The ustad of British Asian Underground, is now rediscovering his roots through Punjabi poetry
What brings you to India?
I am actually passing through after performing in South East Asia. I took a little mini tour through Punjab. I am rediscovering Punjabi poetry. There is so much ‘jazba’ (passion) in Punjabi folk and literature. I’ve always wanted to work with that rich text. And it’s just sad how over all those years of war and turmoil, Punjabi poetry just got lost.
Is there anything that has inspired you to revive the art?
Yeah, in fact, that’s all I have been researching for the past few months. I have been listening to tabla Virtuoso Ustad Lachman Singh Seen. He’s probably one of the only few remaining from the Punjab Gharana who explores folk. In the last one week, I have discovered such talent across Punjab. I even met this little kid near Amritsar who sang Bulleh Shah on the ek tumbi (Punjabi violin). I have such a fantastic collection of recordings from my travels. I am very excited to work on this.
Have you grown up on any Punjabi folk?
Hardly. I learnt music on the streets. I remember dancing with a cowbell with my friends. When I’d hit it, it would sound like a tabla. My father was an electronics engineer. There would always be equipment in the basement. He’d keep it in these tobacco boxes. I would open the stuff and wonder… we’re from this ‘good’ Sikh family and there was tobacco in the house! I never asked him about the tobacco though.
When you started out, you were at the centre of the Asian Underground. How was that like?
The Asian Underground Movement started off in East London in 1996. We were running a regular gig at the legendary Blue Note in Hoxton Square, and decided to turn it into a weekly Monday night affair. Anokha: Sounds of the Asian Underground was released in the late ’90s. It turned into a groundbreaking album with the freshest producers, who rotated dub plates on the decks, along with DJ sessions and live mashups.
Which venues have you enjoyed playing at?
The Barbican Centre in London, and the South Bank. One of my memorable performances was in Spain. I got to play a tabla solo for an hour after which I deejayed for 45 minutes. The listeners got to feel the dynamics of Indian beats. They got up and danced, which was very special. This year I will be playing at the Coachella Music Fest in California and sharing stage with Jay-Z and Muse. I’m very excited about that.
You have remixed and collaborated with Blondie, Madonna, Sarah McLachlan and Bjork. Are you planning on more collaborations?
The time I spent touring and working with Bjork, was incredible. She has no set ways about creative ideas and is open-minded. So, the ideas came about naturally. We did a special concert with a huge acoustic orchestra, live strings and Indian instruments at the Royal Albert Hall. That was really something. For some reason, Madonna credits Frozen to me though I feel I’ve just inspired it. But with my new album on Punjabi poetry revival, I’d love to work with them again. Something tells me they won’t say no.
Your last album came out in 2001 and since then you haven’t released a solo album. Why is that?
I am mastering various albums and pieces and I finally feel it’s time to make a new album. I thank the global meltdown for this. Sometimes, you have to feel really unsettled to make hot music and a lot of my early music came out of frustration and struggle, on a cultural level. I don’t think that in the last 10 years anyone’s had to struggle, but now I think that the difficult period is starting again. I make tunes every single day, but now I have a cause.
You come down to Mumbai a lot. Do you like the city? Does it fascinate you on any level?
I love Mumbai. I am very interested in the Sion, Koliwada area. I’ve heard that a lot of the Sikh diaspora landed there, and at Dadar, of course. And then there’s the South Indian population there. I’d love to know more about the city, yet I already know so much with the blast of constant information. I don’t know, I might just do a photography installation on Mumbai. But yes, I do come down a lot. It is like home to me.