Leslee Lewis and Hariharan at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Festival: 'Respect has kept the Colonial Cousins together for three decades'

Leslee Lewis and Hariharan at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Festival: 'Respect has kept the Colonial Cousins together for three decades'

Colonial Cousins, Leslee Lewis and Hariharan, who will be performing at a festival in Mumbai today, recount their journey so far

Roshmila BhattacharyaUpdated: Saturday, February 11, 2023, 09:25 PM IST
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Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Leslee Lewis was the king of jingles and Hariharan, a classical and ghazal singer well versed in Hindustani and Carnatic music, would often sing for him in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. One evening, in ’92, they were in the studio, waiting for the lyrics to be delivered, when Leslee picked up his guitar and started strumming some Blues music. Hari joined in, singing alaaps.

“I moved to country music, Hari kept pace. I switched from genre to genre, scale to scare, he continued singing. Soon, everyone stopped working, and sat on the floor, listening to us. It was our first performance,” Leslee recounts. After half an hour, the phone jangled. The script was ready. It was back to the Hero moped jingle.

But neither forgot that impromptu session and Leslee suggested they collaborate on an album. When told he’d be singing the language portions and another singer in English lines, Hariharan refused, insisting he’d sing only with Leslee. “I pointed out that I was a music producer and composer, not a singer. He was adamant. Finally, I agreed, but only if we formed a band and performed together. And Colonial Cousins was born,” Leslee shares.

The name came from Hariharan. “A friend, a Parsi from Mumbai who’d settled in London, confided that his friends and he called themselves the ‘Colonial Cousins’. The name stuck and we borrowed it for our brand,” he smiles.

They started when not many bands were doing live shows for lack of venues. Soon, they were a craze across India. Leslee recalls how after a show in Kolkata’s St. Xavier’s College, frenzied fans almost tore off their clothes and threw themselves on their car to stop them from leaving. In smaller cities like Bhopal and Indore, crowds of 7,000-8,000 sang with them. The numbers doubled when they flew to Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai. Even in the West, the Colonial Cousins played at exclusive clubs like Planet Hollywood and in award shows like the US Billboard’s Viewers Awards in Las Vegas. The same year, 1996, they were on MTV Unplugged. “Seven cameras were shooting the event live at London’s The Fountain Studio. We were on a world stage with George Michael performing one day and Seal the next. It was exciting!” Hariharan exclaims.

Leslee remembers making the first calls when BPL mobile was inaugurated. Memories come flooding back of a performance at Mumbai race’s course. “In open air and torrential rain because none of those who’d paid to listen to us, would leave despite the downpour,” he laughs.

Incidentally, Leslee’s favourite song from their debut album is Indian Rain. Hariharan loves it too and wanted to sing the entire song while Leslee insisted on singing the English portions. “All day we argued, then sat in opposite corners of a studio in Oxford which was costing us 15,000 pounds, money we couldn’t afford to waste. Finally, at 5 pm, Hari suggested we go out for a beer. Sitting in an English pub he reasoned that though I was the music producer, as my band partner he had equal rights over the song. We went back to the studio and I recorded it solo with him,” narrates Leslee.

But when he heard the recording, Hariharan admitted Leslee had been right and re-recorded the track as a duet with him. “That day, I realised Hari is not just a great singer, he’s a great artiste for whom nothing is more important than the song. That respect has kept the Colonial Cousins together for three decades,” he asserts.

Hariharan’s favourite song from the album is Krishna. “Around 15 years ago, in the midst of war and terrorism in Sri Lanka, the song was played all through a peace march for its message,” he beams proudly.

The Colonial Cousins will be performing at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Festival today, February 12. It’s not a reunion, Hariharan is quick to inform that they have been doing corporate and private shows. “We’ve just returned from Dubai, but public performances in Mumbai are few because of the high entertainment tax,” he says and Leslee quips, “Also, we need to be invited first.”

Meanwhile, Hariharan is gearing up to release an album titled Man Marzi with Bickram Ghosh who has composed all the six songs, from geet and ghazals to qawwali, and he’s sung them. When will the Colonial Cousins come out with another album? “It’s difficult to promote an album today, but a single or two might just pop up,” Leslee signs off, picking up his guitar.

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