The Birth of an Idea

varsha-modi-rickyVarsha Kej, Narendra Modi, Ricky Kej

Among the topics the prime minister touched upon was the environment — specifically, the need to preserve and protect it. He spoke passionately about how humans must re-learn how to treat the earth with respect, and bequeath a healthier planet to future generations. Modi’s embrace of the environment is rooted in his understanding of history in which the people of ancient societies lived in balance with nature, not above or beyond it. Modi believes that we need to return to a symbiotic relationship with our habitat. He wanted to share this view with the world and confided to Kej that he would do just that, by delivering a speech at the COP 21 in Paris in December 2015, a landmark climate-change conference organized by the United Nations.

Modi had an inspired message, and in Kej, a long time conservationist, he found a talented and receptive messenger. “We were both on the same page philosophically,” said Kej. “The damage being done to the environment ultimately inflicts pain and suffering on all humanity and during a time in which the developing world is rapidly industrializing, there must be a reminder that protecting the planet should remain the highest goal. That reminder, manifest in Modi’s speech, now takes the form of music.

“We looked at each other and decided, ‘Let’s make an uplifting album that inspires environmental consciousness.’” It’s notable that they didn’t discuss specific policy proposals or set forth with an activist agenda. Before you can alter someone’s actions, you must first make them aware: Thought is antecedent to action.

Not only did they want to promote awareness of the environment in India but also around the world. Modi suggested that the album should emphasize inclusivity and incorporate different people and cultures. He even promised to launch the album at the upcoming globally-themed COP 21 (and he did just that, presenting it as a gift to François Hollande, the president of France on the main-stage).

Kej entered Modi’s office as a composer and left as an ambassador — for the environment. Upon leaving the diplomatic enclaves of Delhi, he returned to his recording studio in Bangalore to begin work on one of the most globally-themed works of his career. He knew what he had to create: a visionary album, celebrating nature and inspiring the peoples of the world to reach for a higher state of environmental consciousness.

If there is a unifying aesthetic to this album, it’s “world music.” But it’s also “organic music.” Kej found inspiration from many sources: movies, songs, books — and, of course — the air, water, sky, sun, stars, and elements of the natural world. The range of influences that Kej distills into his music is breathtaking. Within a tremendous range of idioms, Kej has carefully harmonized them all, creating and genuine, unity of expression from his extraordinary cast of artists and contributors. Keenly aware of his mandate to create a work that would inspire environmental consciousness, Kej laid out “Shanti Samsara” as a vast musical collage. You can listen to this album from beginning to end, or tune into one track and let it linger in your mind for days. The music is equal parts thought-provoking and enjoyable.

“Shanti Samsara” is both a mental journey and a musical one. In listening, we reflect not only on the subtle sounds of nature but our relation to them, and especially, our roles and responsibilities as children of Mother Nature. That is why Kej titled the album “Shanti Samsara.” The literal translation of the Sanskrit word “Shanti” means peace, but it has a broader meaning: peace, harmony, and equilibrium, in which we live in symbiosis with our surroundings. “Samsara,” also a Sanskrit word, means “the world around us” or “the world within us.” In Buddhism, the word has come to mean the cycle of life, which flows endlessly into eternity. “Shanti Samsara,” in name and intent, gently reminds us of our stewardship of earth and our eternal commitment to safeguard it.

“Shanti Samsara” is both a tribute to nature and a meditation upon its endless variations, incorporating the orchestral sounds of the wild: the tabla echoing the rhythmic patter of rain, drums evoking distant thunder, the rippling of sitars suggest the swells and swirls of running water, while choirs blossom like fields of wild flowers. Kej views earth not just as motherland but as muse, just as our primal ancestors did. On this album, we hear the heartbeat of Mother Nature.

Like air and water, music is universal. It flows through all cultures, no matter tribe, religion, or language. So when word got out about “Shanti Samsara,” it became an international gathering of over 300 musicians from Turkey to Tibet, USA to Europe, Ghana to Australia, Algeria to Azerbaijan. And, of course, it stars prominent artists from Kej’s native India.

While sheer numbers may impress, it is the quality of musicians that is truly stunning: 20 GRAMMY winners are featured, from flutist Wouter Kellerman to country crooner Gary Nicholson. Each artist brought a piece of his homeland to his contribution, so too are musicians and listeners intertwined in this musical experience. As conceived by Kej, “Shanti Samsara” was to be a true integration of music, art, spoken word, and even film, and some of the world’s most esteemed and beloved celebrities contributed their talents to the project, including Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, actresses Frances Fisher, and Rosanna Arquette, and even Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, who delivers a spoken-word benediction. This album knows no boundaries.

Upon leaving Modi’s office, Kej’s original concept was to compose three or four long tone poems for the album. “But when I started writing the music, I had an avalanche of ideas,” he said. “I would write a song, and then another idea for a tune popped into my head.” When he would take a break from composing and read a book, he would highlight passages that spoke to him about strengthening our bond with nature. Even though a life-long conservationist, Kej experienced an awakening and began seeing the world through the lens of Shanti Samsara; he increased his own environmental consciousness in order to enlarge ours.

Kej has presented us with an ocean of concepts and inspirations; ideas are his oxygen. Perhaps that is partly because of his vocation: He has made a living producing fifteen-or-so advertising jingles a month, but dreamt of creating art with lasting value, while retaining his tireless pace: “I would rather be little known for songs that represent my personality than be famous for songs that aren’t really me.” Since taking on “Shanti Samsara,”Kej has hit his stride. It’s a summation of his craft to date.

Kej is a busy man. He composed, scored, arranged, and recorded these twenty-one tracks in just under a year, partly on piano, but mostly on Cubase, a music-writing and editing software. While many of the musicians collaborated and contributed via the Internet (Skype and Dropbox), Kej also racked up plenty of passport stamps along the way: Australia, Sweden, United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Fiji, and Kiribati, just to name a few. Like his muse, this composer knows no borders.

In each song, we hear the outpouring of a truly global mind, responsive to the frequencies of nature. No matter your place in life or where you call home, you will discover a genuine love of music and nature that fills each moment of “Shanti Samsara.”

— Kabir Sehgal

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