The Re-Emergence of Charanjit Singh
It’s as Bollywood a moment as any – Charanjit Singh, the 72-year-old anachronistic pioneering producer of acid house, Bollywood musician and composer, teases his wife about the attention he received from 20-something girls on the eve of his first club gig in Europe. “In Brussels, several fans queued up to get their vinyl autographed,” he says. “One girl, [makes a gesture with his hands], held the vinyl across her chest and asked me to sign it while she held it there.” Singh nudges me, points to his partner Suparna and laughs heartily. When I turn to look at her, the usually loud, confident and outspoken lady looks away, embarrassed and shy.
Suparna gets up to supervise a trio of workers who are giving their flat in the western suburb of Santacruz in Mumbai a fresh coat of paint. It’s an apt metaphor for Singh’s newest avatar as a live electronic musician, bringing down the house to packed clubs, where he recreates and improvises his seminal 1982 album 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat, discovered and reissued by Dutch crate digger and Bombay Connection label owner, Edo Bouman. Singh’s descriptions of his art, inspiration and gigs are famously nonchalant and our session is no different. He says that he was never nervous during his gigs (“I knew what I had to play and we had rehearsed for four days. There’s no point being nervous.”). He narrates how he experienced a surge of adrenalin in Brussles, when they exploded into frenzy at the drop of the 808 bassline on Raag Bhairav and he felt “happy” to be reunited with the Roland Jupiter-8, TR-808 and TB-303, 31 years after he first laid hands on it.
Photo by Rana Ghose
Singh is keen to point out how different the tour was compared to the regular Bollywood concerts where he plays keyboards and sings ghazals and classic Hindi film numbers. Those gigs afford him the luxury of being seated in a mehfil, performing to an audience of largely composed of middle-aged and geriatric Indians. “I never played standing before,” he says. “If I did ghazals standing, they’d become disco ghazals and that wouldn’t sound as good. And I never stay up so late at night,” he adds, grinning, (one of the gigs kicked off at half past midnight).
There’s a childish delight on his face as he remembers these details and although his devout Christian wife disapproves of the “scantily clad women” who danced to her husband’s songs, (“samp jaise udi maar rahe the” – “they danced like snakes”, with drinks in one hand and “the lord alone knows what they had in the other” (referring to cigarettes / joints), she’s already forgiven them because they were open in their appreciation towards “the first Indian man to bring them their western music in a club, live”.
When you consider the self-awareness, pompousness and braggadocio of some of the early and current pioneers of electronic music, it’s hard not to love this affable duo whose work has barely been covered by the media (Singh’s reserved and quiet nature doesn’t encourage too many journalists to probe further, either.). There has been no flood of remixes by star names to boost the initial release (it’s been almost three years since Bombay Connection reissued the album) and to push local and international tours.
How Singh came to experiment with synthesizers, influenced by his contemporary, Bollywood producer Bappi Lahiri, who produced the music for the film Disco Dancer in 1981, is now common knowledge; first documented in some detail on the fantastic sleeve notes on the 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat album. Bouman picked up the LP in 2002 in Delhi at an Indian equivalent of a thrift store, intrigued by the title but “wasn’t ready for the mind-blowing, stunningly modern acid house-like sounds”…where “he [Charanjit Singh] played centuries-old classical Indian ragas…and made them sound like house. The record worked as one consistent listen, providing an oriental electronic trip from beginning to end.” Bouman then met Louis Banks, one of India’s most famous jazz musicians, the same week and found out that Singh was not only alive but was Banks’s neighbour in Bombay.
Singh, on his part, recounts how he recorded the album over four days (the album notes say two), at the HMV studios in Colaba. He requested that no-one be allowed to enter and created the sounds of the flute, santoor, veena, been and shehnai on the synthesizer. As far as the selection of the ragas go, Singh said that he studied the ragas in the studio, and in a rare moment of elucidation, added that some of them were dear to him, like Raga Todi, sung by India’s decorated shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan,(you can chirping birds, created on the synthesizer) and Raga Bhupali, which “they teach kids” (the Singh’s are childless). On the final cut, he says he selected “whatever sounded good”. On tour, Singh stretched the 50-minute album run time to two hours by improvising and creating variations on the rhythm structure of the ragas.
As I prepare to leave their home, Suparna asks curiously about electronic music concerts in India. She’d read about two Danish artists performing in Mumbai, the superlative cost of production, and the high turnout of people expected for the gig. After some investigation, you realise she’s talking about the Swedish House Mafia. “What do they do?” She asks. “They DJ, and make people dance.” “That’s it? Why don’t they book Charanjit then?” She adds. I say I’ll definitely find out and ask Charanjit Singh if he’d be willing or interested in doing live sets again. In a manner typically Indian and peculiar to him, he smiles and says, “Why not?”
Photo by Rana Ghose
Border Movement also interviewed tour manager and photographer Rana Ghose who along with Edo Bouman has been instrumental in getting Charanjit Singh and his music out to a wider audience…
How did you manage to put together the CS tour in Europe?
I wanted to get CS on a stage immediately after our first meeting face to face in November 2010 – a month after I first heard the 10 Ragas record from my friend Samrat B (AKA Audio Pervert). About 2 months later I secured some finances from a colleague in Bangalore who runs CIS, Sunil Abraham, to do a show in Bangalore. I went back to Bombay to meet CS and to tell him, and by sheer coincidence, Edo Bouman, owner of Bombay Connection and then person who re-released the 10 Ragas record in 2010 on his Bombay Connection label was also meeting CS that day. So we met, compared notes, and also became friends.
