Songs of conservation: Ricky Kej only writes music on environment, sustainability

His latest album Divine Tides tries to inspire listeners to look within, not elsewhere

By Dakshiani Palicha
Published: Monday 20 September 2021

Music is a powerful tool, says Ricky Kej, a Bengaluru-based artiste, who writes music on conservation of nature. "We remember the songs we learn in our childhood, their morals stick with us."

His 2015 album Winds of Samsara won the Grammy Award. His new album Divine Tides, composed in collaboration with Stewart Copeland, the drummer of former British-American band The Police, released on July 21, 2021. The pieces carried the message that we can combat climate change only through behavioural change — by taking incremental steps and not waiting for the government or non-profits to act. But people facing survival problems cannot worry about climate change, he tells Dakshiani Palicha in an interview. Excerpts:

Your album launched at a time when the world is witnessing extreme weather events due to climate change. Is there any song you believe fits this situation?

Climate change is the biggest existential threat the human species has encountered. I believe the only way we can actually combat or mitigate its effects is through behavioural change. I think all of us are constantly waiting for someone else — governments, inter-governmental bodies or non-governmental organisations — to bring about change. But the only way we can make any progress is by bringing about incremental changes in our own lives.

That’s what Divine Tides does: It tries to inspire us to not look elsewhere, but within ourselves.

The only song in the album that has lyrics is “I am change”, sung by singer and composer Salim Merchant. The lyrics are about a musk deer that gives off a beautiful fragrance. The deer is confused as to where this fragrance is coming from and has been searching for the source his entire life, without realising he is the source. So that song says whatever change you want to see in this world, you have to begin with yourself.

How did you go about recording the music videos accompanying the album?

The first video that came out was Himalayas. Just before the pandemic, the Indian army had invited me to do a full-fledged performance in Leh, at an altitude of 12,000 feet (3.65 kilometres above ground) for 10,000 soldiers.

We went there 4-5 days early to get acclimatised to the weather; this presented us an opportunity to film something over there. The song itself was incomplete but I knew that since it was a tribute to the mountains, it was important to film over there. Later, when Stewart came on, we filmed him remotely in Los Angeles, the United States and put the video together.

Another video was on the artisans of Swami Malai in Tamil Nadu, who have a 2,000-year-old tradition of casting bronze statues. One of the main ingredients in the casting process is the sand of the Cauvery riverbed. We filmed the process there. To me, it beautifully showcases an ancient tradition and reiterates the importance of the river.

Did COVID-19 affect the conceptualisation and recording of the album?

Ever since I won the Grammy in 2015 for Winds of Samsara, I’ve been looking at doing a follow-up album. During the last 5-6 years, I’ve made a lot of mental notes about the thoughts and ideas I had for different melodies and compositions.

I had a good idea of what the album should sound like as well as of my dreams and aspirations for it. But because of my intense touring schedule, it became impossible for me to find the time to record.

In 2019 alone I did 70 concerts in 13 countries, like the preceding year. So, the ideas were just in my head. When the pandemic hit in March last year, everybody was stuck at home. In our case, we were stuck in the studio. It presented us with an opportunity to get back to actually recording and completing work on the album.

How was your experience of working with Stewart Copeland? 

Collaborations happen in different ways. In this particular case, I was very fortunate that Stewart absolutely loved the ideas I already had, and the music I presented to him. There was a commonality of vision.

At the same time, Stewart had a lot of his own brilliant ideas and his own ways of doing things — he wanted a lot of changes. I made a commitment to myself to explore everything he asks me to and learn as much as possible from him.

Sometimes I would not agree with the change but I would do it anyway and the results were amazing. With regard to the vision, my music is all about the environment and sustainability.

Stewart comes with a different mindset: He believes the feel and emotion behind the music are the most important. He felt that if there is an emotional impact of this music strong enough to actually inspire people towards positive impact, then the music is complete.

Most of your compositions are influenced by Indian classical music. Do you feel it is well-suited to share messages about the environment?

Any genre of music is well-suited to speaking about the environment, whether its pop or folk music or Indian classical music or even heavy metal, for that matter. It's just how I express myself.

My whole life revolves around the environment. At the same time, as a musician, I've grown up listening to Indian music and appreciate artists like Hariprasad Chaurasiya, Ustad Zakir Husain, Pandit Shiv Shankar. So, I express myself through Indian music.

When I want to translate any emotion through music, I just pick up an aspect of Indian music. Even if I try to make a track that is western in nature, a little bit of Indian music is thrown into it.

Your songs cover diverse subjects such as nature and refugee crises. Do you believe they are all connected with each other and with the greater theme of the environment?

When I started off on this journey of only writing about the environment and sustainability and began travelling, especially to rural India, I realised that you cannot look at these issues in complete isolation.

In a developing country like India, in order to get people to understand and back the environment, you have to go through the other problems — hunger, poverty, gender equality, education, sanitation and water.

I believe India has two kinds of problems: Survival problems and thriving problems. Unless we take care of survival problems, nobody’s going to care about ‘thriving’. Climate change, environment, deforestation are looked at as thriving problems, but they are actually about survival; as are hunger, equality, gender equality, gender violence and education.

You can go to a place in rural India where there is abject poverty and tell people not to use electricity to make a better world for our children. But they will turn around and ask, what about their world? Their children do not even have school, sanitation, electricity. That’s why my music is so diverse. I work with agencies like the World Health Organization, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees and UN Children’s Emergency Fund to develop a holistic approach to my work and messages.

Where do you think music stands in terms of raising social awareness?

Music is a powerful language to not just communicate a message, but also to ensure that it is relatable and retained. Songs we learn in our childhood are the ones we remember and their morals stick with us. 

You can make a 1,000 speeches, you can show a ton of scientific data and it’s not going to affect people. But if you interpret this data, or rather the ideas and problems behind it through music and art, then it goes into people’s hearts.

It touches them emotionally and this can bring about behavioural change. People sometimes do a good job shaming others by showing them gory images and explaining the real state of the world in a gloomy way; that does work in some cases and should continue. But I personally believe positive reinforcement is always the best way.

Baba Dioum, a famous Senegalese forestry engineer, once said: In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught. My mission is similar: I want to instil positivity. When audiences come to a concert, you don’t want to upset them with your message because they will just turn away. 

When your art is wholly dedicated to a polarising concept such as the environment, can it see commercial success?

When art is used to highlight an issue, it loses commercial appeal. That’s why we don’t see many actors come and take up social messages. If you look at climate change, it is treated like a science in a lot of countries, but in some like the US, it is a political agenda.

As soon as you take up such a social issue, you have to be cognisant of the fact that you are going to lose some of your audience. The most important thing is that your music or art has to be good. You can have several environmental messages in your music but if the music itself is not appreciated by people, you will not have any impact. You have to get the attention of your audiences.

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