Electric Ladies: The Women Firing Up The EDM Scene in India
Sandunes from Mumbai with Ma Faiza, Anastasia, Kini , Trapeze, Tasnneem Docttoar alongwith our cover stars The Electrovertz tell us how they’re working the electronica circuit in India and abroad
”˜Woman’ is not a genre of music, Mollie Wells, of American techno live act Funerals, once famously said to Electronic Beats magazine in 2011. Electronic music’s rich history is filled with pioneers like BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Daphne Oram to transgender women Wendy Carlos, who designed synthesisers for the legendary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder. DJs like Austrian techno producer Electric Indigo (Susanne Kirchmayr), Anja Schneider from Germany and Ellen Allien, who founded the electro music label BPitch Control, have been trail blazers both as producers and talent scouts. India’s club culture blossomed more recently in the late Nineties, marked by an underground psychedelic trance scene, and the noughties, when drum’n’ bass-inspired music of the Bhavishyavani Collective held gigs in seedy suburban nightclubs.
The turning point in India’s club scene can be traced to a night at basement club Rock Bottom in Juhu in November 2002. When DJ Pearl presided over that gathering of 20 people, little did she know that in the next 13 years, Indian artists and women in particular would feature at the Southbank Centre in London (Tanvi Rao of Sulk Station), perform at the legendary SXSW festival in Austin, Texas (see Sandunes), run house-and-techno record labels (see DJ Kini) and like our cover stars, The Elektrovertz (Malika Haydon and Nina Shah), plan a multi-city tour through the birthplace of electronic music, the United States.
Haydon and Shah, as indeed all the DJs we’ve featured, have broken all stereotypes on their run to the top. They’ve built on their talent and worked equally hard in the midnight glow of their laptops, when the decks have been stacked against them. What they’ve achieved is in spite of their disarmingly good-looks, not because of them. At the other end of the ”˜looks’ stereotype is Ma Faiza, a true veteran of the scene who has been DJing since 1998, and someone who still gets mistaken for a man, but not as often. “I continue to be out with my sexuality in the hope that this allows other people the chance to be who they really are,” she says. “And to accept different ways that may challenge their beliefs and their way of thinking.”
Sandunes’s (Sanaya Ardeshir) upward trajectory since the launch of her Slybounce EP last year has been fascinating to watch. Her relentless cross-continental, club-to-festival-to-gallery appearance in the past year has rarely been topped by any Indian electronic music. Kini, meanwhile, has thrived on keeping it almost completely local – the monthly District Fifty parties she co-runs in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra will finally see a stellar EP launch and is sure to populate her gig calendar as well.
Trapeze (Akanksha Krishnani) and Tasnneem Docttoar are relative newcomers on the scene but their discipline, desire to experiment with fresh sounds and ability to take risks are a welcome addition to a scene that can seem monolithic at times. And Anastasia’s EDM-tinged projects are a sigh of relief from the intensity that accompanies India’s underground clubbing space. The DJs featured in the cover story are united by their accomplishments but it’s not just them who deserve the spotlight.
Women have also exerted their influence at various levels of club culture. Aneesha Kotwani, co-founder of music events agency Regenerate, currently oversees one of the busiest off-season gig rosters. Along with her partner, Bhishma Sagar, she was instrumental in curating two By the Pier day-long events in Mumbai, one of which featured pioneering acid house act, A Guy Called Gerald.
Kotwani says that she combines her passion with patience, which is crucial. “If you’ve got a good balance of the both and keep moving forward with that drive, it’s a given your vision will take shape in front of your eyes,” she says. Some of the country’s most forward-thinking tours in the past two years have also been facilitated by Shilpi Gupta, Culture Marketing Manager, Red Bull India, instrumental in bringing down Berlin-based duo Modeselektor and Welsh techno producer Benjamin Damage.
Another curator who also debuted her concept last year is Varsha Krishnani. The Project Head of The Secret Garden Weekend, an ambitious multi-sensory two-day festival held in Pune, is obsessed with the idea of injecting the right vibe into parties. Says Krishnani, “For me, an event is more of an overall experience that needs to be designed to give the highest form of value.” Krishnani and her sister Akanksha (see Trapeze) also form a unique promoter-DJ sibling duo. “Akanksha has the taste, the aesthetics, the creativity and the confidence to explore newer sounds,” she says. “She’s gutsy with her selections and I like that fearlessness and confidence.”
