Bombay Rickey Debut Album to Release on 9/13
Here's a riddle for you: Picture Yma Sumac, Mozart, some Western hippies looking for Indian enlightenment, a couple of blazing hot Bollywood stars, a surf rock guitarist with accompanying surf goddess, a jazz saxophone player, a soaring coloratura soprano, and a very troublesome coyote.Got that? Now, all of them walk into a bar and order the same cocktail. What do they order? A Bombay Rickey, of course. Welcome to the land of respectful re-imagining, of shaking up, muddling, then clarifying. Good cocktails, after all, are a sum of ingredients that you perhaps wouldn't think about throwing together, and in the right hands mixing oddly disparate musical flavors can yield a pretty darn colorful sound. Kamala Sankaram, Drew Fleming, and Jeff Hudgins have the right hands and the right vocal cords for the job. The trio is the nucleus of the five-piece Brooklyn-based ensemble known as Bombay Rickey, along with percussionist Brian Adler and upright bassist Gil Smuskowitz. Their upcoming release Cinefonia (Cowboys & Indian; release: September 13, 2014, or Yma Sumac's birthday) runs wild, far beyond category but without losing sight of the sources of the many musics they love. It all started on the Q Train, one night after rehearsal. Sankaram, the coloratura soprano in the band of characters above, has never liked being musically stereotyped. Trained in Western Classical music and a student of Hindustani music as well, she's worked with Anthony Braxton, the Phillip Glass Ensemble, and Anti-Social Music, as well as writing and performing her own operas and pieces. She's also an enthusiastic cartoon voice-over actress. "As a performer, I always liked singing different styles of music, and had the ability to do them justice. I can also make weird noises," Sankaram explains with a smile. "Earlier in my career, when I was doing more new music, I had a straight tone, clean and precise, no vibrato. I was never hired for pop or opera. Then I got known for opera and wasn't hired for other things. I needed something where I can use everything." She became obsessed with Yma Sumac, the 1950s exotica singer knows for her five-octave range and feats of vocal derring-do. Kamala decided to start an Yma cover band, and approached some of her musical friends, the psychedelic Amazonian cumbia-philes, Chicha Libre. They did a one-off show-stopping cover together, but then the band got caught up in other matters. Not to be daunted, Sankaram kept dreaming about following in Sumac's pioneering footsteps. She was riding the train home one night with transplanted Texan sax player Jeff Hudgins, who's worked with everyone from John Zorn to John Harbison. Sankaram revealed her plans and found an immediate and enthusiastic band member. Shortly afterward, guitarist Drew Fleming, another Texan who came up through the Dallas punk scene, came on board and began to explore, as Sankaram puts it, "what other cultures think other cultures sound like," be it the Western numbers in Bollywood movies, or the secret proto-rumba hidden in Mozart arias. ("Queen of the Rhumba" re-imagines the relentless Queen of the Night as an elegant Latin dance maven). It was a language of adaptations and devious mishearing, of reinventions and fantastic collisions, a deeply informed and creatively witty sketch of how rhythms and ideas-from Afro-Latin lilts to raga-inspired modes-have slipped into pop culture over the centuries. It was a language they could all speak, although literally what language Yma was singing was a bit of a mystery. "The secret of 'Taki Rari'", now the opening cut of Cinefonia "is that I don't know what the lyrics are," Kamala recalls. "I listened to what she was saying and made up some Pidgin Spanish." The broad embrace of all kinds of influences-sounds that busted out of the generic boxes so tiresome for the trio-changed the band: "We decided we should make our own music, not just be a cover band," says Hudgins. India, or some of the legends-as-perceived-by-Westerners of India at any rate, informs many of the tunes on Cinefonia. One day, Sankaram found herself with a gig looming, in desperate need of material. She began writing a song a week in preparation, and gave herself goals for subject matter. After wondering what a remake of Hawaii 5-0 starring Bollywood giant Amitabh Bachchan would sound like, "Bombay 5-0" materialized. "Dum Maro Dum", which means "Take Another Toke," is Bombay Rickey's collective take on the hit tune, originally sung by Asha Bhosle, from the 1971 Bollywood movie Hare Rama Hare Krishna. (The film addresses the fascinating subject of 1960s Western hippies going to India to seek enlightenment,) Jeff's "Pondicherry Surf Goddess" started out as an experiment with the then-new Garageband iPad app, and ended up as a tour-de-force, raga-bending theme for a 60s Bollywood surf movie that doesn't exist. Yet the Western hemisphere carries equal weight in Bombay Rickey's language. Peruvian-style cumbias (Hudgins's "El Final del Pachanga") share the spotlight with tributes to the trickster of the Southwest, Coyote, and his Orpheus-like journey into the underworld. ("Coyote in the Land of the Dead," which highlights Sankaram's eerie calls and the male band members' voices.) There's kitsch and myth, divine sounds and crazy offshoots, yet it all mixes well, like the cocktail the band is named for. "Each of us has such curiosity. We often feel in between all the other worlds we inhabit," muses Fleming. "But here we can explore all our influences. It's a bit of mystery how it all works, but it does."