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Notes from the Underground

In 1995, musician Talvin Singh invented a groove in London. Fourteen years later, he tells Naomi Canton how he’s still keeping the beat — and breaking it too...

india Updated: Mar 28, 2009 00:07 IST
Naomi Canton
Naomi Canton
Hindustan Times

When Talvin Singh started a club night at Anokha at the Blue Note in London in 1995, he had no idea it would launch a global movement and sound. Nor did he know that the impact of Asian Underground would be so powerful that it would spearhead a new self-confidence and identity for second generation British Asians.

Fourteen years later, he is bumping into PhD students writing theses on the subject and London museums are holding retrospectives on the Asian Underground.

Did he know what impact that single club night would have? “No,” he says, munching on a sandwich at a Mumbai hotel. “I just wanted to change things. Then in Britain, Asian kids were into this wild Asian hip hop bhangra thing. A bunch of Asians would go into a room and frighten the hell out of each other and there was bloodshed. I was into diversity. I grew up in Leytonstone. My mum was very conservative and yet we mixed in our neighbourhood; it wasn't like living in Southall.”

But he admits the impact was huge. “I think it gave the youth the confidence to do what they wanted and the establishment made opportunities for them. If you were Asian you did not have to hide your culture anymore and all of a sudden there were more jobs for Asians.”

Singh, 38, who’s album OK won the Mercury Music Prize in 1999, is in India this week, DJ-ing at the Six Month Story in Delhi and Henry Tham in Mumbai.

His parents emigrated to Britain from India and he started playing the tabla as a child. Always drawn to his Indian roots and the “physical and spiritual elements” of playing the tabla, at 15 he travelled to India to learn under a master, Pandit Lakshman Singh.

He created his sound by playing tabla live to African Bambata tracks, and recording himself and going back and forth. “It was quite rebellious for a tabla player,” he admits.

Smoking a cigarette in a car en route to a TV studio, he admits that the fame had been alienating. “I got in the press so much and it was a hard time for me personally because if you are an Asian and you win the Mercury Music Prize and you are an Asian and you run the best club in London, no other Asian thinks they have a chance. It’s like an Indian problem — they think there is only space for one.”

Along with a re-release of OK as a fresh remix, Talvin is also coming out with a new double album. “I don’t think I will ever produce an album again. I just want to make one track a day and introduce new formats like the sound installation, something I had done in a Mumbai art gallery recently,” he says.

“It’s not just putting a bunch of tracks together. That is why OK took such a long time because it was a mix of jazz, electronica and European classical. And Indian cinema has always been a big influence too.”

Now he rarely DJs or performs in London, saying his biggest fan base is elsewhere. On Monday, he is off on tour with Mexican electronica artist Murcoff around Barcelona. If not touring, he’s composing, remixing or producing music. DJ-ing is just a sideline.

“Indian culture is really going downhill in Britain. No one is speaking the language anymore and yet Indian music is so vast and beautiful,” Talvin laments. “But I don’t think the scene is over. Nothing ever finishes.”

First Published: Mar 28, 2009 00:06 IST