The success of India’s female DJs should be tempered with some statistics. A quick survey of India’s five top music festivals 2014 (Enchanted Valley Carnival, Magnetic Fields, NH7 Weekender, Sunburn and VH1 Supersonic) will tell you that only 12% of all artists booked there featured women. The figure is less than two per cent when you account for representation in India’s biggest booking agencies like Krunk, Regenerate, Soupherb, Only Much Louder, UnMute and Vital Agency). The numbers are on par with those on an international level, according to a survey released by female:pressure, an international network of female artists in the fields of electronic music and digital arts.
What’s heartening, Ardeshir says, is that there are more women who are DJs/working in electronic music today than there were in the past five years in India. Says Ardershir, “It’s encouraging that the issues pertaining to gender-minority within the industry are being discussed, shared on open platforms and even addressed by various voices in contemporary music,” she says. Akanksha agrees that people are beginning to accept women in the role of a DJ and to respect her for who she is, what she believes in and what she plays. But there are still certain expectations. With slots in line-ups and festivals, she points out for example, “because you are a female DJ, your sound will be calm and beautiful and serene, which is nice to know, but hey, we also like that synth-pop to be grungy, dirty and sweaty, that’s a just a small part of it.” Ma Faiza is convinced that for real change to occur India needs a revolution ”“ social, radical and political. “People who party in my scene are all from the top 5% of the social strata and income bracket ”“ they have not suffered, they have money and many have access to power,” she adds. “The scene here is empty of any social statement.”
Â “It’s time we debunk a misconception / That “glamour” and talent can’t be in collusion! / So what if a girl is easy on the eye / doesn’t mean her brain cells die! / Just cuz (sic) our mixing got applauded / doesn’t mean our set was pre recorded! To the one spreading lies with great efficiency / it is you who has an IQ deficiency!” Rolling Stone India’s June cover stars, Elektrovertz (Malika Haydon and Nina Shah), pull no punches when they tell the truth. Hayden’s poetic rejoinder to a recent rumor about their DJing is everything about the duo in two stanzas. They’re talented, witty and sharp, have the looks to make dance floors melt and the beats to drive clubbers crazy. With 90 gigs over the past year (a gig every four days), appearances at Sunburn, Goa and DJing at venues across the country, the twosome have timecoded their presence on the club scene.
While most DJs are territorial about their genres, the Elektrovertz cleverly resolved that dilemma by choosing to do both EDM as well as house and techno gigs under their Malika and Nina alias. It’s a survival choice they made three years ago. “We started out in 2010 playing tech house/techno,” says Shah. “But dance floors would empty out. People weren’t expecting to hear such an underground sound from two girls like us. But we don’t believe in having an ego towards genres that are not our personal preference.” Besides their versatility what’s also immediately obvious about Shah and Haydon is their chemistry. They are childhood friends whose mothers were just as close, and arrived in India for social work projects. They both married into Indian families and settled here. Haydon says that they are “practically like sisters and extremely similar in most ways. We’ve noticed when we download music separately we end up with the same tracks.”
The DJ adhesive that binds them together even further was enabled by Brian Fernandes. Fernandes (Kerosene Club/FlipKnot/Fibre Stomp) is one of India’s busiest electronic music DJs with an equally hectic touring schedule. It’s at his Studio 58 that Shah and Haydon attended a DJ course. His assessment? “Nina and Malika are serious and passionate about what they do,” he says, over email from San Francisco. “What I loved about them as students is that they were serious and hungry. That’s what you need for the long haul.” Fernandes has since trained over 15 students but few have made it, and ever fewer have stuck around. “I watched them play a few weeks ago,” he says. “People loved them. They looked comfortable, in control, with good body language and had great musical selections. That’s what successful DJs are made of.”
It comes as little surprise when Shah and Haydon pick German heavyweight tINI and Russian techno DJ Nina Kraviz as DJs they admire. tINI rose quickly into prominence through Germany’s crowded electronic music scene and Kraviz’s flamboyance is second to none. So why did they go with Elektrovertz? “It stems from our love for electronics,” says Shah. When she adds that the modern classic Access Virus TI and the timeless Mini Moog synth form part of their analogue studio gear, you know they’re going to be just as serious in the studio as they are about getting behind the decks. For now, an American tour is in the making, and a season ahead that’s always going to be better than the last.
