Don Hammontree's passion for all things Indian had humble enough origins: He thought Bollywood starlet Juhi Chawla was hot.
It was 1998, and Hammontree lived only a short distance away from Chicago's Devon Avenue, one of the nation's epicenters of Indo-American commerce, and was working part-time as a proofreader for an English-language newspaper that covered the Windy City's Indian community.
"You could say it was osmosis," said Hammontree, now a resident of Fall River, Mass., of his growing interest in the subcontinent. "As time went on, I became more and more fascinated by Indian culture - the politics, the history, the music, and of course, Bollywood (the nickname of India's burgeoning motion picture industry)."
Soon Hammontree was regularly renting Bollywood films from the video shops along Devon Avenue and devouring Indian movie magazines, eventually becoming a smitten admirer of Juhi Chawla and Karisma Kapoor, two of the industry's most
At the time, Hammontree was the guitarist and chief songwriter for the Chicago band Six Feet Over, and as they worked on their second CD "This" in 1999, Hammontree penned "Juhi Chawla," a humorous musical tribute to his
favorite actress. The band eventually recorded the song with the help of some young Indian musicians, and it became one of the band's most popular tracks.
"It was a fun song to do, and it got us a lot of publicity in the Indian community both here and overseas," said Hammontree. "Unfortunately, things were pretty tense in the band at the time, and we broke up before we could do
much with the CD."
Fast-forward to 2004.
Hammontree, now living in New England, was playing shows throughout the American Northeast to support his successful debut solo release, "Mount Hope Days," much of which had been co-produced by former Til Tuesday guitarist Robert Holmes. One night, while surfing the Internet, Hammontree received an instant message from an Indian journalist who wanted to know about the song "Juhi Chawla."
"I was a bit surprised, to say the least," said Hammontree.
"Apparently he'd read about it in an issue of an English magazine we'd sent a copy of the Six Feet Over CD to. So I told him about the song, he wrote an article, the tune ended up getting a little more media play, and I started
thinking 'hmmm' - maybe I should re-release this."
In addition to "Juhi," Hammontree told the journalist he'd written a more straightforward rock song about Karisma Kapoor, "Karisma Comes to Lowell."
"When I first moved to New England, there was a big Bollywood concert tour featuring Karisma that stopped at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, Mass.," said Hammontree. "I spent $100 so I could get a second-row seat, watched the show, had a great time.
"Somewhere along the line, I came up with the title 'Karisma Comes to Lowell,' which I thought was kind of humorous, and ended up writing a song around that title about a homesick Indian guy living in America who goes to this concert to kind of re-connect with his culture."
With those two songs in the bag, Hammontree decided to make an EP out of the project, remixing another song from the Six Feet Over days, "Ankle Chains," which features tabla work by Gopal Shah and powerful lead vocals from Six Feet
Over vocalist Kim Koppel.
Two new tunes were then recorded, "Subterranean Homesick Indian," a brief yet quaint guitar instrumental; and "The Queen's Necklace," a lush, keyboard-driven, Blue Nile-inspired ballad that's Hammontree's favorite song on the CD. (The Queen's Necklace is the nickname for Marine Drive in Mumbai, one of the city's most popular seaside promenades, pictured on the front cover of Hammontree's CD).
"On one level, 'The Queen's Necklace' is about my dream of traveling to India, which is unattainable right now because I can't afford it," he laughs. "But on a broader level, it's about the goals everyone has that never seem to be within reach, and how we have to keep our focus and
determination on them despite whatever obstacles life might throw in our path."
The EP also includes "No Turning Back," a haunting piano instrumental from "Mount Hope Days" that Hammontree admits, chuckling, "has nothing to do with India, but I thought it'd be a nice addition to the album."
Hammontree said he's proud of the way "The Mumbai EP" came out.
"I had never really been pleased with the way 'Juhi Chawla' and 'Ankle Chains' were originally mixed," he said, "but now they sound fantastic, the way they should have sounded back in '99. And the new songs, I think, are among the best I've ever recorded. 'The Mumbai EP' is a pretty solid work. I just hope everyone else thinks so."
He laughs. "Especially Juhi and Karisma."