Charanjit Singh
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Charanjit Singh

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It was all a bit subdued at the BleeD/Lanzarote stage, tucked away in a corner of Field Day festival in East London’s Victoria Park. Midday ciders not flowing so much like a post-prandial cigarette, as more of a pre-breakfast one – sipped with a slight grimace. I was here to watch Charanjit Singh, the music industry touted accidental pioneer of Acid House. Despite the atmosphere, as Charanjit, now 72 and from Mumbai in India, quietly stepped out of his golf buggy and on to the stage as the residing DJ came to the end of his set, a large crowd had gathered. Given the size of the audience, I presume they were just as intrigued to hear Charanjit as I was.

Stood by his 80s synthesizer, a quick but quiet ‘OK everybody, let’s go’ got things under way like an umpire uttering the word “play” at Wimbledon, or a teacher starting a treasure hunt. The golf buggy, the intro and the set up were on the surface the absolute antithesis to all that surrounded Charanjit at that point in time. But all that had been written and speculated about Charanjit suddenly came to life as big retro chords preceded the now infamous Ten Ragas to a Disco beat. This was the song heralded as the first-ever Acid House tune.

The crowd forgot themselves as amusement and bemusement collided head on to produce a wild delirium for the rest of Mr Singh’s 45 minute set. There was a mesmeric consistency to his time behind the synth and an elderly charm quite unlike anything I’d seen before. Yes so his ‘wow’ ‘Ok ready!’ and ‘come on’ comments were like something your Dad would say, but it didn’t matter. I was lucky enough to catch up with Charanjit and his wife (far outshining any Doc Martin plodding hipster at the festival, resplendent in a Sari) in his dressing room after his performance. Unsurprisingly, he was pretty pleased with how things went.

‘Very good, people enjoyed. They don’t want to leave me, they say one more one more! I say OK no problem! I had a 45minute set but I played for 55 minutes’.

Mr Singh’s story goes back to 1982 when he was in the middle of his career as a professional musician, based in Mumbai. Adept as a multi-instrumentalist, he was used to playing traditional Indian Ragas at concerts. He was, however, inspired to try something new so flew to Singapore to buy a Roland TB-303 synth.

‘Most people listened to classical ragas, I said lets do something different. So I used a disco beat. Actually it was an experiment. I was not sure whether classical music and a disco beat would work. But people like the disco raga. It sounds good, with the bassline separate, the chords, and the keyboard I play live.’

In hindsight this fusion of traditional music with modern technology was pioneering, however at time it was barely noticed. In 2002 a Dutch record producer, Edo Bouman, happened upon the song and immediately saw its potential. He bought the record and re-released it in 2010. The rest, they say, is history. Since then Charanjit has been in huge demand in Europe and was in fact in the middle of an 11 date tour round Europe, including performances in Berlin and Paris at the time we met. Not bad for 72. An accidental legacy maybe, but an important one. His appetite to perform and his enigmatic stage presence means he has been a real success.

Even in India, his interest in fusing musical styles together has become a mainstay in popular music. His songs may not be too popular, but his methods most certainly are. He tells me ‘People like fusion music. Take an old song and experiment with new effects.’ ‘Remixing!’ piped up Charanjit’s wife from the sofa. ‘Yes, people like remixing’, he agreed. I was also told that they have had interest from the USA and have been invited to play in New York, Chicago and LA. All I can say is that both of them, and it did seem to be a husband and wife act, are having a pretty brilliant time.

‘I enjoy everywhere I play, people go on dancing. I don’t know, they think my music is so good. Whenever he says (Rana his manager) let’s go, we go! We don’t know where he is taking us. But I like this just for the people, not the money, just for the people’.

Charming and funny, Charanjit Singh is clearly on the rise.