When global heavyweight house DJ Skream (Oliver Jones) name-checks you in an interview with Fact magazine (May 2014), saying he’s excited about your music, the pressure can be telling. But Sandunes (Sanaya Ardeshir), who we named as an Artist To Watch Out For in 2013, has delivered possibly one of the most thrilling calendar years by any Indian electronic music artist in recent memory.
Ardeshir kicked off last April with an octogenarian Parsi Western set in Mumbai (check out the video for ”˜Good to You’). A month later, she released the EP-everyone-wanted-to-name Slybounce, and then blitzed through the rest of the year with a relentless gig schedule across cities and continents: the National Centre of Performing arts with keyboardist Nicholson, the OneBeat residency in the States in October, debuting the Sandunes Ensemble at the Pune edition of NH7 Weekender, the Border Movement Sound Lab experiment at the Kala Ghoda Festival and another 12-date run through four cities in the States, including gigs at the famed SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.
Says the 26-year-old producer, “It’s been wild, really. I’ve had residencies, the [Sandunes] Ensemble gigs, the installations/collaborations. Even in terms of the music I have been playing, it felt fairly diverse with DJ gigs and new live sets.” She even found room to get into the gallery space with the Memory Lamp Project at TARQ in Mumbai. Ardeshir is nonchalant about her annus mirabilis. She says, “I think it’s a consequence of my personality type. I’m easily bored and my interests span a broad range – I like diversifying and exploring new aspects of the musical world. I’m not sure I’ve even scraped the surface. Usually, the act of committing to the work is the reward in itself.”
Her consistency is as remarkable as her head-down hard work. We attended one of her DJ gigs at the Den, in Mumbai last year, where she nailed a swinging garage set. Ardeshir loves that “you can really be a part of the party when you’re DJing. It’s not quite that way for me when I’m playing live. Mostly because playing live, in my case is the equivalent of playing an instrument by yourself on stage.” She’s also worked hard to separate her DJ and live sets “to a clearer capacity” to continue enjoying both forms of performance.
It puts the DJ-producer in distinctly rarefied territory, encouraging and challenging others to up their game. When you ask her what the odds are of finding a Parsi woman who is a live electronic music artist and a DJ in the dwindling numbers of the Indian community? Ardeshir reads out of her Slybounce notebook for a quick quip: “I know a ton of musicians, producers, studio guys and music enthusiasts who happen to be Parsi,” she says. “And in a broader sense, it’s not such a rarity-Parsis are known to love their music as much as their bun maska.”
Â MA FAIZA
The annual monsoon migration of Indian DJs to Berlin begins in earnest next month. They’re all vying for a billing in some the city’s top 900 bars and 200 clubs, aiming to get the best possible slots. One place you’ll never see them flyer-ed on is at KitKatClub, one of Berlin’s oldest sex clubs. Yet, that’s precisely where you’ll find DJ Ma Faiza on her decade-long European summer ritual.
“It’s like no other venue in the world,” she says. “It is the freest space – where anything goes – that I have ever been to. It is beyond belief and challenges any conservative attitudes that you may have. KitKat reminds me that anything is possible with an open mind, and to have a space where you can be free to express yourself in anyway is a gift.”
It’s an attitude that defines Ma Faiza and her music. “I have never shied from being truly honest about me, my life experiences, my sexual orientation and my lifestyle choices,” she says. India’s only openly queer ”˜queen of electronic music’ has been DJing across the country since 1998, and has only recently slowed down, of her own volition. “I’ve taken steps to limit my gigs to just 50 instead of the 100 plus I used to do,” she says. “I feel much better and more soulful doing less gigs and having more time to nourish myself in other ways and bring that back to my music and my performances.”
