remember music playing around the house since my childhood days – be it jazz, classical, Hindustani or classic Bollywood oldies.”
His tryst with the harmonica, however, was not planned. As he says, “After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, I pursued a successful career in the high-tech industry but deep down I knew something was amiss. I picked up the harmonica to join an informal musical group with a few colleagues, but soon found a richer appreciation for the instrument and the raw, emotive power of American blues.” After exhausting the available avenues for self-study in print and online, he decided to pursue formal studies under David Barrett, a blues harp (harmonica) virtuoso and one of the most authoritative sources of information on the subject. Aki was also very fortunate to discover a thriving music community in the SF Bay Area, one that included modern Blues harp legends Gary Smith, R.J. Mischo, Andy Just, Mark Hummel and Rick Estrin, among others.
As a fellow musician Abe noted: “Aki’s progress from an enthusiastic student of the blues to a dynamic stage performer has been rapid, earning him recognition as a rising blues star. In the last few years he has appeared with some of the premier blues artists in the area, including Kid Andersen and Earl Thomas. He has also shared the stage with some of the finest contemporary harmonica players alive: Gary Smith, Rick Estrin, Mark Hummel, Charlie Musselwhite, Lee Oskar and Jason Ricci.”
The album, Tip of the Top, is a collaboration with Bay Area blues veterans and has been the culmination of Aki’s journey through American roots music. The group performs vintage blues with subtle flair and a respect for the deep history of the genre. Experts and aficionados agree that only a group with raw talent and a true appreciation of the art form could produce a sound so authentic. I guessed it’s time we all cheered for our own Aki Kumar!