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For Love Of Charanjit Singh: Disco Ragas On The Road
The Quietus , May 23rd, 2013 05:40

Ahead of Charanjit Singh's performance on the BleeD stage at Field Day this Sunday, his manager and booking agent Rana Ghose explains why the recently rediscovered Indian producer's proto-acid music has taken over his life and work

Entertainment can be tedious. There are longwinded arguments that we have all likely had at some point after a live concert experience, that attempt to address whether what we just saw was a spectacle premised on novelty, or a truly mystical experience forged on sound, majesty, and musicianship. In the span of ninety minutes, and under the influence of amplifiers, intoxicants, and all the points in between, an audience is prone to make that assessment. I find myself engaging in these arguments now, but with myself. I am not an audience member. I used to be, until I decided to take on the role of booking and tour managing Charanjit Singh.

In 2010, I heard the music Singh made in a relatively common arena – over a few drinks at a friend's house, surrounded by more friends and potential distractions. I listened to the then-recent reissue of Singh’s 1982 album Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat, and was engagingly confused. Here was an artefact that – quite convincingly – challenged the assumption that house music was forged in Chicago and Detroit around 1986. An outline of a man who predated all of this began to emerge, one who quietly authored work utilising the holy trinity of a TB-303, TR-808, and a Jupiter 8 synthesiser, seemingly before anyone else. Adding to this nascent caricature was the geographical anomaly of this music being crafted in Bombay, based on centuries-old Indian classical music. These "disco ragas" presented a familiar cadence, but in an entirely new language I had never heard before. The record was pressed, released, and seemingly destined to fade into obscurity given its impenetrability at the time of its first release. That is, until 2010. The story seemed seductively impossible. But of course, it was possible, as I found myself listening to the voice of the main protagonist.

Within two weeks, I tracked Singh down in Bombay, went to his house, rolled camera, and tried to express the importance of his contribution to music to both him and his wife Suparna. I asserted that given the now ubiquitous sound of the 303 and 808, what he did in 1982 was truly and utterly remarkable. But this fell on the hearing aid assisted ears possessed by a 71-year-old man who did not know what house music was, let alone how much we now take these sounds for granted. I played him Phuture’s iconic 1987 piece 'Acid Tracks' as a reference point, but he merely yawned and casually mentioned that it sounded repetitive. He suggested that the musician should have added some "variations".

Charanjit Singh: 2010 from Rana Ghose on Vimeo.

I succumbed to the gravity of what appeared to be a portal to a parallel universe. I left his house convinced that I had to bring this man and his music back to a stage. Within a year, I found a brilliant producer and creative collaborator who owned both a studio and the gear. A rehearsal space was found, with the elusive gear ensconced within. After another six months, an offer arose that would allow Charanjit, Suparna and myself to fly to Copenhagen to both screen that film of our first meeting at a film festival and to perform live. A seven-city tour was quickly booked in six weeks around the Danish date in November 2012. Bookers were skeptical, but intrigued.

Intrigue soon morphed into lucre. Every show sold out. Crowds were ecstatic, the music was banging, and I bore witness - from a rather unique perspective - of what happens when a now 72-year-old man plays "proto house" to club kids. It was bizarre, enthralling and exhausting, all at the same time. At times I felt like I was taking my parents on a surrealist road trip across Europe in a Volvo station wagon, except with geriatric supplements and wheelchairs replaced with twenty thousand dollars worth of vintage analogue synthesisers. Along the way, and every two hours, we stopped for tea. Suparna brought her own non-sucrose sweetener. We were now very much a touring unit, albeit one peppered with power struggles, washed clean with Red Label, propelled forward by newfound bonds, and rendered sustainable by a love for the music that we were overseeing and creating every night.

Around this time, a wide variety of curious individuals stared to reach out to us, wanting to book more shows, produce film content, write articles, and collaborate musically. I began to more carefully consider what was happening. There seemed to be some allusions towards a fairy tale. Well meaning promoters began to market the shows with vague allusions to Shiva, "peace, love, and curry", and acid house smileys with curly moustaches. A venue constructed a paper cut out elephant placed in front of Charanjit, armed with LED eyes, topped with a palm tree and an umbrella to shield us against a figurative hot sun borne of nostalgia. An imagined tropic seemed to be upon us.

Throughout all this, I began to come to grips with a series of thoughts that are admittedly - and thankfully - inconclusive at the time of this writing. Am I forging a bounded arena for me to practically observe postcolonial insecurities within a Europe uncomfortably coming to grips with a changing ethnic fabric? Is this entire enterprise a means for me to explore European perceptions about race and identity, by moving the arena from formal public forums to a dancefloor? Is this exploration another iteration in my assessing my own identity as a Canadian of Indian descent, who has always perplexed people with regards to their racial expectations of me? Is this about the music, or is this about my desire to both observe and document an elderly Indian man who seems endearingly perplexed about what is happening around him, whilst churning out banging 808 beats and hair-searing 303 acid lines at two in the morning? Is this pure spectacle, or is this about the music?

And therein lies the real question. In my role as a curator (and filmmaker, driver, roadie, and doting son facsimile), I am both excited about this music and what it does to people, but also keenly aware of the underlying narrative that I am authoring around these shows by way of my curatorial agency. I can no longer objectively appreciate this music. When I see Charanjit play to a crowd of 8000 people totally losing it to this music, I can sometimes only hear how his arpeggiator is slightly off sync. I find my reaction admittedly a bit depressing given how excited I should likely be, but it does reflect my unwavering faith in his potential. When I see throngs of young bindi-adorned French kids tripping on MDMA and crowdsurfing at a show, I can no longer simply attribute this image to being merely playful. Rather, it is, of course, completely fascinating.

Throughout all this, I reflect on what are arguably my harsh assessments of essentially innocent people who more than likely just want to dance. But I relish these assessments, as I cannot ignore the histories and identities that generate these reactions. They are not judgments, but rather the only way I know of how to come to terms with a live experience that is unparalleled. There is nothing like this show. I suppose at the end of the night, it is about entertainment, and if tedious seems like a misnomer, perhaps a better characterisation is wonderfully complicated. Anything else would be boring, and I do not possess the capacity to be bored. The music is too good.

Charanjit Singh plays the BleeD stage at Field Day in Victoria Park, London this Saturday, May 25th. For tickets and further information, go here