Still, her punishing schedule is something that most DJs would give up their entire collections for. At the time of going to print, Ma Faiza was preparing for a six-week, 20-gig tour spread across major metros and small towns, taking her infectious energy and throbbing sets to every dance floor in the nation. It’s another milestone in a career that’s seen her run one of the few female-fronted record labels (Masti Music), organise Q-Nites for the LGBTQ crowd and headline festivals old and new. The East-Africa born, British-raised Ismaili, has overcome all manner of challenges along the way, foremost of which include being mistaken for a man. “I find this very frustrating,” she says. “But it has never interfered with my success as a DJ. These days most people know who and what I am. I believe in being real and sharing that realness with the world. I try very hard to stay genuine with myself and everyone I meet and just to be the simple me ”“ warts and all!”
American house and techno legend Levon Vincent’s track “DJSF II” on his Novel Sound imprint last September (a lush, atmospheric banger of a tune) sent Mumbai’s DJ Kini scrambling into the studio. She wrapped her head around piano theory, attended master classes from jazz musicians and jammed with a clarinet player. Beyond the lessons, she debated ideas in electronic and classical music with her instructor Leena, bought a pair of turntables, and became intimate with a soft synth called Diva. And emerged inspired.
Fans of the DJ, who have been left craving for more club appearances from the DJ in the past year, now have three sumptuous EPs awaiting release in the latter half of the year. The first of the lot, Forty Winks Later will be launched on District Fifty this month, a label named after Mumbai’s hotly debated-and-claimed suburb of Bandra, which she also co-founded in April 2013. Says Kini, “The label is a personal venture with a few of my friends. So far our focus was on promoting and playing music that we love. This year, we’ve decided to put the music out. It’s a labor of love that is coming to soon to a speaker near you.” Another untitled track that Rolling Stone India exclusively previewed is a lush, blissful, rolling wave of a tune, perfect for closing out an intense dance floor workout. If Kini’s aim is to make memorable melodies, she’s taken several confident steps in that direction. “I’ve never been someone who’s taken in too much by ”˜trends’,” she says. “The only statement I’m interested in making is to be a record collector and a selector.”
The Hyderabadi native entered the world of DJing thanks to her house-mate in Australia who owned a pair of decks and a mixer. “After getting comfortable with the technical side of things, I recorded a few mixes and after moving back to India in 2007, I decided to let go of post-MBA aspirations and focus on a career in DJing instead. Her hard-work has seen her work with the teams behind the fÃªted club Zenzi and the influential Bhavishyavani Future Soundz crew. Kini adds, “If you believe in your skill, your taste in music and have the courage to push forward your ideas, then the current scene is the best platform to grow as an artist. And now, my focus is to write, play and promote hi-fi music with a generous touch of lo-fi soul.”
Deep, hypnotic and expansive – Akanksha Krishnani sets are – what every Indian DJ claims in their profile – refreshingly eclectic. Ever since the turn of the year, when Krishnani launched her Trapeze project, and let go of her previous AK Vinagreta avatar (a tribute to her time in Spain), the DJ’s sounds have turned even more experimental. Trapeze has absorbed influences from British maverick Damian Lazarus’s label Crosstown Rebels and Berlin-based imprint Keinemusik. And you’re likely to hear everything from Argentine singer-songwriter Atahualpa Yupanqui to flamenco singer JosÃ© Monje Cruz and Ethiopian-jazz artist Mulatu Astatke in her transitions. Says Krishnani, “Blending these sounds with minimalism is what I thrive on now.” It’s little wonder that Krishnani gets booked to play thumping techno slots at 2am to playing live with Rajasthani folk musicians.
Her extensive gig calendar is balanced with an entrepreneurial career in the contemporary art world, where she plays the role of curator. At Studio X in Mumbai, an open space of collaborative work run by the Columbia University, New York, Krishnani initiated the Synth City project last year, to capture the sounds of Mumbai by young Indian electronic music producers. It’s also during her time at Studio X that she got hands-on with synthesisers. “One of my best friends and one of the finest music producers Shahveer Sidhwa, lived a block away from the workplace. I sat with him in the studio and toyed with the console every evening after work,” she says. “It played a big part in enticing me to experiment and to go ahead with ”˜DJing’.”
