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Delhi Sultanate Votes For Party Music

Taru Dalmia, part of Delhi reggae act The Ska Vengers, on bringing politics to the dance floor and plans to take his music to Jamaica later this year

Anurag Tagat Mar 20, 2014
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Taru Dalmia aka Delhi Sultanate. Photo: Ishaan Suri

Taru Dalmia aka Delhi Sultanate. Photo: Ishaan Suri

Thirty three-year-old Taru Dalmia doesn’t care too much for high brow Delhi clubs and isn’t afraid of speaking his mind. He swears how you’ll never see him at LAP, actor Arjun Rampal’s uber exclusive club in “New Delhi Nuttah,” a track from EDM artist Nu­cleya’s new EP, Koocha Monster. When I meet the lanky rapper at a café in Delhi, he’s taken aback at the overpriced chai that we’re served and I’m wondering if it’s rattled him enough to write a few new angry rhymes.

Not that Dalmia doesn’t have enough to rant about. His lyrics hit out at the Indi­an government or mining corporations, but the music fits right into a reggae dance party playlist. Says Dalmia, “I don’t think it’s anti­thetical to party and talk about se­rious things. At the end of the day, it’s a dance gig. Not an academ­ic forum, you know?” Apart from his own solo dancehall project under the name Delhi Sultanate, Dalmia is also part of electro-reg­gae group Bass Foundation Roots, socio-political trust and audio-visual project Word Sound Power and is the vocalist of ska/ reggae act The Ska Vengers.

The dancehall reggae artist has come a long way from his first music group, a reg­gae soundsystem called Tallawah Vibez, started in 1996 while he was in school in the south German town of Tübingen. Says Dalmia, who was born to an Indian moth­er and German father, “We were immi­grant kids in Europe, where you don’t have a face in mainstream culture. You always feel you have to adapt and hold part of yourself back.” Back then, he was into hip hop art­ists such as Ice-T and Public Enemy. Dal­mia also had a brief stay in Berkeley, Califor­nia while he was in high school. He says of his days in the U.S., “It was deeply disturb­ing. America is a terrible place man ”“ vio­lent society. Someone said, it’s not a country, but it’s a business. I channel a lot of that into my music.”

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It hasn’t been all about music for Dalmia. When he came back to India in 1999, he started at­tending open mic nights in Delhi and also got into left-wing theater group Jana Natya Manch [Janam] on the recommendation of fam­ily friend and Indian Ocean bassist Rahul Ram. In 2002, after being prodded by his aunt, Dalmia enrolled for an English degree course at HinduCollege in Delhi. Says Dal­mia, “It was nice, because up until then, my schooling was in Germany and California, so this was the first time I was being taught by Indians. We did world literature, we were reading stuff like Chinua Achebe ”“ things I’d already been reading.” Dalmia understood the connect between literature, culture and his musical interests in reggae. Says the rapper, “I always felt that music from the other col­onies ”“ Africa, South America and the Caribbean ”“ suggests that we have a shared cultural heritage. In a way, our histories are intertwined. They grew up with similar shit in their lives.”

That’s also why Dalmia takes to Jamaican patois [an English-based creole language] in his verse for Delhi Sultanate, Ska Vengers and Word Sound Power. His involvement in all three proj­ects was due to a chain of events ”“ Dalmia performed at slam po­etry events and start­ed Bass Foundation [with MC Praxis aka Ed Anderson and DJ Maarten Klein] in 2009. The Ska Vengers keyboard­ist Stefan Kaye spot­ted Dalmia at a Bass Foundation show and asked him if he wanted to create rocksteady music, mixing ska and reggae. While he was playing shows as Delhi Sultanate and with the Ska Vengers, Dalmia met Amer­ican producer Chris McGuin­ness in Mumbai in 2009. Says Dalmia, “The idea [of Word Sound Power] was to take a traveling studio and go out and meet collaborators, but I didn’t know how to do that. But how it happened was whoever I met, I kept telling them about it and I met Chris McGuiness in Mum­bai and he said, ”˜Let’s do it.’ He has the orientation that I have.” Word Sound Power created their first documentary on Dalit Sikh farmer-activist and singer Bant Singh, The Bant Singh Project in 2010 and followed it up with Blood Earth, on conflict zones in Odisha, in 2012.

Dalmia on stage with The Ska Vengers at Escape Festival last year. Photo: Kuntal Mukherjee

Dalmia on stage with The Ska Vengers at Escape Festival last year. Photo: Kuntal Mukherjee

McGuinness and Dalmia are now working with Andhra poet activist Gaddar. Dalmia shows is disappointed that not that many people know about Gad­dar, “Gaddar blew my mind. He would sing songs and in the Nineties, he went into hid­ing and they would smuggle his audio tapes out of the forest. When he came out for a show, over 10 lakh people showed up. As a musician, he has so much power. If he said, ”˜This cop should be punished’, chanc­es are, he would get punished.” Blood Earth was screened at the Berlinale film festival last month and now Dalmia is juggling three equally well-re­ceived projects. Elec­tronica group Asian Dub Foundation’s bassist and produc­er Aniruddha Das aka Dr. Das will remix songs off Word Sound Power’s Blood Earth. “Dr. Das is a producer I really admire. He said it’s not enough to make songs about ”˜fuck Babylon’ and ”˜smoke weed.’ He [Das] says, be involved in things as a person. Activism ”“ just be involved with life. That’s how Word Sound Power came about.”

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This month, Dalmia con­tinues work on the second Ska Vengers album, on which every song “sounds like a war anthem” he says. Later in the year, Dal­mia will take time off and make his first visit to Jamaica to col­laborate with one of his favorite reggae artists, Sizzla Kalonji. Says Dalmia, “It’s like going to Mecca. I want to go there pre­pared with a plan ”“ go and re­cord some dub plates and play some shows.”

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of ROLLING STONE India.

Watch the video for “Fever” below

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