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Kuljit Bhamra: Bhangra Pioneer with a Mission to Introduce Tabla to the Next Generation of Musicians

How instrumentalist, composer and educator Kuljit Bhamra overcame disability to create a rich and diverse music career.

Published: 24 December 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 24 December 2020 | 4:02 PM
Kuljit Bhamra performing on stage
Kuljit’s work involves creating a tabla notation system as well as teaching, composing and performing. © Ammy Phull

Some musicians glibly describe their careers as ‘journeys’ but Kuljit Bhamra’s has truly been one; an epic odyssey that has seen him graduate from messing around on his mother’s tape recorder to becoming a key figure at the centre of the 80s Bhangra explosion, to diversifying into production, composition, film, theatre and session work. Then there is his ongoing mission: to demystify his chosen instrument, the tabla, and make it accessible to a whole new generation of musicians.

What’s even more remarkable is that he has achieved it all with a disability. Kuljit contracted polio as an infant in Kenya, leaving him unable to walk without a crutch. It’s had a huge effect on his musical career, though not perhaps in an obvious way.

Overcoming disability

“Well, I couldn’t play sports at school,” he remembers. “I was the first disabled student at Southall Grammar school but I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t impress any girls that I met! I felt I was…insufficient, I suppose. But while other kids were playing football I buried myself away either in the school library or at home getting obsessed with music.”

The Bhamra household was a musical one. His mother was a Punjabi folk singer and both his brothers played instruments. Kuljit meanwhile picked up the tabla aged four: “The story goes that my father was trying to learn to play so that he could accompany my mother, but he was struggling with it. Apparently I sneaked in after he’d finished attempting to play and picked it up quite naturally. So I’ve never studied music formally – I’m completely self-taught.”

An obsession with music

Later on when his mother bought a reel-to-reel tape player he picked up the rudiments of production too. “This must have been when I was 11 or 12. I’d record my favourite songs and slow them down. Then I began to loop the tape so I had it going round doorknobs and picture frames and pencils standing up in Plasticine while I played along.”

“There was a bit of ‘I’ll show you’ to all this. Being disabled made me more focused and a bit more obsessive. Some of my friends say I would have been obsessive anyway, but you could argue that I might not have spent so much time on music had I been playing sports.”

Moving into music production

But Kuljit’s father was strict and so music was still very much treated as a hobby. “He’d say to me ‘You have something wrong with you. You have to compensate – you have to study and work harder’.” Kuljit passed his ‘A’ Levels and embarked on a career as a civil engineer and perhaps would have never become a professional musician had he not convinced his mother to allow him to produce her 1978 album Punjabi Geet.

“She’d signed to EMI and went to India every year to record an album. I said to her

‘I think we can make an album here’. She said ‘but what about the music?’ And I said ‘I’ll do it’. ‘But you just play tabla’. I said ‘I know I can make it work. There’s this thing called multitracking’.”

“So we did the album here, using western production techniques and then the next one we did together was a big hit in the Punjabi community. That’s when bands started coming to me to produce their albums.”

How the UK Bhangra scene inspired a new generation of British South Asians

Kuljit had, almost by accident, found himself at the heart of the 80s Bhangra scene. That music – a mix of Punjabi folk music with western instrumentation and production had captured the imagination of a new generation of British South Asians. He found himself an in-demand name, producing both Premi and the group Heera, two of the then-biggest names in UK Bhangra.

However, as most of the albums were selling in non-chart return outlets, Bhangra’s huge success was almost entirely ignored by the media. “It did frustrate me,” Kuljit  admits. “We were selling 100,000, 200,000 units. I was still working as a civil engineer and my cover got blown at work – I hadn’t told them I was a musician – and I was on the evening news in a feature about how this music sells so much but it’s not in the charts.”

Going into the 90s, Kuljit was still working in his day job. But after going through what he describes as a “terrible” divorce and losing his house, he decided to go for broke and concentrate on music full time: “Dad thought I was bonkers. But everything just turned around like it was waiting for me to do that.”

Gaining the edge as an ensemble musician

First, Kuljit began to find session work. The fact he was used to playing with other musicians gave him the edge over other tabla players. “A lot of them had this very rigid attitude of ‘I’ll do what I do so take it or leave it‘. Also, the other thing is that Indian music training is all geared up to becoming a virtuoso soloist and improviser. There is no training in India to become an ensemble musician, nor is there any sheet music. Everyone is trained to follow the path of their guru or their master/mentor.”

So when Kuljit got the call to play on jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard’s album Dancing Man And Woman a door opened that has never closed. “I think they were struggling because the tabla player couldn’t play to a click track, but as I’ve spent most of my adult life in a recording studio I could. He had people like Stephen Swallow, John Paricelli – all these great jazz players on there. So I put this track down and they all said ‘brilliant’.”

From Bollywood to working in the West End

Session and then soundtrack work followed. Kuljit worked on Gurinder Chadha’s acclaimed 1993 comedy Bhaji On The Beach and later Bend It Like Beckham. He then diversified further into musical theatre. “Through playing with Andy Sheppard I met a fixer who worked for Andrew Lloyd Webber and she asked me to play in Bombay Dreams.”

“I just loved it. I know some musicians are challenged by it but I really enjoyed it. The challenges are dealing with a team of creatives, because they all have different ideas. A West End production is like a big juggernaut that already exists and you have to somehow steer it down a different route. For example, they don’t cater for having Indian musicians in the band, so on Far Pavilions (a theatre adaptation of the MM Kaye novel) I convinced them to bring extra musicians into the orchestra pit for the first time ever in the West End.”

The tabla: promoting the instrument across genres and generations

In a schedule that includes session work and film and TV composition, one goal stands out: popularising the tabla. “I’m one of the few people that gets called when someone wants tabla, which is great for me but does nothing for Indian culture or Indian music. Then I realised that there are hardly any non-Indians playing Indian music. You don’t need to be African to play the djembe or Spanish to play Spanish guitar, so why these barriers? So many people have come to me and said, ‘Oh my God, I love those songs. Can I play them?’”

Kuljit’s solution is the creation of a notation system so that potential players can pick up the tabla more easily. “Hopefully it will let people be able to play straight away and allow the music to be written down and shared.” Already, Portsmouth Music Academy and Birmingham Music School are using it.

Kuljit rails against the way South Asian instruments are so “heavily laden with spirituality”.  He remembers once being at an Andy Sheppard gig watching people come up to the jazz musician, asking him questions about his sax. “With me they’d stand at a distance and be scared to touch the tabla. People think it’s a holy drum. No. It’s a couple of pots that sound amazing. Have a go!”

The advantage of membership

During Kuljit’s long career, his MU membership has been a consistent presence. “I’ve actually never had cause to use their services – I’ve been lucky – but it’s good to know that there is always someone behind you who’s got your back. I would always recommend young musicians to join the MU. You have that protection. Plus of course there is the public liability insurance. ”

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