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Pioneer, producer, EDM guru, no label fits when you march to your own beat

For years he was one of Bollywood’s premier sessions musicians, but it is only recently that Charanjit Singh and his revolutionary first album have been “discovered” by the electronic hipster set, writes Bhanuj Kappal.

BHANUJ KAPPAL  7th Dec 2013

Charanjit Singh | Photo: Rana Ghose

e's a different kind of man," laughs Suparna Singh. "Despite being his wife, I barely get to talk to him sometimes. His mind is always on the music."

Indeed, Charanjit Singh is a different kind of man. I'm sitting in the living room of the elderly couple's apartment in Khar, waiting to speak to the notoriously laconic musician about his recently re-discovered record Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat and his upcoming shows in India. While I wait, his talkative and charming wife fills me in on their career as a performing duo and her opinion of the European dance music audience ("The girls dance like snakes," she says.)

Singh has been hailed as the 'godfather of acid house' and an 'acid house legend'. But the truth is that Ten Ragas is not an acid house record despite a certain similarity in sound due to the instruments he used. Besides this isn't the story of how India invented acid house. Instead it's the fascinating story of one of the country's most unique experimental records, and of its creator.

Interested in music since his school days, Singh developed a penchant for trying his hand at many different instruments. It was that which got him an entry into film music.

"At that time I'd bought the latest model of the clavolin [an early keyboard] which was very popular — Kalyanji made the bean effect for Naagin on that," says Singh.

Music director duo Shankar-Jaikishan invited him to play the clavolin for the 1967 film An Evening In Paris. "That's how I got into sessions work, everybody started calling me then," he says. When he got bored of the clavolin, he picked up the bass guitar, which he played regularly for the legendary R.D. Burman. In fact, Singh has worked with some of the biggest names in Bollywood and performed various instruments on many iconic tracks (for example, the Hawaiian guitar on Laxmikant Pyarelal's Haye Haye Yeh Majboori).

It was on one of his shopping trips to Singapore in the early 80s that he purchased the then recently launched Roland instruments (The TB-303 bass synthesiser was launched in 1982, the Roland TR-808 drum machine and the Jupiter-8 keyboard in 1980 and 1981). At the time, Bollywood film music was full of synth-heavy disco, as popularised by Bappi Lahiri. Singh decided to try something different.

"I selected 10 ragas, and instead of using the tabla I used the disco beat," he says. He recorded the music over four days in the HMV/EMI studio at the World Trade Centre, Cuffe Parade. The result sounded nothing like disco, but at the time there were no other terms to describe it. HMV released the record in 1982 with little promotion and it quickly sank into obscurity.

Charanjit continued to play music, both as a sessions musician and an independent performer. He and his wife started performing as a duo, singing ghazals and film music covers to Bollywood audiences in the country and abroad. Ten Ragas was forgotten until 2002, when a Dutchman named Edo Bouman landed on their door.

ouman discovered Ten Ragas in a record store in Chandni Chowk. "I was amazed when I realised that this was an Indian record made in 1982," he says. He mentioned the record to jazz musician Louis Banks who told him that he knew the Singhs. So Bouman went to meet them and ask if he could re-issue the record. They were bemused, but happily gave permission and the record was re-issued in 2010 on Bouman's Bombay Connections label. Canadian-Indian film-maker Rana Ghose, who now manages Singh, first heard the record in Delhi at electronica producer Samrat B's house in 2010 and was blown away. The two decided to go meet him next time they were in Mumbai, and talk to them about the importance of the record and its similarity to acid house. Ghose shot the meeting, and put it up on YouTube.

Singh has been hailed as the ‘godfather of acid house’ and an ‘acid house legend’. But the truth is that Ten Ragas is not an acid house record despite a certain similarity in sound due to the instruments he used.

"On the one hand they were quite interested but they were also ultimately clueless about modern electronic and dance music," says Ghose. Nevertheless, he got along well with the Singhs and mentioned the story to a former colleague he was visiting in Bangalore. The colleague, who was now working with the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), was interested and told him that CIS would be willing to bankroll an event with Singh.

"So I went back to Bombay to meet Charanjit and discuss the possibility of him maybe playing this live," says Ghose. Bouman was also down to meet Singh at the same time, and the two quickly became friends. Together, they convinced Singh to do the show.

Singh played the record live for the first time on his Yamaha keyboard, assisted by Samrat B and guitarist Imaad Shah and got a great response. He then expressed interest in playing more shows, but this time on his own. But he no longer had the original instruments, which were now very expensive. It was only in 2012 that they found the right opportunity for him to perform again.

"A film festival in Copenhagen (CPH:Dox) had seen the 2010 video of us meeting Charanjit Singh and thought it was a remarkable story," says Ghose. "They wanted to screen the video and asked if he could play live at the festival."

With CPH:Dox paying for the air-fare and taking care of the visas, a 7-date tour — including shows in Brussels, London and Glasgow was set up. As a creative collaborator, Ghose and Burman also got Dutch producer Johanz Westerman aboard, who had mastered the Ten Ragas reissue and had the original Roland instruments at his studio in Groningen. Westerman would handle the sound and stage effects, while Charanjit played the music.

Five days before the first show, Singh started rehearsals at Westerman's Groningen studio. "Charanjit hadn't seen the gear in years and it took him a day to re-orient himself," says Ghose. "On the first day, Johanz and I were like 'what have we gotten ourselves into?'"

But Singh picks things up quick, and by the third day they were looking good. Still, everyone was very tense before their first show in Brussels. How would a European audience full of 20-something hipsters respond to a 72-year old Indian playing his first electronica club date?

As it turns out, the audiences loved it. They played to packed crowds, filling up hipster dive bars and big festival stages alike with people who were, in Suparna's words, "dancing like madmen". At one show, there were girls with bindis crowd-surfing. It was an experience completely alien to the two experienced performers who were more used to singing ghazals and film songs for sedate, middle-aged audiences. But it didn't take them long to learn to enjoy themselves.

Now, after two successful European tours, Singh is gearing up to play three Indian dates, including a headlining slot at the Magnetic Fields festival in Rajasthan. I ask Ghose why it took so long to set up another show in India.

"I always felt that booking them in India has to be at the right time, when Charanjit can get some press attention and has already built a reputation abroad," he replies.

Whatever the future holds, Singh's story is already quite an inspiring one. As Westerman puts it, "To tour and party like Charanjit does, at the age of 72, it's inspirational. Why stop, he says?"

Charanjit Singh will be performing at the Magnetic Fields music festival next weekend.


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