Why is a former Bollywood musician in his late-70s the hottest ticket in town? asks Oliver Keens
In a logical world, there’s no way Charanjit Singh should be playing at the Shacklewell Arms this Friday. The Dalston venue has a relaxed vibe but a booking policy that sits squarely on the bleeding edge. By contrast, Singh is 78 years old – genial and calm, and about as unhip as it is possible to imagine. Starting as a Bollywood session musician in the ’60s, the Mumbai multi-instrumentalist once led a wedding band and spent the ’70s recording easy-listening covers of popular movie songs to be played in restaurants and elevators.
He hasn’t been booked to perform these, however. Instead, he’s playing from a self-made album he cut in two days in 1982 which, by miraculous accident, managed to completely predate the birth of house music. The record – ‘Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat’ – may seem like an oddity on paper, but to contemporary ears it sounds startling, fresh and scarily modern.
The record’s lithe synth leads and cold, robotic rhythms make perfect sense in the anything-goes world of dance music in 2012. It’s been praised by those on techno’s top tier, including Andrew Weatherall, Four Tet and Caribou’s Dan Snaith, whose own recent album, ‘Jiaolong’, contains a similar mix of Eastern scales and techno drive. Back in 1982, however, one can only wonder just how alien and otherworldly it sounded. As the title suggests, Singh’s aim was to eschew tablas and marry traditional Indian melodies (ragas) to fashionable disco beats. Yet a simple sum made the record transcend disco and give it real bite: 808 + 303. In Chicago and Detroit, the combination of Roland’s TR-808 drum machine with the TB-303 bass sequencer would later give acid house music its metronomic grooves and illicit funk. Singh happened on this ground-breaking combination not only by chance, but at least five years before what’s considered the first acid-house release, Phuture’s ‘Acid Trax’.
While disco ruled in ’80s India, the record quickly faded into obscurity upon release. It would have stayed there but for Edo Bouman, a fanatic collector of all things Bollywood. Upon seeing the LP a few years ago in a New Delhi record shop, he assumed it was just another disco novelty. ‘Boney M were huge, so there are lots of crappy old Bollywood records out there with disco beats. Luckily, I’ll still buy anything with “disco” in the title,’ said Bouman. Playing it in his hotel, he was shocked by the record’s technoid futurism. He released it on his tiny Bombay Connection label and its legend grew fast – even prompting rumours of a hoax.
Its creator is real however, and recently reunited with the two Roland sequencers he used to carve out his strange place in history. Speaking from Mumbai, Charanjit is amused that anyone still cares about ‘Ten Ragas...’. He’s more focused on his newfound vocal abilities: ‘I still play a lot of film songs on the keyboard. I’ve started singing recently too – in Punjabi, Gujarati, even Swahili,’ he says. Yet he’s relishing the trip to London, and though he hasn’t tinkered with the machines in a long time, he’s justifiably laidback. ‘I’ve been playing instrumentals on my own for over 30 years. I know what I’m doing.’