Classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer. Microbiologist. Raghu Dixit has gone through his fair share of evolutions. But today the Bangalore-based Dixit travels the world with his band, the Raghu Dixit Project, winning converts to his high-energy Indian folk-rock blend. Three years ago, his self-titled debut album—which featured Kannada, Hindi and English lyrics strung over an intoxicating mix of folk, blues, rock, Sufi, funk, reggae and Latin— became the best-selling non-Bollywood album in India. His long-awaited sophomore LP is due out in November. Friday, he’s at World Cafe Live.
When you first started, you sang exclusively in English.
As a child from a typical conservative Indian family, it was considered extremely prestigious to attend an English medium school. So from a very young age, I was trained to think in English. Even today, I can’t even think of lyrics immediately in my language. I have to come up with lyrics in English and then I translate. It was also considered very cool in India to sing in English. [Laughs.] It was only much later, when I was 26, faking my English, that I realized it was not who I was. When I started writing lyrics in Hindi and Kannada, I began singing with much more conviction. Today, I can’t imagine myself singing a whole song in English. Ten years from now, I don’t know what language I will sing in. Swahili? Who knows? [Laughs.] Right now, I am trying to sing in my father’s tongue, Tamil. As a rebellious son to my father, I was very adamant that I wouldn’t learn his language. But now I wish I had.
Your songs encompass many cultures, not just Indian.
People think there’s only three kinds of Indian music: classical music, Bollywood music and Punjabi music. As much as independent music crusaders hate Bollywood, it has the reach and appeal that no other form of music has in India. But there’s so much more happening. The Indian independent scene is huge. We are very Western-influenced and clever at adapting to and borrowing from cultures from around the world. But at the core, we’re very Indian.
Which artists do you draw inspiration from?
I am inspired more by the philosophies behind how musicians make music than types of music. For instance, Sting’s lyric-writing capability could be considered literature tomorrow. It could be in textbooks. I also love the philosophy of making people happy through music, so I turn to musicians like Bob Marley. And I really admire Fela Kuti, who created an uprising with his music and brought the whole of Africa together. Those kind of musicians inspire me.
Your first time playing the guitar was spurred by a bet. Tell us that story.
I started learning classical dance when I was 8. There’s a misconception among Indian men that classical dance should be performed only by women. I had a college classmate, a guitar player, who saw me removing my makeup after a college performance, and he told me I looked effeminate. “You should actually be holding a guitar like me,” he told me. “There’s nothing great about the guitar; anyone could learn to play it in two months,” I responded. So I went ahead and started learning it. But in those two months, I discovered what a joy it was to play, and I found that I actually had a voice. And now I get paid to sing.
Fri., Sept. 14, 8:30pm. $15. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. 215.222.1400. philly.worldcafelive.com