The ending of his set couldn’t have been more perfect. He left, literally, in a cloud of smoke with the preset ‘siren’ noise from the old Roland ringing in the ears of his adoring audience. Did that just happen? Did he just use a smoke machine and a demo siren noise? Yes he did! - Kaltblut Magazine


A wedding band leader and Bollywood soundtrack musician during the 1960s and 70s, Charanjit Singh was also and unwitting electronica pioneer. Over two days in 1982, he holed up in a studio with early synthesizers and drum machines (including the block-rockin' Roland 808 and 303) to record bracing, meditative electro versions of classic Indian music. The sine-wave whines and squelchy bloop-bleeps sound like early acid house or Kraftwerk covering Ravi Shankar. - Spin Magazine


Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat is, of course, a cracking story – a no-profile album of acid-house, made three years before the term existed, by a Bollywood composer from Mumbai. Rediscovered in the Noughties, it’s more than just an ‘And finally…’ curiosity, with Singh’s tangled compositions pulling the best out of his TB-303/TR-808/Jupiter 8 set-up. The accidental ürtext for the Chicago sound – until the acid genealogists dig out the next bit of ossified squelch, that is.

Stefan Goldmann: “I still have doubts Mr.Singh really exists, considering Ursula Bogner being Jan Jelinek in drag. He may exist of course, but is that record really what we are supposed to believe? No one having heard of this album before it got “reissued” a couple of years ago makes it suspicious. Could it have stayed unnoticed for so long? (9 Discogs members claim to own it, most of them miraculously joining in the year of the “reissue”). Could it be some fun project by art school students with an affinity for Rush Hour?

Not that it is unlikely being for real. We have been doing a “prototypes” series for Macro and we have stumbled on absolutely unlikely stuff from Patrick Cowley to Pete Namlook. Not to mention what we couldn’t release so far from … well, let’s keep this a secret. Yet it wouldn’t be a problem to pull off the stunt of the “real” Charanjit Singh performing at Berghain a couple of weeks ago (I couldn’t attend), as well as at several other places. Why not have a veteran Indian keyboard virtuoso with a good sense of humor solo over a hefty acid foundation? It is more fun than listening to the next kid re-enacting Adonis.

From all those hyper-realist simulations of classic dance music in all variations we do know it is possible to make believe it’s the real thing. So it wouldn’t be too far off to take this a stage further and produce some alternative historiography? Usually it is perfection that gets in the way of such projects, rather being too good at it than a spoof (the Casio watch on the Roman legionnaire’s wrist) hints at the fake. The one original real thing is always perfect, but there never is a second original. Styles don’t emerge until later, modelled after whatever singled out the prototype. The first materializations, even of the “same” thing, usually show massive variation. That’s lacking here on a beats and bass lines level. And it wouldn’t be too much effort to fake the whole paraphernalia of course: printing fake covers, staging home interviews, matching the expectedly sparse IMDB database history (which is harder to forge), writing up “how I stumbled upon…” liner notes … Circulating photos in what is clearly a modern techno producer’s studio, as well as the immaculately “vintage” recording quality – just compare this to early acid house – as well as the beat patterns matching prototypean Chicago stuff too neatly actually all help the thing seem real again. There’s nothing more fishy than a flawless presentation. With enough flaws we just can’t tell.

What does make it totally likely on the other hand then is it fits very well with my suspicion that anbody who had the specific gear at hand would have invented techno. If you only have a Roland 808 or 909 and a 303 and nothing else, you can do nothing but acid with this. It is the one obvious thing to come out of such a set up – and sure enough it did in Chicago. So why not in Mumbai too? (shall we check Roland’s distribution archives?) This has happened over and over again: there’s an obvious approach to working with some piece of new gear, and sure enough new gear was always followed by the music the designs hinted at. The Fender bass changed bass lines, the broken valve changed the lines a guitarist would play, the 303 spawned acid, the sampler encouraged hip hop… And the opposite is true too: our difficulties to leave the retro loop for the last two decades mirror the halt in innovation on a basic algorithm level. All we have seen is reintegrations of existing synthesis or effect concepts into ever more powerful software environments.

After we have plundered our (and an Afro-American) past sufficiently, the rationale behind 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat is to integrate a wider cultural vocabulary into the repertoire we can revisit to keep our electronic music going. If it happened 30 years ago in Mumbai or in Amsterdam a couple of months before its release doesn’t matter that much then. The possible prank just makes it a bit more exciting.” - FACT Magazine


In a logical world, there’s no way Charanjit Singh should be playing at the Shacklewell Arms this Friday. The Dalston venue has a relaxed vibe but a booking policy that sits squarely on the bleeding edge. By contrast, Singh is 78 years old – genial and calm, and about as unhip as it is possible to imagine. Starting as a Bollywood session musician in the ’60s, the Mumbai multi-instrumentalist once led a wedding band and spent the ’70s recording easy-listening covers of popular movie songs to be played in restaurants and elevators.

