The Kala Ghoda Art Festival is back and for the people of Mumbai, this is a small urban escape, one that’s become eagerly awaited in the calendar of events. They call it “India’s largest multicultural festival” and it’s apt- the place features installations, stalls, talks, performances and so much more. This year, the festival is from 4th to the 12th of February 2023. And while the Kala Ghoda Art Festival will always always have a special place in the hearts of the people of Mumbai, what makes it extra special is that this year will also feature a performance by the Colonial Cousins. For those who might cock an eyebrow at the name (essentially those born in the 2000s), the Colonial Cousins are a duo- not cousins- that gave us songs that played on loop on our walkmans (devices we used to listen to music). Singer Hariharan and singer composer Leslee Lewis were the two people in this band, and while we millennials loved their music, they were also known for sporting braids and generally having a cool vibe around them, something we aspired to.
ELLE caught up with the Colonial Cousin for a chat and it was plenty of awesome.
ELLE: For the 90s kid in me this is so exciting, and how are you feeling about performing together?
Colonial Cousins: We’ve been performing all these years, there have been private gigs, corporate gigs, gigs abroad, but we’ve never had the opportunity to play in Mumbai and that is a new thing for us. And Kala Ghoda Festival is the place for music lovers. So that kind of feels different. They are there only for the music. Not for anything else, not for a meeting or for the food etc. This is something like a concert. We haven’t done a concert in Mumbai for years.
We’re playing at the Cross Maidan and that’s beautiful. The heritage Mumbai feels, the high court on the on the right side with the beautiful ambience. That is what we are Colonial cousins because we have that British connect, and we love the colonial spaces and I think that’s why Colonial Cousins works. Being at Kala Ghoda has got that feel about it. It’s like homecoming for us.
ELLE: Why the name “Colonial Cousins”?
Leslee: So the thing was, we were trying to find a name for us. All these words were toying with were Sanskrit type names and they were not suiting our music and somehow, they just didn’t ring a bell. Then one day Hari went off to London, and he met his Parsi friend over there and went for high tea in some club. That friend told him, “You know what my British friends and I call each other? Colonial Cousins.” And so Hari came here and said, “Hey Les, what do you think of Colonial Cousins?” I was a bit jealous at that point, that Hari got the name. So Colonial Cousins just came from a conversation that Hari had with his friend.
ELLE: What were some of the challenges of working together after so long?
Colonial Cousins: No challenges, we’re looking forward to work again. Sometimes we meet for tea and we end up composing a song. But to meet is the challenge. Once we meet then there’s no challenge, then we have fun.
ELLE: So how do you find that the music industry has changed over the years. And what do you like and dislike about it?
See the music is all the same. Everything, everybody is producing music which they know. The way it’s being marketed and the marketplace of the music has changed.
Leslee: Yeah, I feel that with all the streaming options, they’ve tried to empower all the artists, which is great. But what has happened is they’ve taken away all the A&R Managers from the record labels. They were the filters for the audience, who filtered out the listenable artists or the ones not up to the mark. The audience got 4 or 5 artists out of a possible 10, but these guys were fantastic. A lot of them which were not up to the mark already got filtered out in the earlier days. Now with streaming and everybody uploading their own content, you have to be your own filter, you have to keep searching. You spend more time looking for a decent artist than actually sitting and listening to one. I think the big change in public is bombarded with so much music and at all levels.
But what are you listening to? You have to really rely on playlists which are again trying to be the guys who used to filter everything. Now they’ve got those guys working for the playlist and trying to tell you, these are the good songs, please listen to this. If you’re in this mood and listen to that, if you had a bad mood, whatever. The playlists have replaced the A&R managers and the public relies on those playlists to listen to these songs.
These people are intelligent – not like they’re not – but they’re learning and you are the guinea pig. They haven’t come having learnt. They are new guys who got picked up and got this job. They’re very talented in their marketing skills but they don’t necessarily musical.
ELLE: We loved Hariharan sir’s long hair in the 90s and those cool braids you sported. Do you guys hope to set new beauty standards again?
CC: We got to go bald man. That should be the new look. That’s why I’m sporting a beard, which makes me look different. That’s my cutting-edge now. Not the hair on the head but the hair on the face.
ELLE: So we can’t wait for you guys to set the stage on fire, has age changed things in the way you perform?
Not, yet! I think, if there is any change, it’s because you’re more experienced as an artist having lived for so many years doing the same thing. Your experiences improve. You probably have refined your skills from 20 years ago and you’re much more potent in that sense.
Hari: What happens when you go on stage now is that you take your time. You don’t rush into things. We enjoy our own music more because we have the time and the interest to listen to ourselves on stage.
Les: Because we’re not rushing, the audience can also savour it as you give it out slowly. It’s like a whole meal. You start with your appetizers, then the soups and then the main course will happen. There will be a few different kind of main courses that we will take you through. And then the dessert will happen.
Hari: Now, when we perform we’re so calm that we can step back and listen to our own concert, which we never used to do it because we are only excited to give. So now we can listen to ourselves. That hold on ourselves and our adrenaline is there today.
Les: And when Colonial performs I am always now listening to Hariharan, and when I’m singing he’s probably listening to me. As a whole like he said, we’re getting a chance to actually appreciate what his art is or my art is. Just soak up the moment.
ELLE: Have you chosen a genre for yourself?
In the 90s, if you saw our poster, it said, the first-ever Indie pop album because everything before it was Hindi pop. That genre in India was called Hindi pop. Then because we had Tamil and Telugu and Rajasthani and Kannada etc, so it became Indian pop. So as soon as we became Indie pop, everyone started calling themselves Indie pop, because Indie music had started becoming something in the west. Now whatever genre they call us, we’ll just keep doing the music. Colonial Cousins itself is a genre, because there is nobody else like us. There are only two people in it. When we did in the 90s, I told Hari, “We’re going to get a lot of competition. A lot of other guys will be doing this kind of stuff.” And till today I can’t find others doing the same thing. There are many people doing fusion and they’re is all in their own space but they don’t have this magic that we have. So we are still part of our own genre.