If you came to the original Alamo Drafthouse in the ‘90s, you almost certainly watched Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music as part of the pre-show. That was back when we would swap in VHS tapes from the booth, and Korla was in heavy rotation. His deep, hypnotic eyes would seem to gaze into your soul as he played his wonderful, smooth exotic music. It was the perfect for our blend of pre-movie entertainment. The story behind this mysterious musician, however, didn’t become known until many years later. We first found out about it when he became the adopted icon of Missouri’s amazing True/False film festival, an event that explores stories on the edge between truth and fiction.
The documentary KORLA is the amazing story of John Roland Redd, an African-American from Columbia, Missouri who migrated to Hollywood in 1939 and reinvented himself as a musician from India.
He played the piano and organ, wore a jeweled turban, had a hypnotic gaze and never spoke a word while performing on his own live television program, Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music. He also found fame as an actor, spiritual guide and recording artist and was later celebrated by a new generation of fans who crowned him the Godfather of Exotica Music.
As one of early television’s pioneering musical artists, Korla Pandit’s life was one of talent, determination, ingenuity, and racial passing. Korla Pandit kept his origins — as a black man from Missouri — a secret closely guarded until his passing in 1998.
“(John) recognized that becoming Korla Pandit was an opportunity for him to gain a level of fame that he couldn’t have as a black man,” said Allyson Hobbs, assistant professor of history at Stanford University and author of A Chosen Exile, an examination of racial passing in America.
It wasn’t the first time Redd had passed as something other than black; Korla Pandit was just one of his incarnations. After arriving in Los Angeles, he began playing jazz and R&B but quickly realized he could make more money playing Latin tunes. Passing as Mexican, he was able to join the whites-only Musicians Union and found regular work as “Juan Rolando.” He also had a gig playing mystical background music for the Chandu the Magician occult radio show and occasional work masquerading as the Indian organist “Cactus Pandit” for Roy Rogers’ musical group Sons of the Pioneers. Both of these helped flesh out the later Korla Pandit persona.
Enjoy this fascinating portrait of an extraordinary musician, the first black man in America to have his own television program. He quietly built and defined the Exotica music genre, and did so while keeping his true racial identity secret for nearly fifty years.