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Charanjit Singh To Play At Magnetic Fields Festival 2013

After his debut India performance in Mumbai, the electronica artist plays in Delhi and Rajasthan this week

Anurag Tagat Dec 12, 2013
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Charanjit Singh. Photo: Rohit Gupta

Charanjit Singh. Photo: Rohit Gupta

Charanjit Singh was in a good mood at his much-hyped show, which was part of the Grime Riot Disco series of gigs, in Mumbai recently. He may have known that Mumbai’s music enthusiasts, regardless of whether they followed electronica or not, were eager to find out why this veteran electronic DJ in a bandhgala was the toast of the electronica scene in Europe. What did his album that was first released in the early 80s really sound like on the dance floor was the other big question. The audience at H20, a suburban Mumbai club that comes alive every time GRD organizers decide to host a gig, had been waiting for over two hours for Singh to take over the turntable. When he finally did, Singh shot straight into boisterous acid house ”“ no build-up, no fuss, no frills ”“ after all, this is what the audience had come for. While some members of the audience were instantly hooked onto Singh’s sound, which included an interpretation of the Hindustani classical raga Yaman, those unfamiliar with his music took to his avuncular disposition. Young women at the show gushed over how “cute” Singh was. “Shake your hips,” commanded Singh at one point during the night and the audience happily obeyed.

When I met him ahead of the show, it was difficult to picture the 73-year-old man, who held the door open for me as the founder of acid house and an in-demand electronic artist. Dressed in a yellow and white striped T-shirt and trousers, Charanjit Singh motioned me into his first floor apartment flat in Santacruz west in Mumbai. Singh’s wife Suparna mentioned much later that Singh had just returned from his afternoon walk. If Suparna could talk nonstop, Singh was soft spoken and weighed every question. Unless it’s the one he’d been asked a dozen times now: How and when he made his album, Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, how he was approached by Dutch record label Bombay Connection’s Edo Bouman and how his debut electronic show in Antwerp, Belgium in November 2012 was the start of more than 10 shows in Europe in less than a year, some of which were supported by Indian American hip hop artist Himanshu Suri aka Heems (formerly of hip hop group Das Racist). Bouman came across Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat in Chor Bazaar and re-released a remastered version in 2010 and this led to a flood of gigs, which Singh refers to as the Disco Raga shows.

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Singh is not a stranger to touring, considering he started performing across the country and even abroad with his wife, Suparna nearly three decades ago. Suparna says he’s not one to get tired, but also mentions how she wants to settle down in the U.S, where the duo head for the next five months for ghazal concerts following Singh’s Disco Raga sets in India. Singh added with a laugh, “I have to follow her, no?” But he assured us that he liked traveling, and he doesn’t regret starting to tour the world on an album he created in 1982. The best part, he says, is meeting fans he never knew he had. Said Singh, “They come and meet me. I can’t explain what they say ”“ they’re so happy. They keep on shouting on my name ”“ ”˜Charanjit! Charanjit we want more!’ I just sign their records.”

Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, which was released on Indian music label HMV, went under the radar despite Singh’s then-reputed status as a sessions player with Bollywood music composers ranging from RD Burman to Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Naushad Ali. His Bollywood days are past him now, but his living room looks frozen in time, from Sixties and Eighties knick knacks including 1920s-style antique rotary phone, and a showcase stand that’s straight out of an Eighties Bollywood film ”“ fitted with mirrors and containing glass and crystal showpieces. The only thing that sticks out is a pair of wooden clogs from Amsterdam, probably acquired during Singh’s tour.

Despite the demand to perform in India, which has now been answered in the form of three shows in Mumbai, Delhi and at the three-day Magnetic Fields Festival in Rajasthan, Singh concentrates on his ghazal concerts with Suparna, which take the duo from Bangladesh to the U.S. for the better half of a year. When asked to compare his Disco Raga shows to ghazal concerts, Singh said, “There [during ghazals], everybody likes to sit down and listen quietly. This [acid house] is very much the opposite. Everyone’s shouting and everything.”

For tracks that were first put to use as program interludes on All India Radio, Singh’s debut gained attention only 30 years later, after its re-release. After all the ghazal performances with Suparna by his side, he got a taste of the world of electronica in November 2012, with his first set of shows performing Disco Raga in the UK, Holland, Sweden and Belgium. He doesn’t listen to the current crop of electronica, but does know it is more advanced. Said Singh, who recorded Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat on bass synthesizers that later become synonymous with acid house, “Current music is much more advanced. I’m using the same instruments what I recorded on in 82.” Singh would have performed Disco Ragas a long time ago, but was offered tours only recently when Rana Ghose, founder of artist management agency Reproduce Artists signed on Singh in 2011. It was only after the second performance in August this year (supported by Heems) that Singh’s manager Ghose booked him to play his first three Indian shows ”“ including a set at the three-day Magnetic Fields Festival in Rajasthan. In the run-up to the festival, Singh will also perform in Delhi on December 13th.

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There are signs that Singh will move forward following the renewed success of Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat. “I might try my version of folk songs of the world, from Nairobi. Indian folk songs as well, of course.” While he hums a sample of a Nairobi folk song to illustrate, Singh says new material will always have the disco and acid house element to it. “I won’t leave the disco beat; because people like to dance, no?” says Singh.

Though he admitted to a bit of anxiety when he was debuting Disco Ragas far out in Europe a year ago, he’s his usual calm self when asked about the India show. Singh even reasons it out, saying, “They (Indians) should like it, I suppose. After all, it’s Indian raga. They must be knowing all the raags, no?” He later jokes, “It’s good if I play to Indians ”“ because if I make a mistake in the ragas, they’ll come to know. They’ll say, ”˜Hey, you’re playing wrong notes!’ They’ll tell me, for sure.”

Charanjit Singh, Da Saz, Audio Pervert and Spincycle perform at Lodi Restaurant, New Delhi on December 13th, 2013. Entry: Rs 600. Event details here.

Singh also performs at Magnetic Fields Festival at Alsisar Mahal, Rajasthan on December 15th, 2013. Event details here.

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