Just missed talking to a teenager in Navi Mumbai

05 December,2010 11:21 AM IST |   |  Lalitha Suhasini

He invented the Tablatronic, an electronic tabla, almost two decades ago, enraging a section of Indian classical purists. Last week, Talvin Singh successfully managed to pi** off lovers of traditional jazz when he took to stage at the Jazz Utsav. Singh has not learnt how to play by the rules. Sunday MiD DAY finds that he's still winning

He invented the Tablatronic, an electronic tabla, almost two decades ago, enraging a section of Indian classical purists. Last week, Talvin Singh successfully managed to pi** off lovers of traditional jazz when he took to stage at the Jazz Utsav. Singh has not learnt how to play by the rules. Sunday MiD DAY finds that he*s still winning

Minutes before the Murcof-Singh-Truffaz (MST) Project performed at NCPA*s Jamshed Bhabha auditorium last week, a veteran jazz enthusiast made a judgement call. "What jazz is this sardarji going to play? He openly says he doesn*t play jazz. Asian Underground and electronica ufffd that*s what he is about. This is not what one expects at a jazz festival."

Communal slurs and pigeon-holing aside, the comment was proved right. MST Project wasn*t straight up jazz. It wasn*t typical minimal electronica either. But the jazz-electro union of galloping tabla beats, taut loops on the laptop and funky saxophone arrangements inspired most younger members of the audience to give jazz another chance. The MST Project broke down some walls at the risk of having the older lot walk out.

We caught up with Singh and found that he*d be a happier man if his music spoke to a 14 year-old in Navi Mumbai. "We wanted it to be interactive. Kids are growing up very fast because of the Internet, which is why I wanted to do a week-long fest with some workshops, but that didn*t happen," said the 39 year-old UK-based tabla artist, who missed sharing his views on how electronica has its roots in India, among other aspects of music with the younger generation.

But there*s hope yet. Singh, who frequents Soundcloud.com claims he uploads some of his raw music for feedback. "It*s like a cyber party. This is how it was back in the days when there were 10 people hanging out in the studio. They were part of your music," he says.

Singh, who is associated with the Asian Underground movement of the 90s through the Anokha night that introduced London audiences at the Blue Note club to Asian Underground talent every Friday,u00a0 plans to produce a second Soundz of the Asian Underground compilation. The first was a seminal album for his generation. In this interview, he discusses touring with 75 year-old Terry Riley, an influential American minimalist composer who inspired him to look to electronica, and how it all started right here in India.

You*ve been touring with the MST Project since the three of you met at the Montreux Jazz festival in 2006. How did it all begin?
This year, I*ve been touring for about three-and-a-half months, doing the Tablatronic tour. MST began exactly like this. It was minimal from start. Erik (Truffaz) got in touch with me. I don*t think Erik realised that I was a fan of Murcof*s music as well. I had been listening to Murcof for a year, just going around the tubestation with headphones listening to Remembrance, his first album. I couldn*t stop listening to it. There*s minimal energy in what we do; less is more which will probably be different from a lot of the music performed atu00a0Jazz Utsav.

You*ve also been touring with Terry Riley.
Yes, I felt really sad to carry on touring without him. It was incredible touring with Terry and George Brooks (saxophone). Terry also has a huge khazana of bandishes because he*s studied Indian classical music under Pandit Pran Nath. A lot of people don*t know but electronic music has a big connection with India.

Riley was one of the first expressionists of electronica along with Markus Stockhausen and La Monte Young. They were all students of Indian music. This brought about a new renaissance in music because melodically, Western music is about layers ufffd multiple layers of melodic and chordal expressions ufffd whereas Indian music is about melody and rhythm coming together.

Take the santoor and tabla, pakhawaj and vocals. Inspired by Indian music, these guys wanted to get away from the traditional Western music arrangements, and started a new wave called minimalism. That*s where it gets interesting for me.

My electronic roots go back to composers like Brian Eno, John Hassell and Terry Riley. But in India when you talk of electronica music, your references are not Indian music. Your references now are Roger Sanchez.

Did you hit upon the Tablatronic because you saw this connection?
The Tablatronic thing was a way to amplify the instrument, do something that hadn*t been done before. It happened because I was playing with punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, and we toured the Lollapalooza festival. It got very loud and the tabla would always be drowned. So I came up with a special tabla that was internally microphoned. It*s a bit like the difference between an acoustic and an electric guitar.

My music and my ideas required my instrument to be extended beyond being an acoustic instrument. Tablatronic came from the thought that it was possible to colour the sound, layer it, add effects in the studio, but I wanted to have the attitude and tonality live. With it, I could build an orchestra of tablas and bring that energy live. When I first performed in India, some people loved it and some felt I was doing the wrong thing. Now it*s funny because I see so many tabla players doing it.

You*ve never been tempted to restart the Anokha night?
The energy is still there. We lost our venue, the Blue Note in London, when it shut down. The Blue Note was a strong part of what we did. There were a lot of people like Dr Das from Asian Dub Foundation who were driving the movement as well. There was Cornershop which had a hardcore desi edge.

There was another turning point for me in 2001, when I wanted to be with my guruji (Lakshman Singh) in India. My career had picked up and my taleem (music education) had suffered, so I wanted to come back to be with guruji.

But I*m doing a regular Sunday night at Ronnie Scott*s (jazz club) starting February. I*m programming artists from India and keeping it very open. Right now, I*m programming pianist Vijay Iyer, Niladri (Kumar), who*s an amazing sitarist. I want to do a concert with Naveen Kumar, who*s an incredible flautist.

When you mention Naveen, it brings back A R Rahman*s Bombay theme tune that you picked for the Soundz of the Asian Underground compilation.
It was a supreme piece of music. That was the first time Rahman*s music got published out of the country.

If you had to pick new artists for your label Chilly Media, who would you pick from India and the UK?
I like what Samrat from Audio Pervert is doing. He*s a fantastic producer. I love Advaita. B.L.O.T does really tasty, glitchy electronica.
The Anokha sound has always looked for the perfect beat that everyone*s feeling now and the tapestry of Indian voices with little desi phrases. We will put another compilation out. We want to re-release the original first album and probably release an Anokha Now, with new artists.
Maybe as a third record , we*ll release some of the archival video footage that I have ufffd we filmed everything back then and it*s just the perfect time to release that.

Is Advaita on your list also because you love the sarangi?
Yeah, I really like what Yusuf is doing. Advaita has some great grooves and great energy. I love the architecture of the sound on the sarangi ufffd one note has so many different shrutis. The young generation is also working very hard to do what*s not already been doneu00a0 and keep it fresh ufffd there*s Sabir (Ustad Sultan Khan*s son), Dilshad, Murad Ali...

Who are the new, edgy acts in the UK?
There are many. Off the top of my mind, I*d say this composer called Shammi Pithya who has just released his first album.

Are you writing new music?
I have been writing. Most of the music is written on flights. I have to work against the sound. If it sounds good even with all that*s going on around, it works. Up there, there*s no Internet, no phone and I have a limited time to finish because the batteries will run out, so I write ferociously on the plane.

Talvin Singh Tabla Interview Jazz Festival
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