Back around 2006 you could have met Gagan Kokri smiling behind the wheel after hailing a taxi in Melbourne.
Now your best bet to catch a glimpse of the square-jawed Punjabi native and former cabbie is to tune into any of the Punjabi music channels around the world or simply fire up YouTube. There you can see him dancing and belting out soulful notes in his latest music videos.
We spoke to Kokri to find out how he went from taxis to a promising new player on the Punjabi music scene, while navigating a new country and juggling a growing business empire.
Gagan Sandhu grew up in Kokri Kalan, one of the largest villages in Punjab where his parents own a private school. Over the years the area has given birth to a huge number of Indians who have shipped off overseas for study and work. “About 50 per cent of the population is either living in Canada, America, Australia or somewhere out of India,” he explains.
Eventually the time came for Gagan to leave his family home too. He set foot in Melbourne at the start of 2006 to study hospitality management and not surprisingly, found his new life very different. “When I first came I was missing India a lot … it was a hard life because I’d never worked anywhere before coming to Australia. Coming here I was sweating and working and it was a hard experience,” he said.
Gagan drove taxis to make money and dabbled in hospitality but always had the bigger picture in mind. A businessman at heart, it was not long before he launched his first venture, an Indian-style hairdressing chain called Desi Cuts (Hair & Beauty Salon) in April 2012. “I am a business person, I always look for something better. I just had an idea about the salon. I didn’t want to open a normal salon, I wanted to do more; massage, beauty therapy,” he said. Unphased by his lack of experience behind the barber’s chair, Gagan employed friends who knew their way around a pair of sizzors and were keen to work. “I opened the first store [in Sunshine] and it went really well and so I opened the second branch [in Thomas Town]… it’s becoming a franchise now,” he said.
With his ever-searching eye for opportunity, Gagan embarked on a new business venture in the middle of last year, setting up what he proudly calls, “Australia’s largest Indian buffet”, Azooba. Photos of the sprawling new dining venue in Tullamarine show a funky modern glass bar, plush seating and rows of shining silver buffet trays cradling rich Punjabi dishes. And Gagan says business is already doing well, with Azooba fast becoming a favourite for weddings and parties. “It’s going good… It’s a different concept [for Melbourne]. We do North Indian, Indo-Chinese and traditional Indian food,” he said.
While his mind may be entrepreneurial, Gagan’s heart has always been in music. He started singing as a child and always managed to score a spot in school music performances.
But perhaps not surprisingly, Gagan’s entrance into the entertainment industry was as a businessman. For the past five years he has worked as a promoter, bringing big name Bollywood singers and Punjabi acts to Australia and setting up his own record label, PanjAab. Gagan only launched his own professional music career in mid-2013, releasing his first single RabKare on YouTube under his stage name Gagan Kokri.
Money may talk but it seems for Gagan that talent talks just as loud. RabKare quickly won him fans online and off and cemented his place as a newcomer to watch in Punjab’s booming music scene. The strength of his online following became clear this year when his Facebook page gained more than 102,000 likes in barely three months. “It’s growing at about 2000 [new likes] a day,” he says.
Gagan has taken a different approach to the traditional, head to a music studio, lay down an album, run around trying to sell it route. Instead he takes time crafting each song and shooting a music video for it before releasing it on YouTube. So far he has put out four tracks, the most recent, Colour, in mid-April. “Every song I want to come up with a video. With a full album, you can only do three or four videos. It’s more effective than a full album. The day I have 10 songs I’ll put it in an album and release it,” he said. Colour is getting air time on all Punjabi music channels and has been snapped up by Lokdhun Records.
While Gagan calls his style ‘romantic and loving’, his songs, penned by Punjabi writer Koki Di, also touch on hard-hitting issues. “My last serious song was on the current situation of Punjab where you have too much drug problems,” he said. Gagan is clearly moved by the substance abuse that has been tearing apart lives in his home state. He organised an anti-drugs camp in his village and his family runs an Ashram for homeless addicts in Rajasthan. “Most people are homeless because of the drug problem. They don’t know where they are just because they took so much drugs,” he says. “I want to tell the truth of the current situation of my land [through music],” he said.
Gagan’s music has touched a chord with people around the world, from villages in Punjab, to cities in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where he flew to perform in March as part of a mini-tour. “It went really well and people gave me so much response because I’m a local artist. I couldn’t believe it, how many people were there [to see me],” he said.
While he has built his music career himself so far, Gagan is not against approaching the industry bigwigs, mentioning a few deals and projects in negotiation.“Things are going to be pretty busy this year,” he muses. And the future will only get busier if his career aspirations pan out. “In 10 years, I hope to be doing movies as well,” he says. Not one to leave a plan idling, Gagan is already in talks to kick off his movie career.
So you may have missed a chance to catch a ride with Gagan in Melbourne but don’t despair, it seems there will be plenty of places to spot his smiling faces in years to come.
Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Magazine in Melbourne)