He hasn’t been booked to perform these, however. Instead, he’s playing from a self-made album he cut in two days in 1982 which, by miraculous accident, managed to completely predate the birth of house music. The record – ‘Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat’ – may seem like an oddity on paper, but to contemporary ears it sounds startling, fresh and scarily modern.

The record’s lithe synth leads and cold, robotic rhythms make perfect sense in the anything-goes world of dance music in 2012. It’s been praised by those on techno’s top tier, including Andrew Weatherall, Four Tet and Caribou’s Dan Snaith, whose own recent album, ‘Jiaolong’, contains a similar mix of Eastern scales and techno drive. Back in 1982, however, one can only wonder just how alien and otherworldly it sounded. As the title suggests, Singh’s aim was to eschew tablas and marry traditional Indian melodies (ragas) to fashionable disco beats. Yet a simple sum made the record transcend disco and give it real bite: 808 + 303. In Chicago and Detroit, the combination of Roland’s TR-808 drum machine with the TB-303 bass sequencer would later give acid house music its metronomic grooves and illicit funk. Singh happened on this ground-breaking combination not only by chance, but at least five years before what’s considered the first acid-house release, Phuture’s ‘Acid Trax’.

While disco ruled in ’80s India, the record quickly faded into obscurity upon release. It would have stayed there but for Edo Bouman, a fanatic collector of all things Bollywood. Upon seeing the LP a few years ago in a New Delhi record shop, he assumed it was just another disco novelty. ‘Boney M were huge, so there are lots of crappy old Bollywood records out there with disco beats. Luckily, I’ll still buy anything with “disco” in the title,’ said Bouman. Playing it in his hotel, he was shocked by the record’s technoid futurism. He released it on his tiny Bombay Connection label and its legend grew fast – even prompting rumours of a hoax.

Its creator is real however, and recently reunited with the two Roland sequencers he used to carve out his strange place in history. Speaking from Mumbai, Charanjit is amused that anyone still cares about ‘Ten Ragas...’. He’s more focused on his newfound vocal abilities: ‘I still play a lot of film songs on the keyboard. I’ve started singing recently too – in Punjabi, Gujarati, even Swahili,’ he says. Yet he’s relishing the trip to London, and though he hasn’t tinkered with the machines in a long time, he’s justifiably laidback. ‘I’ve been playing instrumentals on my own for over 30 years. I know what I’m doing.’ - TimeOut


Cast your mind to the acid house scene and your immediate thought probably doesn't involve an ageing Bollywood session musician. Yet the softly spoken Indian man who greets me at the door of his friend's suburban Acton home on a sunny Sunday morning is credited with creating what some have labelled the first ever acid house record.

Charanjit Singh's back catalogue could have disappeared into musical obscurity were it not for the cult album Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat that he created in a few days in Mumbai in 1982. The album is one of the earliest records to use the legendary Roland TB 303 synth – a machine synonymous with the acid house sound – and Singh paired this with the equally renowned Roland TR 808 to create an album astonishingly unusual and ahead of its time. So far ahead, in fact, that it appears to pre-date the first acid house records to come out of Chicago by about five years.

While the record seems extraordinary, to its creator its origins were rather straightforward. "There was lots of disco music in films back in 1982," says Singh matter of factly. "So I thought why not do something different using disco music only. I got an idea to play all the Indian ragas and give the beat a disco beat – and turn off the tabla. And I did it. And it turned out good."

As we drink tea and eat biscuits with his wife in the strikingly ordinary west London home in which he is staying briefly, I am struck by Singh's naturally shy demeanour and his absolute bemusement about the growing interest in Ten Ragas. One reason for Singh's air of surprise is the fact that the record was a commercial failure when it was first released. "It didn't click," says Singh with the resignation of the session musician whom fame has passed by. "It didn't have any publicity. Only sometimes you could hear it on the All Indian radio station, filling the gaps."

