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From Bollywood to Acid House: A Remembrance of Charanjit Singh

We look at the work of an unlikely creator of a genre passed away at age 75.
July 6, 2015, 5:05pm
Nick Barranco

In 1982 a senior sessions musician from Mumbai, India decided to try something different. After having contributed to some of Bollywood's biggest hits with his gritty guitar bass lines and melodic Hawaiian surf guitar hooks, the purchase of a Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer and Jupiter-8 keyboard on a trip to Singapore prompted him to push the boundaries of traditional music in India. Charanjit Singh took the simple idea of writing Indian ragas to machine-synthesized beats, something his newly acquired toys helped him do.

Singh represented the zeitgeist that Indian film music was going through in the mid-80s. The hard-hitting sounds of disco and techno music had slowly made their way to Indian shores, slipping into the collective consciousness of the Hindi film music fraternity. At one end of the spectrum, it resulted in some of the biggest film music hits we have today. On this spectrum's opposing end, Singh's pioneering record, Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat. The album paired familiar ragas, the traditional South Asian song format, with electronic production, creating a sound that would years later inspire the creation of acid house. The album took four days to record in a studio in downtown Mumbai in 1982 before it slowly slipped into obscurity, with Singh himself slowly wandering into obscurity with each passing year.

The work was forgotten until Bollywood expert Edo Bouman ended up at the Singh's Mumbai home in 2002. Bouman had chanced upon Singh's record in a New Delhi record store was amazed at hearing this record from the 1980s, and sought permission from the artist to reissue it on his Bombay Connection label. Just like that, re-emergence of a talented music composer had begun to take shape two decades after he made his most influential work.

Those who have met Mr Singh always remember him as a kind-hearted, soft-spoken man. Some christened him the "Pioneer of Acid House." Modern South Asian artists such as Talvin Singh credit him as the "Guru of Eastern electronic music." Titles aside, Singh was an innovator who simply pushed the boundaries of how we perceive "fusion" music with his personal twist.

The love and respect he received in the past few years has been nothing short of phenomenal. At the age of 72, alongside Dutch musician Johanz Westerman (who mastered the re-issued Ragas) Singh set out on a series of international club dates and entertained crowds much younger than him in London, Glasgow, Copenhagen, Malmö, Sweden, and New York before returning home to headline the inaugural Magnetic Fields festival in Rajasthan India.

Those who were introduced to Mr Singh's music through Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat have even realized that his 1982 record was just the tip of the iceberg. Singh was a musician who spent his entire career innovating and experimenting with different ideas, trying to reach new levels of musical revolution along the way.

Charanjit Singh passed away on July 3, in Mumbai. He was 75.

Adwait Patil is on Twitter.