Colonial Cousins re-unite: Hariharan and Leslee Lewis on music, brotherhood and everything in between

As the musical duo comes together after a decade to perform on stage at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai, Hariharan and Leslee Lewis take us on a nostalgic rollercoaster ride of their careers — and personalities — that have been intertwined together for three decades and counting

February 07, 2023 06:46 pm | Updated 06:57 pm IST

Hariharan and Leslee Lewis of the Colonial Cousins

Hariharan and Leslee Lewis of the Colonial Cousins

As far as stories of friendships go, it’s hard to beat this one.

In 1992, a talented singer named Hariharan (who had burst into the mainstream spotlight with Thamizha Thamizha for A. R Rahman’s debut album in Mani Ratnam’s Roja) met another equally-gifted composer-producer Leslee Lewis to record a jingle for the latter. A couple of hours — and an extended jam session — later, began one of the greatest musical collaborations of our times as the duo hit it off and there was no looking back.

More than three decades later, there is a ridiculously easy and warm camaraderie that seeps through when the two are in conversation. A bromance born out of years of creating, laughing and crying together; years of travelling and taking the stage in tandem; experiencing both highs and lows; and making a mockery out of time as they continue to roll back the years in style.

Hariharan and Leslee Lewis during a performance

Hariharan and Leslee Lewis during a performance

Though it has been nearly 10 years since they performed together in public, the Colonial Cousins continue to be as close as ever, as intertwined as they were artistically when their self-titled debut album released in 1996 and songs like Krishna, Sa Ni Dha Pa and Indian Rain catapulted them to international fame. 

Described as the pioneers of original Indian fusion music, Hariharan and Leslee went on to release more albums such as Aatma and Once More, while performing across national and global concert venues. 

Now, talking to us over a Zoom call on their reunion at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival on February 12 — which promises to be a trip down memory lane — the duo remarks that it will be an experience to cherish both for old fans who grew up listening to them, and younger listeners yet to discover their music, while also hinting at more concerts and new music in the pipeline.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Your first public concert after a decade; is there a reason why it has taken so long despite both of you staying thick as thieves?

Leslee: We are individual performers in our own right, but when we join together, there’s a certain kind of magic; a magic that comes only when we are together, and it’s reminiscent of the best time of our lives when we went all out pursuing something we were really into. It always rings a bell. There’s no agenda as such for this reunion; Kala Ghoda asked us and the festival is about art, and Mumbai is always home ground for us.

Leslee: “We are individual performers in our own right, but when we join together, there’s a certain kind of magic.”

Leslee: “We are individual performers in our own right, but when we join together, there’s a certain kind of magic.”

Hariharan: We both have a bit of a fakir mentality, in the sense we keep doing different things always. Les was busy with his gigs and music production; meanwhile, my ghazals, albums and Soul India concerts keep me occupied. We did do a couple of virtual performances during the pandemic, which was nice, but I am looking forward to singing live with Les again.

30 years since you guys first met and started collaborating together... what has changed over the years?

Hariharan: Well, one thing’s for sure… he was much trimmer back then! (laughs) But honestly though, we are pretty much the same guys even today. We still hang out for hours, and it’s just so easy, fun and ‘timepass’; we are only serious when we make music. Nothing is complicated with us.

Leslee: Hari went from being a singer to a friend to a big brother for me. He always takes care of me and vice versa. As an artist and an incredibly nice person, he is still the same, striving to be the best with razor-sharp focus; all the accolades and awards haven’t changed anything.

Hariharan: Oh, but I must mention, Les used to speak only in ‘modern’ English... now that’s changed! (grins)

Leslee: Haha, yes, now Hari speaks so much in English, and I have started writing and singing songs in Hindi too. How times have changed. 

What has been your biggest takeaway from working with each other?

Hariharan: Working with Les, I have learnt so much about music production. In certain songs like Kaash and Waqt Par Bolna, so much of my thought process came from him.

Leslee: It works both ways; we grab inputs from each other constantly. There’s a certain sense of osmosis in that space when we collaborate. Hari is so open with his art form... and what’s better than learning from the best?

Music streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube have given artists across the world access to listeners internationally and be discovered in a heartbeat. Have you ever wondered what could have been if Colonial Cousins had happened in today’s time and age?

