Published: 08th January 2020
I want to help people fall in love with the natural world through my work: Grammy Award-winning composer Ricky Kej
Grammy award-winning musician made a decision very early on in life. He made a commitment that every single piece of music he creates would be to make the world a better place
Speaking on 'The Power of Music to Drive Social Change' at The New Indian Express' ThinkEdu Conclave 2020, Kej talked about the connection between music and the environment. "Music and nature, for me, is one and the same. Music started off as sounds from nature — sounds of birds, animals, rivers flowing and the sound of the wind. Later on, humans started imitating it to make it more pleasing to the ear. It is only in the last hundred years that music has become more academic with notes and scales and ragas," he said. The composer and music producer is also a well-known environmentalist and most of his work revolves around nature and protecting our forests and wildlife.
In 2015, Kej put together an album titled 'Shanti Samsara' for environmental consciousness. It features 500 musicians from 40 countries. The album was launched at the COP 21 conference in Paris in 2015. There were 193 countries that participated to try and come up with a solution to mitigate the effects of climate change. Kej recalls, "All the world leaders had to go up on stage and give a short presentation, but one leader that caught my attention was President Anote Tong of the island Republic of Kiribati. He asked the world leaders to pass a resolution that ensures that Kiribati stays above the water. It was such a powerful statement that I had to study the island. I went to Kiribati, spent time there and fell in love with their culture. I realised that they are not at all responsible for climate change. It was the actions of other countries that were affecting this nation."
He adds, "We often think of living in peace and harmony with the human race, but we have forgotten that we are not the only species. There are millions of species on this planet and in every ancient culture, coexistence has been defined as living in harmony with every single entity of this planet, whether living or non-living."
Describing the human-elephant conflict in India, Kej explained how humans encroach on elephant land, which in turn confuses the elephants and causes conflict. Politicians are forced to make the painful decision to capture them and relocate them, a process that affects the elephants deeply. In order to address this issue, Kej composed a song called Love Divine. It's about coexistence and is dedicated to elephants. He says, "The biggest threat to our survival is waiting for other people to make a difference. Through my work, I hope to make people fall in love with the natural world and through that, find within themselves the desire to protect and conserve our beautiful planet."
ROCK ON: Kej makes music about the environment
Kej went on to give the audience a glimpse of his musical journey. He said, "Ever since I remember, I've always been a musician. My ears have always been more important than my eyes. During my childhood, while my friends were obsessed with cartoons and video games, I was obsessed with my music system. I would listen to music all day long. I would try to decipher every single song and try to understand what kind of cultures different musicians came from, what kind of instruments were used and the etymology of these instruments. A lot of my education came from music. It is through music that I found a very deep connection with nature."
In class XII, he decided to become a musician. But when he approached his father, a third-generation doctor, he was furious. It took a lot of convincing and finally, they came to a compromise. Kej had to complete five years of Dental studies and then do what he wanted to. So, he completed his degree in Dental Surgery. At the end of that, he decided again that he would be a musician.
He started off his music profession doing commercials for television and radio. In a span of 12 years, he did about 3,500 commercials. He was doing commercials for all major brands across the world and composing about two to three pieces every day. "It struck me that all these brands understood the power of music, not just to communicate a message but to retain that message deep into the conscience of the listener. The songs that you listened to in your childhood, the morals you learnt through those songs are what stick with you through your life. These brands were ready to spend thousands of dollars for me to create music because they wanted to harness the power of music. I realised that I need to harness the power of music too and I made a decision that every piece of music that I create will be to make the world a better place in whatever way possible," he says.
Kej was a huge fan of South African flautist Wouter Kellerman, who was in fact, a fan of Kej. While Kej had just finished a piece on Gandhi, Kellerman finished one on Nelson Mandela. So they exchanged their music, added their own regional flavours, travelled around the world, collaborated with other musicians and then at the end of two years, released an album titled 'Winds of Samsara', and eventually ended up receiving a Grammy award for it.
Concluding the session, Kej reminded the audience that while it is important for us to be global citizens, it is also important to love our country. He played his rendition of the national anthem, showcasing the "real inhabitants" of our country — the forests and our wildlife. "They define the beauty of our country, they shape our country and they are responsible for our own survival," he concluded.
I used to be a very weird child. When others used to run away from seemingly dangerous animals like snakes, I was drawn to them. I would go towards them, look into their eyes, see a personality in each of them. For me, it has never been our world and their world, it's always been one world
My father based all his decisions on fear — fear of me failing, fear of what to tell others. I was basing all my decisions on my passion. Ideally, your choices should be based on passion.