But if it failed to make an impact on its release, it's certainly clicking with a lot of people now. While Ten Ragas is not the only pre-acid house record to use the 303, it's perhaps the only one that sounds like it should have influenced acid house (impossible, given that the musicians credited with giving shape to the genre could never have heard the album at the time). This has been one of the key factors in driving the album's march to fame since its "re-discovery" and re-issue two years ago.

With this fame though has come a level of notoriety – and uncertainty. Much has been made of the album's astonishingly advanced sound palette, the high recording quality, and the unexpected use of a 303 on a record made in Mumbai so soon after the machine's official release in Japan at the end of 1981. These factors, coupled with the original record's astonishing rarity and extremely unlikely and enigmatic creator, have led many to believe the album was a hoax.
Charanjit Singh Newfound fame ... Charanjit Singh and his wife. Photograph: Stuart Aitken

Until now, Singh has not helped the conspiracy theorists by remaining silent on the issue. Living in relative obscurity in Mumbai makes him a difficult man to track down. This rare trip to the UK affords me a unique opportunity to shed more light on this hugely important record.

But, as my interview with him progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that Singh's shy demeanour makes him a difficult man to interview. No amount of questioning yields much more detail than what is already known about the album. I now understand why Edo Bouman, the man responsible for the official re-issue of Ten Ragas, warned me that Singh was "quite mellow and shy" and advised me to ask him "very simple step by step questions".

Despite this warning I am still frustrated that Singh seems unable to give more specific detail on when and where he recorded the album. He is also hazy on the details of exactly where he bought the 808 and 303 and cannot give any real reasons as to why he chose to buy them in the first place. "The 303 – that was something new," he explains. "It just came out. I went to Singapore and bought it from there."

With some more gentle probing he explains that he was intrigued by the way he could use the 808 and 303 in synch with the Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard. He explains that he didn't know much about the machines when he bought them and that he had to spend time learning how to use them properly. "At home I practised with the combination and I thought 'It sounds good – why not record it'".

Throughout our conversation it also becomes obvious that Singh is relatively unaware of the music that Ten Ragas is often compared to. So, I decide to play him a selection of famous acid tracks to see if he can find any similarities between the music that became known as acid and what he did with Ten Ragas.

Having explained that much of the music that Ten Raga - The Guardian


Charanjit Singh found himself in an interesting position back in the early 80s. Working as a session musician in the Bollywood films industry, he was exposed to a wide variety of electronic musical devices. Two of the instruments he used, which would not have been made so readily available otherwise, were the Roland TB-303 and TR-808 synthesizers — the very same synthesizers that later generated all of those drippy sounds you hear on your acid house records. During the time he spent away from his work, Singh sought to re-contextualize the ancient music of his nation — the Indian ragas — using the most technologically up-to-date methods. So no, Ten Ragas To a Disco Beat isn’t some abstractly titled avant-garde record (which is what I initially thought); it’s actually ten ragas played over a disco beat. And no, it’s not one of those corny gift-shop albums marketed to rich tourists — it’s 10 hissing artifacts that represent an aurally flexible ancient culture.

Now, ‘hissing’ isn’t usually the word one uses to describe what happens when folks attempt to re-record old cultural music. Usually you’d call it “world music,” and usually you wouldn’t listen to it. But don’t be averted. Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat was originally released in super-limited quantities in 1982, but it’s recently been re-released by the Bombay Connection label, and it couldn’t be better. The melodies mesmerize, the rhythms pulse relentlessly. And the synthesizer… Oh lord, Singh’s synth makes sound that modern electronic producers should envy. Ten Ragas doesn’t come off gimmicky like one would expect from reading over its history, rather, it’s minimal and potent beyond measure. So get your ass over to the Bombay Connection, they’ve got a gift waiting for you. - Tiny Mix Tapes


The freakiest surprise to wake from the archives in 2010 is quite easily this mind spitting concoction from 1982, India. The blogscape was alighted by talk of hoaxes and who-dunnits primitive 303, pummelling 808, a prototype acid techno. So, Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat... what is your game? Are you Aphex in disguise?

