Interview | Raghu Dixit’s Happy Place

Watching Raghu Dixit and his band perform is like mainlining a ray of sunshine into your heart. With Cheshire-cat smiles, the colourfully-attired troupe bounce up and down whilst playing their unique blend of traditional India music and Western folk rock. Speaking to the man in person after a jubilant set at the Cambridge Folk Festival is a no less rewarding experience. When Dixit laughs it’s a full belly laugh, and the passion for music emanating from him is just as bright as his sunshine-yellow sarong. In fact, we can well believe that the band have brought the sunshine over with them from India, as Dixit remarks on the way backstage.

But this colourful character hasn’t always been an artist, and the road to success has been long and complex, taking in such diverse careers as microbiologist, IT expert and classical dancer. Nor is Dixit content with simply being a performer – it soon becomes clear that this is a man on a mission to bring Indian music and languages to an Indian youth often preoccupied with Western culture. We talkmusic, politics and the legacy of colonialism with this true pioneer on his 116th gig in the UK

So that went down really well! Is there much of a difference between playing here and performing back home?

Actually not much. In India, with every 200-300 kilometres that you travel, language changes. So when I’m singing in my native language, Kannada, only people from my home state can understand it. So that barrier-breaking is something that I’m trained to do now. Musically, although we are very Indian at the core, we have rock n’ roll mixed with Afro rhythms, so it’s very global in its outlook, and I think it’s very easy to connect with audiences wherever we play.

Where do you get your influences from because, as you say, your music is a mixture of so many different styles?

I don’t really look beyond the country where I live in. We are now at this amazing moment where India could become a superpower, and we’ve always been a spiritual destination for people from all over the world, so there’s this huge pride in hanging on to our roots and tradition and culture. But at the same time there’s the economic boom we went through and we have television which brings in all the cultures of the world, and we’ve been clever in the last 20 years at adapting cultures from all around the world calling it original!

You use traditional Indian styles but then there’s also Western rock guitar and folk…

If you take out the Indian vocal melodies and the Indian flute what remains is basically a rock n’ roll band! So the idea is to keep the core and weave the rest of the sound around it.

What music did you grow up listening to?

Mainly Karnatic Classical music. I grew up in a very conservative, traditional, South Indian family and listening to Western music was banned. Wearing jeans was not allowed, Western clothes was not allowed, watching English movies was not allowed, so I learnt classical dance. It was only when  I was 19 the rebel in me woke up and I started listening to other music – Phil Collins, Wham and Michael Jackson, ‘Everlasting Love Songs’ CDs! Pretty juvenile initiation. But thank god for that restriction at home because when I first got a guitar and started singing I didn’t really learn any cover songs to sing – I still can’t sing any cover song on stage although my managers would love me to. So right from the beginning I’ve been singing only my songs and writing my songs.

You sing in English, Kannada and Hindi – is there one language you feel particularly comfortable in?

Both Hindi and Kannada I’m extremely comfortable in, though I must confess that I still think of all my ideas in English.

Really? How come?

I studied in an English school, and was pushed to speak only English. The medium of instruction was in English. The medium of governance in India is through English. Its only now since the last two or three years that it’s become a political issue.

That’s surprising, with Independence being such a long time ago…

We are very much still colonised in our minds. We still think anything English is the better thing. But not the younger Indians, they’re pretty much clued up to what’s happening, who we are, where we come from. More and more young people are now queuing up during elections and voting.

How is that changing attitude filtering into music?

I used to sing and write in English, and then I realised – Why am I doing this? Why are you faking yourself, why don’t you write songs in your own language? And that’s when I started reading poetry because I couldn’t write words in my own language, and I discovered amazing [Kannada poetry] treasures. None of these poems are translated into English and none of the younger generations know of their existence. Now when I play them, youngsters come and dance and head bang away, and then they go back home and the tune lingers in their head and the next morning they want to know what the song is all about. Even if I manage to convert one person out of every hundred that comes to watch me, that is an achievement – of passing on the legacy of what we already have.

In Britain we’re so insular in what we listen to, and so used to hearing songs in English – but I think we’re getting bored, and starting to love hearing things in different languages…

I think the UK – but not the US – has so much traditional music that is again ignored by the youngsters. But then I met Mr Robert Plant on ‘Jools Holland’, and he’s talking about how he’s not realised how beautiful it is to go back to songs which were forgotten by people.

So yes, you were on Jools Holland with none other than Robert Plant! Was it a real shock when they phoned you up?

My management called me up saying, ‘We’ve got a call from Jools Holland – you have to leave in two days from now, apply for visa today!’ And I was like, ‘Why I am coming all the way just to play one song for four minutes? ’ And they were laughing at me saying, ‘You don’t even know what you’ve got!’ And it was only when I landed and came to the studio and saw Robert Plant, and Arcade Fire, and then of course Adele, who completely blew me away, that I realised. I was really lucky to get into that episode, and people really saw it.

Did everything change after that?

It spiked up awareness of our existence, our website went crazy and crashed! CD sales went up, we got into the charts and got booked for Glastonbury last year… So I’ll always credit that particular show.

It took you nine years to put out your album – what were you doing all that time?

I was in Bangalore working as a scientist, then I went to Belgium and came back to India to become a musician full time. But I was far, far away from what the industry was expecting. So I joined a software company to work as a technical writer and I learnt how to use computers and started recording at home, and writing jingles for radio and television. And every 3 or 4 months I would make a new song and take it to a new record label and it went on and on, and I almost gave it up. It was only in 2006 that I got discovered when I was performing a small gig in Mumbai in a bar. Two musicians who were very big Bollywood producers saw the show and came and met me at the end of the gig. They started a new record label just to launch my album and closed it after 6 months! They were not really a record label, just two people who really loved my music. We had got a major record label to do the distribution and they didn’t sell it at all, all the CDs were in the basement, so we bought the stock back and started selling it at gigs and that’s how we achieved 80,000 sales in a year.

You’ve got a lot of strings to your bow, you’re a classically trained dancer –

Was! [holds belly] Now I’m a belly dancer!

Haha! But you were also a microbiologist, you’ve written film scores….where are you most comfortable?

[Points to stage] There, on stage with my band, in front of a good crowd. That’s my happiest place. But I also love putting things together and watching them grow in the studio. I produced the first album and I’m producing the second one also.

So what’s next for you?

Hopefully we’ll finish our album before the end of August, then we have a US tour coming up, then we’ll go back and plan and launch our album. The 11th is my birthday so hopefully we should launch it on that day.