When it comes to blues harmonica, it's all or nothing at all. In the wrong hands, the harp becomes a weapon of mass distraction, a screeching annoyance that can completely destroy any song. But, as historic blues masters like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson ably demonstrated, it's also an instrument capable of boundlessly swinging, funky, expressive power.
Bay Area-based harmonica player Aki Kumar definitely falls into in the latter category. The Mumbai-born musician, who appears Sunday at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, seems, at first, a startling anomaly, but his atmospheric, dynamic brand of blues gleams with an undeniable appeal.
It's an extraordinary story, where, relatively late in life, Kumar quite abruptly surrendered to a romance with the blues and soon recognized it as his destiny.
"I dabbled in music without ever taking it too seriously," Kumar said. "Although my parents weren't musicians, they listened to different kinds of music, everything from Bach to John Denver, from Stevie Wonder to the Police. When I was 9, they enrolled me in a class for Hindustani, traditional Indian music, and while I didn't quite appreciate it then, it gave me a solid foundation for my future music journey."
Kumar came to America at age 18 in 1998, but his musical diet of Bollywood, Western pop and MTV rotation fodder was completely deficient when it came to mid-20th-century American roots music.
"Shortly after I moved out to the U.S,, out of sheer boredom, I randomly tuned into a couple of 'oldies' radio stations and found that I really enjoyed them," Kumar said. "I fell in love with everything I heard, rock 'n' roll, blues, doo wop, basically, everything from that era. That really did it. Once I delved a bit deeper, it was obvious that I had to explore Chicago and Delta blues to get to the source of this music."
The kid was hooked. After graduating San Jose State University, he settled into life as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, but the blues had already infiltrated his soul. "Around the same time, I found a very cool, underground blues scene in the Bay Area that featured some world-class musicians, especially blues harmonica players. Guys like Gary Smith, Mark Hummel, Andy Santana, Rick Estrin and David Barrett, who was my teacher for many years."
"I lead a double life, 9 to 5 guy by day, musician by night for many years, until it became very difficult to sustain both," he added. "In the end, I decided to follow my heart and I've been fortunate to have enough work [performing] to not make it feel like a completely foolish career choice."
Kumar clearly took the right path. He has a natural propensity for the music, with a rich, deep tone and a sensitive, economic style that emphasizes feel over flash.
"From a blues perspective, tone is king, regardless of what instrument you play," Kumar said. "If you have weak tone, you're never going to deliver your message right. I've worked hard on developing good tone by improving my breath control, learning to use my diaphragm better and learning a technique called tongue-blocking."
His music easily entwines elemental blues bedrock with his own personalized form of expression, and Kumar's 2015 debut album, "Don't Hold Back," is a solid, convincing set that showcases not only his tastefully brawny harp but also Kumar's coolly authoritative vocal style.
"I draw great inspiration from my blues heroes and, in many ways, I try to emulate them, their style, their intensity," Kumar said. "The realization that I have an opportunity to follow in the great tradition that is American blues and hopefully leave my own mark on it is a very motivating force for me as a performer. "
"The blues is also about storytelling and about emotion. Every one of us has a story to tell, with all the emotional highs and lows that we experience. Being a performer provides me with a terrific platform to convey mine, musically and lyrically."
Above all, Kumar stresses one point: "Be honest. Speak the truth."
Who: Aki Kumar
Where: Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: Sunday, Jan. 17, 8 p.m.
More info: (818) 729-0805, joesgreatbar.com