Celebrating 20 years of Colonial Cousins

About 20 years ago, Indian woke up to a new sound. That of the Colonial Cousins. The duo of popular Indian film and ghazal singer Hariharan and composer/singer Leslie “Lezz” Lewis formed Colonial Cousins to bring about a fusion of sounds.

The group launched their first album, Colonial Cousins in 1992 to the riff of the Leslie’s western guitar with Hari’s alaaps was soon the toast of the country. They won awards aplenty and signaled a new sound that was copied and replicated to death. Their debut album was followed by a second one titled “The Way we do it” which did well but not quite as big a blockbuster as the first one. The sounds were commonplace by then and people were looking for something more. By their third album, “Aatma” released in 2001, they were passe. This year, the group started their own Facebook page and announced that they were working on their fourth studio album, after a span of 11 years. In the years between they did a Coke Studio trip and a couple of forgettable movie scores. Maybe their new album will revive the genre again. With Coke Studio doing a stellar job in reviving classical and folk music big time in India and Pakistan, there may be a bigger audience for the Colonial Cousins this time.

A month or so ago, I wanted to introduce my 4 year old to Indian classical fusion music. While he gets his share of carnatic music and movie songs, I wanted him to get a feel for exploratory fusion music. Colonial Cousins seemed like a good bet. Thanks to Spotify, I had instantaneous access to their music. The first one I played for him was “Sa Ni Da Pa”. He knew the shloka prior to the song and it would be an enticement to get him to hear. Like expected, he took to the song like fish to water. We played it non-stop 4 times on the morning commute to school. The next day, we did the wonderful “Krishna Ne Begane” and he latched on it just as quick. As we did this over the entire album, I came to appreciate the album with a fresh pair of ears. Yes, Lezz’s English pronunciation doesn’t work as well you’d want it to. Hari’s rare English vocals are even worse. But when you listen to “Feel Alright” where simple folk tunes are given a refresh, you realize why the album works. “Its gonna be alright” which starts with Tyagaraaja’s Parulanu in Raga Balahamsa has Hari repeating the first line from the composition while Lezz goes through the motions of the rest of the English lyrics.  My personal favorite is “Let me see the love” which finally allows Hari to go full on with everything he can throw in 3 minutes on wonderful Hamsadwani. When the album gets done, it gives me a feeling of exhilaration. 

I was brought up as a carnatic music purist. I got to listen to music of all kinds – film and classical. Eastern and Western. As I grew older I noticed that Carnatic music was losing favor to so many other newer genres of music. Ironically some of it is rooted in classical music forms but it takes someone to convince you of the connection. So when I listen to such cross pollination efforts where classical music forms are blended with more popular genres and helps it reach a broader audience, it makes me feel good. And it makes my son feel good. If that isn’t awesome, what else is.

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