Victorious Festival: The Dhol Foundation bring bhangra and Bollywood to the World Music Village

Any major festival worth its salt these days will have plenty to see and do beside the big name draws on the main stages.

Friday, 16th August 2019, 3:55 pm
Updated Friday, 23rd August 2019, 3:03 pm
Johnny Kalsi, founder of The Dhol Foundation

And so it is at Victorious. The organisers pride themselves on having created a family-friendly festival – there’s the kids’ arena, comedy and literature stages, a circus tent and much more.

But one of its real gems is the World Music Village with its dizzying blend of styles, showcasing genres from across the globe, and its multicultural atmosphere – it is a festival within a festival.

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An act destined to be one of the highlights of this year’s World Music Stage are The Dhol Foundation on early Saturday evening. While billed as a DJ set, there’s a lot more to it than just a bloke behind some decks spinning some records – it features four dhol drummers, a tabla player, guitarist and, obviously, a DJ, mixing up bhangra, Bollywood and beats.

Johnny Kalsi is the founder of The Dhol Foundation, and a leading light of the world music scene – he has been a member of Transglobal Underground, The Imagined Village and is part of the Afro Celt Sound System (who recently played at Wickham Festival and are due at The Wedgewood Rooms in September), as well as playing in numerous other projects.

But this will be his first visit to Victorious.

‘This is really exciting, I was looking it up the other day,’ Johnny tells The Guide, ‘we love all those family festivals.’

The Dhol Foundation performing live, Johnny Kalsi second from left. Picture by Ebrahim Edawi/AFP/Getty Images

The village is put together with Arms Around The Child, a charity supporting deprived children in India and Africa, an angle which particularly appeals to Johnny. Much of what he does has had a basis in helping young people and education.

‘Absolutely, that’s how we started. We thrive on education, getting kids off the streets. Back in the day, I did this collaboration with the Arts Council and Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance, which was set up by Peter Gabriel) – they flew me out to New Zealand.

‘It was quite an eye-opener to go to a real Maori camp out in the sticks. One of the projects we did was to get six Maori kids and six Samoan kids together. One thing I didn’t know is that there’s a real gang culture out there. So what we did, we got them together – the common ground was hip-hop – we threw them in a studio and said we’re going to make a track.

Johnny Kalsi playing with Afro Celt Sound System at Wickham Festival 2019. Picture: Paul Windsor

‘During the breaks I sat down with them and asked: “What’s going on guys? Why is their such hatred towards each other’s culture?” We’re all human at the end of the day, and I just give them a bit of a humanity talk They said one of them did a drive-by, and then there was retaliation and it got bigger and bigger.

‘It got to the point where these kids were in the studio and they had to work together in an enclosed environment.

‘We finished three tracks, we put it on a CD and gave it to all of them, but what really came out of it was that they all became mates.

‘It made the news, which was ultimately what we wanted – to give it that profile. They sold the CD and it raised money for the support of people that lost their family members as well as pumping money into educating the kids to do more stuff like that.

‘And so I’m all up for anything bringing kids together and getting them off the streets, giving them something that’s sustainable, giving them an education, giving them some music – just putting a little bit of drumming magic in their palm and saying: “Off you go…”’

Born in Yorkshire and the son of immigrants, Johnny has had a lifelong love of music – he began learning the tabla, the Indian percussion instrument, at seven. As he describes it: ‘It’s quite intricate and very delicate, it’s quite amazing, the intricacies. As my dear friend (famed tabla virtuoso) Zakir Hussain says: “It takes more than one lifetime to learn this instrument.”’

But it was at school where he discovered the western drum kit, which gave him the first proper taste of playing before an audience.

‘I used to watch my mates play drums when they would have lessons. I thought to myself, you know what? I could actually do that.

‘One day, one of the boys was in a bit of a funny mood and he said: “Let Johnny have a go”, thinking they would have a good laugh, but actually I played a straight drum rhythm – four to the floor.

‘None of them could believe that he’d picked it up purely from watching them practice.

‘They were saying I was a natural, so from that moment I became loved and hated at the same time because I ended up in the jazz band, the school band and ended up as the main drummer for the orchestra.

‘I was known as The Drummer for the next four years of my school life!’

However, it was at 14 that the dhol – the distinctive double-headed drum – came into his life via an uncle who played for a bhangra team.

‘I was intrigued about the sound, intrigued about the fact that it was an instrument that was free – you’re not behind any fixed drums, you’re wearing it slung over your shoulder like a guitar.

‘I joined a local band called Mela Group at 16, and that was it. I would look forward to weekends because at weekends we would have gigs.

‘From eight in the morning on a Saturday, and sometimes we would have double gigs, so I wouldn’t get home until 2-3am and then I’d have to be up on the Sunday for more. But it was great, I was loving it, I was living my best life and I could have been doing a lot worse in my teenage years! You get those stories of the drugs and the booze and rock’n’roll lifestyle, but I never had any of that, ever, all we were doing was Indian weddings,’ he laughs.

‘Those were the years that became my practice time and where I was able to develop. I wasn’t playing a fixed repertoire – I was free, I could experiment and try different beats. Then I joined an international bhangra group called Alaap and that’s where I really got my wings because before I was 18 I was touring the world.’

His playing has taken him across the world, and also to some prestigious events back home in the UK – such as the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, the Queen’s birthday celebrations at The Royal Albert Hall, and earlier this year, at the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey.

He chuckles as he recalls the latter event: ‘The archbishop, when he heard it in rehearsal, he leaned over to me and he goes: “You’ve woken up some rather old kings and queens there... But I think they liked it.”

‘And I said, “Well I’m glad about that one, because we’d be in trouble if they didn’t!”

The star percussionist says he always envisioned himself being successful.

‘I always had a vision of being up there, but I thought we’ve got to try and aim high, my motto in life is just keep doing it, keep going – be a horse with blinkers, don’t look left or right – look forward, and that’s what’s carried me.

‘Occasionally when I look back, often when I'm doing interviews, I think: “Oh my god, that’s what I did!” There’s so much. It’s nice to be on a little mound and look around at everything you’ve done.’

Johnny’s parents were initially unhappy with his chosen lifestyle – they had hoped he would be a doctor or solicitor.

‘They hated it! I was the only son, and I completely rebelled, it didn’t go down too well.

‘With other Asian parents at the local temple, they’d brag about their own kids to my dad: “This is what my son’s doing, what’s your son doing?” And my dad would put his head down.

‘It was only when I started international touring and getting my face on TV every now and again, he could hold his head up again.’

And now?

‘He was there at Westminster Abbey as a guest which was really lovely. He was sitting like six rows behind the queen – he was chuffed.’

Victorious Festival starts today until Sunday. Friday tickets are £40, Saturday and Sunday are £45 each. Go to victoriousfestival.co.uk.