WERS Sits Down with Johnny from Dhol Foundation
By Alex LaRosa
Sunday’s CRASHfest indoor world music festival was filled with artists that brought both passion and percussion to the Main Stage at the House of Blues, but none delivered quite like Dhol Foundation. Named for a school in London, England, that the band members founded, the 7-piece act from the United Kingdom electrified their audience, pounding their Indian dhol drums, making jokes, and prompting the entire space to dance and shout along with them. I had the privilege of going backstage after their performance to sit down and talk with the lead percussionist and bandleader, Johnny Kalsi.
Their massive stage personality made Dhol Foundation stand out in such a talent-studded night. “It kind of tuned itself, really, and molded into what it’s become: this mad monster of a gig,” said Johnny. Throughout their 50-minute set, the band members danced in unison, running an efficient and well-timed rhythmic display. “I’m glad we managed to fit everything we decided to do… We managed to squeeze it all in and it was great,” he added.
Throughout the show, Johnny actively involved the audience, giving them small parts to sing in a few songs. Before one song, he told the ladies in the crowd to “tighten your bra straps,” in preparation for a wild dance. Sure enough, for most of the set, almost everybody in the Main Stage was moving to the beat.
Although the songs featured lead vocals, there were no vocalists on stage on Sunday night. “The reason is quite simple,” Johnny said. “I’ve worked with so many different people and so many different bands.” However, everything the musicians play on-stage is live, and Johnny emphatically sang along with the vocal tracks. He and his band mates kept up a high level of energy throughout, and filled the entire Main Stage with passionate listeners.
The band’s attire was another defining feature of their live performance. Dressed in sharp red and black, they stood out and looked like one cohesive unit. “We were out in India and we thought, ‘Let’s get something that’s not off-the-shelf’,” so they got their shirts tailor-made. Johnny sported shoes with light-up soles, which he said the whole band would be adding to their look soon.
Johnny also talked about the band’s touring habits. “We’re kind of big on the festival circuit in England, and a bit of Europe. There’s some parts of Europe that we kind of boycott,” he said, citing taxes and paperwork that bands need to fill out. They don’t often tour America, but Johnny said they’re hoping to change that soon. “We’re tuning everything so that we get the formula correct here in the States, so that the Dhol Foundation can come back and do a coast-to-coast in September,” he said.
The Dhol Foundation formed after the members finished touring with Peter Gabriel. “We saw the big stages… We were like ‘that’s where we want to be.’” So in 1995, they recorded an album that sat unreleased for six years before release. “My honest opinion is, I think, it was too advanced for the time,” said Johnny. “People just didn’t get it. They were expecting an album that was going to be just drums and it wasn’t, it was full-production.” They caught their big break in 2002 when they were featured in Martin Scorsese’s film “Gangs of New York.” “It put us on the map; it was amazing to get that.”
Many ask: What’s next for Dhol Foundation? “I also play with another outfit called The Afrocelt Sound System,” Johnny said, “and they’ve sold two million albums and we’re about to release another one. Basically, we go straight back to do a big Celtic festival.” Dhol Foundation also recently signed on to a new agency from the United Kingdom, and with that, they are preparing for that new tour in September to bring their music back to America.