Suffolk-based musician Talvin Singh (47) is not exactly a favourite with the purists. In the mid-’80s, he travelled to Punjab to learn the tabla formally under Pandit Lashman Singh, at the age of 15. Back home in London (where he grew up) after two years, it would take him time to find his feet. His music was too Western for promoters and gatekeepers of Indian classical music, and he refused to work with Western artists who wanted him to add an exotic element.
Over the years, Singh developed his own style that married Indian and Western sounds. Today, Singh is known as a pioneer of Asian Underground — a movement that changed the course of popular music in Britain as well as in India. It was driven mostly by children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, much like Singh.
His family moved to the UK after they were ejected from Uganda by then President Idi Amin in the 1960s. His mother traces her roots to Madhya Pradesh, while his father (a retired engineer) hails from Punjab. Asian Underground gave rise to Britpop, and the UK bhangra music scene. It produced artists such as Apache Indian, Bally Sagoo, and Panjabi MC.
Bollywood, which laps up most new genres, wasn’t immune either. “I can hear so many songs in Bollywood which has that sound even today,” he says. Case in point, a mainstream Bollywood potboiler is incomplete without a bhangra number.
In keeping with his track record of doing the unusual, Singh will collaborate with sitar player Rishabh Seen at his performance in the city this weekend. Delhi-based Seen fuses metal music with the sitar. “We have a project called SUM in its development stage, for which we’ll be recording in the UK this year.” At the event, Singh will also perform a DJ set, a short anthology of sorts of the Asian Underground music.
Singh is a regular to India, visiting several times a year. “India has the brightest music and youth culture today, and I feel proud that so many young people are carving a path in music.” Although he’s full of praise for the current generation of musicians, he is also critical of social media. “Music and art take a great deal of focus. It’s important to keep ego at bay, and social media does not help,” he says. Singh himself keeps a low profile on social media, and though he has a Twitter account (@talvinsingh), he barely tweets.
But let’s rewind to how Singh sowed the seeds for Asian Underground. From 1996 to 1999, Singh, along with promoter Sweety Kapoor and the late DJ State of Bengal, ran Anokha Club Nights, at a venue called Blue Note in Hoxton Square, London. Indie artists were free to experiment at this series of musical nights. “We also hosted Anokha at Fabric at Clerkenwell, London, from 1999 to 2001,” Singh recalls.
In 1997, the trio released a compilation album, Anokha — Soundz of the Asian Underground, which featured the theme song of Bombay (1995), composed by AR Rahman. “I remember Andrew Lloyd Webber (Grammy award-winning composer who was known for musicals such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera) and Shekhar Kapur hanging around my shows, around the time that they were working on Bombay Dream (a Bollywood-themed musical that Webber produced, Rahman composed for and Kapur collaborated on). Maybe they were hoping that we would work together, but that gig was not for me and my taste, even if it was to be economically rewarding,” he says. However, it introduced Rahman’s music to Singh.
Over the years, Singh continued to put out albums and tour with his music. His varied music influences have led him to work with Madonna (for her album Music; 2000), remix Punjabi folk songs, and collaborate with other fusion artists such as sitar player Niladri Kumar. Change, it would seem, is the only constant in Singh’s life. “Contemporary music has to allow itself to shift and reinvent. That is its very nature,” he says.
Keeping up with the times
Recently, he finished working on Once Again, a movie by Germany-based director Kanwal Sethi. It explores a relationship between a retired movie star and a widow. “It stars Shefali Shah and Neeraj Kabi. Indian cinema is going through an exciting time right now. I want to work with more directors,” he says.
It’s not just Singh’s ideology and music that’s unique. Over the decades, his funky hairstyles and moustaches too have gathered a fair bit of attention. Currently, he’s sporting shoulder-length hair and a full beard. Past looks have included red spikes, blue hair, a ponytail, and a handlebar moustache. “London can be an exciting city in terms of freedom of expression and style, so that is a big part of my identity… which, at times, I had to come to terms with. Growing up, I used to do kirtan sangeet, and always wondered why I don’t wear a turban like the other Sikhs. I did not understand why my parents did not bring me up that way. [But] then I made the most of the London life and its multicultural community,” he says.
Singh has been in the music industry for a little over 25 years now. “Yet, I feel it’s only the beginning,” he says. We won’t be surprised if he changes the rules of the game once again.
Talvin Singh spoke at The Exchange in Mumbai, on March 28 on a panel that discussed opportunities for glocal artists. He will perform on March 31, 10pm onward.
At Anti Social, Khar
Tickets: Rs 500
Call 6522 6324