Spotlight: Kishon Khan

Musical traveller Kishon Khan talks to Subi Shah about the levelling ability of the arts.

Photo: Siobhan Bradshaw

My first meeting with Bangladesh-born musician Kishon Khan was when a mutual student friend took me to his flat in central London. The doorbell was broken, it was late, raining and I wanted to go home, but my friend Umair was insistent: ‘Trust me, it’ll be cool!’

We stood in the dark throwing pebbles at Khan’s window until he buzzed us up. Inside, musicians of various nationalities were jamming to the soundtrack of Disney’s The Jungle Book. Nobody spoke much in any language I understood, each player immersed, communicating by eye contact and hand gestures. Umair was right though – it was deeply cool.

Another 20 years passed before I encountered Khan again, at a storming gig by Lokkhi Terra and the Afrobeat sensation Dele Sosimi. Lokkhi Terra – a collective set up by Khan combining Bangladeshi musical traditions with African and Latin American influences – followed on from his previous Afro-Cuban jazz project called Motimba. Khan had become a multi award-winning jazz pianist and composer, having travelled the globe in the interim, soaking up different cultures and influences. Travel informs Khan’s music, while music funds his passion for travel.

I hope people feel positive when they hear my music. I hope it encourages them to create their own, to dream and dance and laugh

‘Oh that flat!’ he exclaims, when I remind him. ‘Yes, it was a glorious time! I shared it with two wonderful musicians – [drummer] Stéphane San Juan from France and the late [bassist] Hilaire Penda from Cameroon. Those guys taught me a huge amount without even realizing it – for example how to be serious in the pursuance of excellence by constantly developing your practice regime. I actually saw Hilaire at Womad as an 18-year-old, playing with Salif Keita. It was amazing to be sharing a flat with him 10 years later. I’d regularly get home and find some of my favourite musicians sitting in my kitchen, all of whom really respected Hilaire. As a household, we’d spend so much time playing together at home, and then at gigs.’

After graduation, Khan travelled the world extensively, though fell in love with Cuba, where he lived for over a decade. ‘In Cuba I witnessed the great levelling ability of the arts, if education is funded properly,’ he tells me. ‘There are lessons for the world in Cuba’s approach, encouraging interest in sport and the arts from an early age – funding lessons for youngsters and recognizing the broader benefits of these sectors.’

With a continual stream of gigs at which he plays with a range of musicians, Khan remains thoroughly engaged in musical dialogue between different countries and traditions. ‘The musical conversations can be truly incredible,’ he says. ‘Cuban bass player Enrique Diaz was my chief inspiration when I lived there in the Nineties. He’d go out of his way to share the secrets to his music. We’d spend hours singing and scatting together, mixing elements of South Asian melodies and African grooves with Cuban traditions – it was the roots of what would become Lokkhi Terra.’

As for inspiration from the country of his birth, he says: ‘Bangladesh has a culture of song and poetry, you can go anywhere and ask anyone to sing you a song, and they will sing you loads picked from a rich folk history – it’s a living history as prominent today as it was 100 years ago. Bangladesh is an example to the world of how a country can achieve so much, despite politics and its failures.’

How does he want listeners to relate to his work, how does want them to feel?

‘I hope people feel positive when they hear my music. I hope it encourages them to create their own music, to dream and dance and laugh… but the music industry has never been kind to artists, money being the main obstacle. Gaining access to instruments, studios and lessons is reflected in the fact that diversity, particularly socio-economic diversity in music education is degrading. This is a problem among teachers as well as students. Charging students interest on loans in the UK is a disaster, and the lack of funding for community centres, which often organize instrumental and vocal coaching, is a disgrace.

‘There are many exceptions which all operate at the grassroots… Nothing is organized at a governmental level, stemming from a deep level of ignorance in political and business circles of the benefits of the arts. These are all old arguments which we are losing. I would not be doing today what I’m doing had it not been for the GLC [Ken Livingstone’s radical Greater London Council] making it possible for me to do a jazz course between school and university, which cost me £3 for the whole year! There are plenty of voices fighting this cause, and they must be amplified.’