We did the pilot gig in Bangalore in February 2011 with Samrat doing the arrangements and programming, and CS soloing over top on his own Yamaha keyboard – Samrat did the beats and basslines on Ableton via 303 and 808 emulators, with live effects through his Doepfer Dark Energy analogue synth. They composed four new tracks in a 10 Ragas vein over 3 days in Bombay, and then played this live, accompanied by Imaad Shah on a heavily filtered guitar.
As far as I was concerned, this show was less about the results of the performance musically, and much more about giving CS a space where he could realise first hand that his music – in this case a variant of it – does resonate with an audience today. Post the show, CS told me he really enjoyed the experience, but wanted to do it again, alone, and with the original Roland 303, 808, and Jupiter 8 synth. So my role became clear – I had to find a producer who had this gear. In June 2011, Edo introduced me to Johanz Westerman, a Groningen-based DJ and producer who not only had all three, but also had studio space that he was willing to share for future rehearsals. He was a perfect fit as he also remastered Edo’s re-release. So, the technical component was sorted. All that remained was the right opportunity to do it live – the curatorial component.
In February 2012, Edo and I got an email from CPH:DOX, a film festival in Copenhagen that had seen a video I made on that first meeting in November 2010. The festival wanted to have CS come and play live in November 2012, along with screening my work. Given they had a budget and the fact that their curatorial aspirations matched mine and Edo’s, it seemed the best fit, so we started to work out the logistics.
Around August 2012, Edo and I started plotting towards a European tour, given that CPH:DOX had covered the major costs of international travel, visas, accommodation, per diems, and so on. Between Edo and I, we sourced out and negotiated with bookers and venues in Brussels, London, Glasgow, Copenhagen, Malmo, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. The money was decent, everyone could get paid, and it was on. So we went for it.
What was CS’s reaction when you mentioned that he would have to play his 10 Ragas album to an audience live instead of the regular Bollywood concert?
When Samrat and I first met him, we tried to explain the historical significance of his work, but given he had no idea what house music was, it was a tough one. That said, CS is a pretty easy-going person, and of course is still very much a playing musician, and so he agreed to try it out. Again, the Bangalore show was really the acid test (pun intended) and so given the positive reaction from that crowd, and his enjoying that experience, he was quite ready to do it again, as long as he could do it himself.
How did the crowd receive the music?
Every show was a sell out, and people went berserk. Keep in mind 5 of the 8 shows (the other 2 were film festival dates and one radio session) were club dates, with CS starting around 11-12 to a well lubricated crowd who wanted to dance. And dance they did. He’d play 1.5-2 hour sets, people went off, and everyone – me especially – was stunned and totally excited. I think a lot had to do with the visuals – here was a 72-year-old man in a Nehru jacket banging out acid at the age using REAL gear, live. No one had ever seen anything like it.
What were the rehearsals like and where did they take place? How much time did CS need and was it a tough process to get him to perform again?
It took a day for CS to really get used to the analogue gear again – he hadn’t seen it, let alone played it, since 1982. But he picked it up really fast. Johanz (his studio is in Groningen), Edo, and I also ensured that the 303 was already programmed with the 10 Ragas basslines, and that the JP-8 was reset to original factory presets, so that saved us time. We spent four days rehearsing, and by the end of it, he was ready. Johanz was key for this, his enthusiasm was addictive.
How did CS and his wife react to the audience’s reaction to the gigs?
Honestly, I think CS was totally riding it – he’s like that. Put him on a stage to perform and the man is happy and totally in his element. He’s very quiet and reserved typically, but a different animal on a stage. On the other hand, his wife had a harder time with it – initially. The spectacle of 300 (mostly) drunk young people saying wooo and dancing to what are essentially 1000-year-old classical compositions was troubling to her at first. However, the fourth date was the film festival in Copenhagen, and he played to a seated crowd in a theatre in Copenhagen. Clearly, Suparna got used to the wooo factor as she asked me why no one was dancing. So, I think everyone was figuring it out show by show. No two shows were the same.
What were some of the highlights of the tour? Was there any gig in particular that you really loved and why?
Antwerp stuck out in particular for me. I should also mention that the Copenhagen date was also the first with Heems, who joined us for the last 4 dates as the opener. By the time we hit Antwerp, the last show, Heems and CS forged a variety of bonds – perhaps CS relating to Heems as a young performer, perhaps the Punjabi connection, perhaps the whisky that we had on the rider for each show – and that really came out that night. Everyone knew exactly what they had to do on stage and it just came off really well. Great crowd and venue too – a former squat on the edge of Antwerp that now did underground shows.
In terms of other highlights, I can’t pick out one really. For me, the more time we spent together – and we spent a lot given we drove from city to city given the delicate nature of the Roland gear – the more we got to know each other and find a common language. For me that was probably the best part. Be it me and Johanz, me and Heems, Heems and Johanz, Suparna and Johanz, there where all these dynamics that forced (willingly) everyone to get to know each other quickly. And everyone got along really well.
What did club owners and promoters think of the music? How did the press react to the gigs in various cities?
Everyone was uniformly stoked. The reactions were totally positive, and most of the offers for 2013 are based on those promoters we worked with putting the word out amongst their networks. You can check out the press on the Facebook page, but I think the historical element of the story was something the press found interesting and worth reporting. I’m now working with a producer in the UK who contacted us based on news of the tour towards pitching this as a full-length documentary for British TV, so there is clearly interest.
And of course the music was banging.
You can buy Charanjit Singh’s music here.
Stay up-to-date with Charanjit Singh’s gigs here.
written by Kenneth Lobo