Hariharan: Not at all. Colonial Cousins happened at a time and age when we both — and audiences — were ready for it. We were always way ahead of the curve, and set a path for several of Bollywood’s trends to follow in the years to come. Back then, there was a sense of aura and mystery around the artist, which was a good thing. Now there are so many videos, interviews, and everyone is overexposed.

Leslee: You know, we went global in the 90s itself — as global as can be. We won our MTV Award at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and the US Billboard Award in Las Vegas. We travelled in stretch limos, had Mariah Carey in the room next to us, and performed after George Michael. We were also the only Indian band to be invited to perform at the original MTV Unplugged. So yes, we already did it all back then!

Hariharan: Les, remember that schedule? It was so wicked, we won at MTV, sang alongside the likes of Bryan Adams, flew to Vegas immediately for Billboard, and then came back to Bengaluru that same night to perform. Those were the days, eh? (grins)

You were among the first to make a mark on the independent music scene in India; how do you think that space has evolved over the years? Have we reached a point where indie music and film music can co-exist?

Leslee: The film industry always eats up whatever is around it, and what is popular among the youth. So when independent singers come to the fore, they naturally get opportunities to become part of movies — from the likes of KK to so many young talents today — that process has always been there. Independent artists can continue to work on their respective projects in parallel.

Hariharan: But, it is a fact that scripts have fewer and fewer songs today; it is more of background scores, and lip-syncing in movies has come down by more than 60%. Having said that, film music will always exist. What is good about Bollywood or the other industries is that they take in a lot of genres apart from filmi music — be it rock, rap or blues — and incorporate it freely in their songs now.

In a talk at Google from a few years ago, you (Hariharan) remarked that the shelf life of a singer is shrinking with every passing year; gone are the days of an SPB, Yesudas or Hariharan who were celebrated throughout their careers. What do you attribute to this?

Hariharan: There are good singers and mediocre singers, but what makes one really popular and memorable is the song itself. Today, songs are very video-oriented and geared towards getting people to just tap their feet for sometime; they don’t stay in the heart or mind. 

Earlier, not only did songs have really beautiful lyrics, but there was no clutter — meaning a time period existed for audiences to absorb and enjoy them. My heart goes out to the young singers of today; they work very hard, but it is difficult to stay in the spotlight for more than five to eight years. 

Leslee Lewis and Hariharan pose in a throwback picture

Leslee Lewis and Hariharan pose in a throwback picture

If songs didn’t have videos, they would be remembered better. What happens is that people keep watching the videos on multiple platforms, get bored of the visuals and dances, and then stop listening to the song too. It’s such a shame.

Leslee: Absolutely, people used to listen to music on the radio and then imagine the lyrics come to life in different ways. Now, you are bombarded with new songs, and the system also doesn’t let you experience it for more than a short period.

Colonial Cousins composed for two Tamil films — ‘Modhi Vilayadu’ and ‘Chikku Bukku’ — why did you never venture into music direction for films after that?

Leslee: We keep saying this; we are a ‘timepass’ band! Being film composers was not something we aspired to do, it just happened, and once we finished two films, we went back to being Hariharan and Leslie in our independent ventures.

Hariharan: Commercial film music also has quite a few limitations. I let out my steam by composing ghazals; that gives me the freedom to make music as I like. (smiles)

Ahead of this concert, what’s your best memory of performing on stage, and why?

Hariharan: Performing Krishna at Billboard, for sure. The crowd was stunned at how peaceful it was. They’d heard all the popular bands in the world, but they became our fans with just one number. 

Leslee: Before we got on stage, everyone was looking at us confused; we were dressed in sherwanis and looking like princes (laughs) — nobody there knew what to expect from us. But the moment we started singing, the entire sound truck sat up, and the guy who runs Billboard — the top honcho — approached us and asked us where he could buy our album.

Finally, can you pick a favourite non-Colonial Cousins song or creation by each other? If not, then a quality you admire the most in your friend.

Leslee: I can’t pick just one — it’s too tough! Hari is one of the greatest singers ever, but you don’t see it. That’s because he doesn’t show it to you; all he shows is a great song. But if you really analyse the song, you will realise that nobody else is capable of doing what he can; for instance, the aalaap in Feel Alright.

Hariharan: The soul in Leslie’s voice. I’ve had so many people — even my mom — and famous musicians, be astonished at the pure soul you can spot in his voice and music. That magic still remains undiminished.

The Colonial Cousins will perform at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai on February 12

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival will be held from February 4th to 12, 2023, and will be spread over ten venues across the Kala Ghoda and Fort areas

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