Hours after the death of 53-year-old Krishna Kumar Kunnath, popularly known as KK, his friend Nikhil Alva shared two photos on Twitter as he remembered the “kind, soft-spoken” musician with whom he had bonded over music. KK gave India some of Bollywood’s biggest hit songs including “Pal”, “Tadap Tadap”, “Yaaraon”, and many more.
The photos that Alva had shared were unique: they were the only photographic remnants of a visit and musical performance that Alva had gotten an opportunity to present with KK, as a group of six musicians representing India during the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989 in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This was held under the rule of President Kim Il Sung, making them among the few Indian artists to have gotten an opportunity to perform in the country.
“We all have albums and things of our past that are important to us. So, this was something that I felt like sharing,” says Alva. Some three decades have passed since Alva found himself boarding a flight to Pyongyang with KK, Julius Packiam, now a prominent Bollywood music composer, musician Ravi Ramachandran and Desmond Powell, who later went on to become the lead guitarist for the Indian rock band Bandish, in 1989 for Pyongyang, DPRK’s capital.
Between July 1-8, the DPRK hosted what was a major international event, drawing participants from 180 countries, where people experienced cultural events, speeches and discussions following the theme of “anti-imperialist solidarity, peace and friendship”.
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“We were actually five musicians who used to play in different bands who came together for the tour in North Korea. We were all friends and we knew each other,” Alva says of his college days in New Delhi. “We heard that auditions were being held and we auditioned and got selected.”
“We used to play together under the name Blitzkrieg. But in Pyongyang, we were ‘The Rock Band from India’,” says Alva. It was the draw of international travel and a visit to North Korea that drew the five to the auditions in New Delhi, Alva recalls.
Traveling in the 1980s meant that there was little information and awareness of what this trip would entail. But of the five, Alva says that his interest in history had meant that he knew marginally more than his bandmates about the country where the group was preparing to perform.
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Alva does not remember details of the instructions that the band received during a briefing held by the Ministry of External Affairs weeks before their departure, but he says that it involved intense preparations all through June 1989. The line-up that the group prepared was a mix of Bollywood classics, with some English numbers thrown in; 60-40 being the ratio, Alva says.
“The brief was definitely an emphasis on popular Bollywood music, which is where KK came in because he was fantastic in that genre of music. The briefing was that we were showcasing India, that we were showcasing Bollywood, but that at the same time there were modern influences (in the country),” Alva explains.
The delegation that traveled from India was fairly large, with 40 members representing some of the best of India’s cultural representatives, in addition to the country’s diplomats. Just a year before, Seoul had successfully hosted the Olympic Games of 1988 and some analysts believe that North Korea’s decision to hold the World Festival of Youth and Students, that cost an estimated $4.5 billion, in addition to a massive deployment of the country’s resources to host an event of this magnitude, was in response to the Olympics and to a message to the international community. Although official figures were not available immediately, some records of the event state that more than 20,000 foreigners traveled to North Korea for the event.
Alva recalls traveling from New Delhi to China, from where the contingent took an onward flight to Pyongyang. “We were quite impressed with Pyongyang because it seemed like a modern city with wide avenues, boulevards, and huge skyscrapers. We were staying on the 30th or the 35th floor of a gigantic hotel. We came away quite impressed with the scale of North Korea. They had a metro which we didn’t have in India,” he says.
He remembers the overwhelming size of the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, which in 1989 was the largest stadium in the world, and the magnitude of the opening and closing ceremonies in Pyongyang. Alva’s recollections indicate that the Indian contingent may have been more fortunate than their colleagues from other parts of the world.
For one, he was able to travel around the city, some other contingents who later shared their experiences unlike saying that they weren’t able to leave their designated accommodation. “But it was a sanited version. In hindsight, a few things struck me: we rarely saw old people; there were mostly young people. The streets looked too large for the traffic. There were six-lane boulevards but no traffic. Coming from India, we had never seen that,” he says.
That week that Alva spent with KK and his friends in North Korea has remained in his mind, although more in fragments than a clear recollection, given the years that have passed. “It was something we bonded over and something we joked about many years later.”
On the drum was Ravi Ramachandran, with KK handling the vocals, along with Julius Packiam who also played the bass guitar. Alva played the keyboard and Powell played the lead guitar. The group performed five to six times during the week that they were in Pyongyang, mostly outdoors, to a crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 people. “KK stood out because of the Hindi stuff that he sang which was distinct for the audience,” Alva says of the Bollywood numbers they performed.
“We did a lot of Kishore Kumar, because Kishore Kumar was KK’s favourite. There were some qawwali and ghazals like ‘Pichhli Yaad Bhula Do’, ‘Mera Jeevan Kora Kagaz’,” Alva says. The interview with indianexpress.com presses Alva to delve deep into his memories, and some tunes come to mind: “Zindagi Ek Safar, Chhu Kar Mere Manko, Roop Tera Mastana, Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai, Yeh Sham Mastani,” he says.
Alva remembers the group playing to a largely Russian audience, as well as to representatives of other Asian countries who had been attending the World Festival of Youth and Students. “Bollywood was very popular in the 1970s to 1980s in Russia and in that belt. So people were actually humming the tunes. KK picked up a lot of fans on that trip and people really liked his voice,” he says.
One of those fans turned out to be a representative of what Alva Senegal believes was the contingent from, who had fallen in love with KK’s voice; so much so that he ended up sticking close to the group for the remainder of their stay in Pyongyang. Alva points to one of the two photos he had shared on Twitter: “In the photo I’ve shared, there is a gentleman from Africa. He was not a part of the band but he was a fan of KK. He was a groupie who jumped into the photo,” Alva says with a laugh. “I think he was from Senegal but I’m not sure. He followed us right through that trip. He became a buddy and we remember going out together for dinner with him and his friends.”
The second photo is one that Alva speaks fondly of, that features four members of the group. “It was taken outside the apartment block where we were living. The other one was taken just before the evening performances where we had gone to do a soundcheck at the venue but I don’t remember the context,” he says.
Several years after their visit to Pyongyang, between 2004 to 2005 when Alva was producing Fame Gurukul, an Indian reality show focused on finding musical talent in India, KK had served as a judge on the panel. The production process took almost a year and gave Alva and K.K. a chance to discuss their memories of performing in Pyongyang as 20 year-olds.
“I was talking to someone today and we discussed how KK was so reserved and laid back. He was not one of those in-your-face celebrities. He was a performer and that is what brought him alive,” Alva says. “Something about him and his voice touched a very wide audience which in his lifetime which he may not have realised, but unfortunately in his death, we do.”
KK’s contributions to Bollywood are well known, but perhaps his music had started touching the lives of people even before fame found him in the brutal competitiveness of Bollywood, Alva contemplates. It appears to have started all the way back 33 years ago in Pyongyang, when he had people from around the world humming along with him, dissolving language and cultural barriers as music has the ability. Or perhaps it had started even before that, when KK and his friends began establishing themselves as performers in the college concert circle in New Delhi. “Two years after we returned from Pyongyang, he moved to Mumbai and fame found him. He was just a very likeable guy,” says Alva.
All that remains of that trip to Pyongyang now, are a handful of scattered memories and two photographs that Alva has of dear friends.