Aki Kumar has been a regular presence on the Santa Cruz blues scene in recent years, but you’ve never seen him quite like this.
The San Jose vocalist and harmonica ace can often be found playing in an acoustic duo with guitarist Jon Lawton at Aptos St. BBQ, a stripped-down setting for his disparate repertoire of folky country blues, sinewy Delta boogies, and searing Chicago anthems. But when Kumar takes the stage Friday at Michael’s on Main, he’s stepping into a role for which he was born. Literally.
In an inspired cultural mashup, Kumar blends the blues he came to love after moving to the South Bay with the Bollywood themes that filled his home growing up in Mumbai. The result is Aki Goes to Bollywood, a deliriously inspired act that marries propulsive blues and R&B grooves to soaring melodies from some of Indian cinema’s best-loved scenes.
“All the songs I cover are songs I grew up with, part of my musical upbringing,” says Kumar. “And while it might seem like these are totally different styles, there are a lot of parallels. There’s one Hindi song I do, ‘Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo,’ about how we’re all going back to Mother Earth. What could be more blues than that? I had to include it, but it had to have a very big blues signature, so I set it to this Bo Diddley groove. The whole concept is progressing more and more, representing what’s in my head.”
Kumar introduced the project on 2016’s Aki Goes to Bollywood, one of the first albums released by the Little Village Foundation, a nonprofit label created by veteran blues keyboardist Jim Pugh—who spent three decades on the road with Etta James and Robert Cray—that has already become an invaluable outlet for roots music, with 22 releases by overlooked artists in gospel, blues, mariachi, country music, and beyond.
Kumar recently released his second album for the label, Hindi Man Blues, and he’s been delighted with the response from audiences. While the blues scene can be a provincial realm where people expend a lot of energy policing the borders, he’s found freedom in forging a sound that reflects his reality, rather than pursuing someone else’s notion of authenticity.
“I’m a guy from India who really loves the blues,” Kumar says. “I listen to the music all the time, and love learning new songs. But at the end of the day I’m not from Mississippi Delta. My formative experiences are from India, and I’m never going to be African-American. Sometimes we put this shell around ourselves trying to force-feed the tradition. There needs to be an acknowledgement that while we love blues, we need to infuse our own identity into our music.”
While Aki Goes to Bollywood is Kumar’s most vivid and visible project—he’s performing with the band at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass on Oct. 7—many of his gigs are straight-ahead blues. Dedicated to building the Bay Area scene, he runs a Tuesday night jam session at San Jose’s Poor House Bistro and a Thursday night session at Little Lou’s BBQ in Fremont.
For Friday’s show, he’s joined by a killer band that reflects the far-flung reach of the blues. Drummer June Core is a well-traveled veteran who was hired by heavyweights such as Robert Lockwood Jr., Johnny Shines, James Cotton, and LaVern Baker before putting in a 14-year stint with Charlie Musselwhite. Bassist Vance Ellers has toured with blues harp greats Mark Hummel and Rick Estrin. The wild card is 23-year-old Mountain View guitarist Rome Yamilov.
“He’s one of the newest voices on the Bay Area scene, and he hasn’t been playing blues that long compared to some, but the kid has more talent than just about anybody I’ve met,” Kumar says. “He’s not only taken to straight traditional blues, he picked up my Bollywood material really quickly. He went from helping me set up gear a year ago to being my second guitar player to being the only guitar player, playing lead and rhythm.”
INFO: 8:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7, Michael’s On Main, 2591 S Main St., Soquel. $10. 479-9777.