Her latest venture, Art Throng, an online portal for contemporary art, will also include several collaborations with sounds artists. The first of several, she says, is with her favorite Japanese sound artist, Ryoji Ikeda, set to go live in the first week of June. And her contemporary art background informs her work as a DJ substantially. “Before selling a painting, I like to present a story behind the canvas and not just the mere oil on it,” she says. “It’s a little similar in this [the DJing] context as well.” As the domestic season winds down, Krishnani is looking forward to a tour of Spain in August, returning to the Mediterranean coast where she’s spent a large part of her life. “I remember every summer going for these swims and brunches and swarming myself in tapas and all sorts of Spanish food,” she says. “I can barely wait.”
It was time to make a decision. In late 2012, fresh from a stint on MTV’s dating reality show, Splitsvilla, Tasnneem Docttoar received multiple offers from TV production houses, movies and advertising agencies. A micro-chip-sized opportunity to plug into the world of show business. Docttoar explains her decision in evocative prose. “The ability to choose an unstable career needs a lot of courage,” she says. “I was advised one way, then another, but in the end no-one lives your life but you.” It’s an attribute that stands out equally in all her sets. Docttoar’s Interpretation of Silence series on MixCloud features 15 mixes uploaded in the past year; they have all the earmarks of an exciting new talent. The mixes have carefully thought-out introductions, genre-agnostic selections and the discipline to record the sets she performs at gigs.
Docttoar chose to head to the Beatworx Studio in Bangalore in June 2013, to take up a course in DJing from friend and mentor Ashwin Baburao (DJ Inferno and one half of sibling DJ-duo Audio Units). “I fell in love with the routine of learning, listening, downloading, educating myself,” she says. “But I also realised this is not a part-time job.”
The DJ has already enjoyed returns on that 4X4 karma. Docttoar has played the opening set for a clutch of the country’s top producers – from Delhi-based audio-visual collective B.L.O.T! to Tapan Raj, one half of Delhi electro group Midival Punditz and Jitter – and featured at showcase events like A Day of Slick!. The DJ has moved back to the port city of Surat, where she grew up in a modern family (“with plenty of blues, jazz and country music, and I could befriend boys without feeling like I was having an affair”) to focus on her production. The DJ is already looking forward to the next season where she hopes to play festivals and have some original tunes under her belt.
It’s the stuff that DJ dreams are made of. One detail still rankles. Why Splitsvilla? “It gave me a clarity of mind, so I’m here doing what I should be doing,” she says. The TV industry surely won’t lament one less competitor, but the DJ scene has benefitted with fresh blood and plenty of taste.
Google sportstars who double up as DJs and you’re likely to come across a list that includes basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, Olympic legend Usain Bolt, former Chelsea footballer Pat Nevin, American fencing star Race Imboden and former tennis player Anastasia Ito Malhotra. Anastasia switched from serving aces to dishing out beats in 2010, when an injury forced her to reconsider career choices. “I came to one of the cross roads in my life. I decided music was the way to go,” she says. Taking inspiration from her tennis legends Monica Seles, Steffi Graff, Martina Hingis and Martina Navratilova, Anastasia decided that if she had her “heart and mind in the right place, you can achieve almost anything.” Five years on, Malhotra is one of India’s leading EDM DJs.
Her DJ-and-life partner Whosane! (Hussain Babbai, one of the scene’s longest surviving DJs) have combined skills and initials on twin projects: WA (an electro-progressive-trap project) and WA-TEC (deep house and techno), releasing the three-track ethno-techno ”˜Blockbuster’ EP under the latter moniker in January this year. “We’ve been spending more long hours in the studio, collaborating with various singers and DJs like Ankytrixx (Ankit Kocher) and Brianoid (Brian Fernandes),” she says.
“After meeting Hussain, my music experience jumped to another level. Since then, he has been my mentor. Imagine living with your mentor,” she says, citing the DJ, who she met in 2010, as her biggest influence. And despite playing at arena and clubs across the country, she says that Dance Ganesha, an annual electronic music procession held during the Ganpati festival in Mumbai, is one of her most spectacular experiences. Curated by DJ Asad Zaidi, the event draws over 10,000 followers and has been running for 15 years. Says Anastasia, “I can’t describe the feeling – standing on that truck with thousands of people in front and behind you dancing away. The whole city is there, from the older women in saris to youngsters, all castes and creed, beyond social status and stature, all together dancing as one. It’s magical moments like that, that change the world.”