The defiant, exhilarating answer is NO. The man behind this skeletal-Moroder dance music is a genuine Bollywood session musician called Charanjit Singh, a musician with a wealth of obscure soundtrack records in South Asia behind him. A character it seems who predated the Chi-town acid-techno explosion by some years. Recently Bombay Connections' Edo Bouman stumbled across this long talked about record and here it is wriggling into your ears, Indian style.

Possessor of brand new weaponry at his feverish disposal- Jupiter 8, Rolands' 303/808 had only just been invented- Singh translated ten classical Indian ragas to a careening 130-plus-bpm heartbeat and a septic 303 worm, writhing in the machine funk, headfirst into the Phuture. The tracks on show are exotically painted, trapped in an endless, hypnotic wormhole; the Jupiter 8 layered into a psychedelic surge of colour and tone, the TR-808 metronomic, pulsating, the TB-303 deviously used and abused much like the Chicago producers somewhere further down the continuum. Often a cliche in music writing, but so very apt in the Ten Ragas, like little else you will hear. - Bleep


Charanjit Singh doubtless stood out as unusual in the Hindi film industry of the 1960s and 70s. Veteran of countless Bollywood soundtrack orchestras, Singh was the sort to turn up at session with the latest new synthesiser, acquired at great expense from London or Singapore. He was not, however, widely regarded among his country folk as someone "pushing things forward". His band, the Charanjit Singh Orchestra, made their rupees touring weddings, performing the hits of the day, and while he played on many popular Bollywood recordings, Charanjit Singh was never a household name.

In 1982, though, Singh did something unusual. Inspired by the sound of disco imports from the west making waves among Bombay's hipster cognoscenti, he went into the studio with some new kit – a Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard, a Roland TR-808 drum machine and a Roland TB-303 – and decided to make a record that combined western dance music with the droning ragas of Indian classical music. Recorded in two days, Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat garnered some interest, excerpts finding their way on to national radio, but it was a commercial flop and was soon forgotten.

In 2002, record collector Edo Bouman came across Ten Ragas in a a shop in Delhi. "Back at my hotel I played it on my portable player, and I was blown away. It sounded like acid house, or like an ultra-minimal Kraftwerk." But it was the date on the record that shocked Bouman. Released 1982, it predated the first acid house record – often regarded as Phuture's Acid Trax – by five years. Bouman tracked down Singh to Mumbai. "He was most friendly and surprised I knew the album. I remember asking him how he got to this acid-like sound, but he didn't quite get my point. He didn't realise how stunningly modern it was."

Eight years later, Bouman is reissuing the record on his label, Bombay Connection. Even today, it sounds like some strange kink in the dance music continuum, but Bouman is amused at speculation Ten Ragas is a hoax, cooked up by some Aphex Twin-style techno joker (the label has released Singh's conventional soundtrack work before, and besides, one can't imagine a respectable Bollywood reissue label pulling such a prank).

Now in his 70s, Singh is, as Bouman puts it, "more a musician than a talker," but he understands Ten Ragas might have been something accidentally, unusually prescient. "He made close to 10 albums, but they all were cover albums," says Bouman. "He told me, 'Frankly, this was the best thing I did. Other albums are all film songs I just played. But this was my own composition. Do something all of your own, and you can make something truly different.'" - The Guardian


Discography

"Laxmikant Pyarelal Present LP Of Charanjit Singh Hindi Film Songs" EMI 1978

"Plays Hit Tunes On Synthesizer Of Silsila" Odeon 1981

"Synthesizing - Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat" EMI 1982

Photos

Bio

The Music.

The "disco ragas" Charanjit Singh made in 1982 may speaks a language that is easy to understood, but deploys a cadence that renders it alien. The closest proxy is arguably house music, leading some observers to apply the genre "proto-house" to his work. But of course, this album was recorded years before the term house music even existed.

The re-release of this record in 2010 has both stunned and confused given the seemingly impossible history that underlies its creation. As some observers have noted:

"Some people surmised that this album was an elaborate hoax - an invention of the Aphex Twin, perhaps (1). The tracks on show are exotically painted, trapped in an endless, hypnotic wormhole; the Jupiter 8 layered into a psychedelic surge of colour and tone, the TR-808 metronomic, pulsating, the TB-303 deviously used and abused much like the Chicago producers somewhere further down the continuum (2). But if it failed to make an impact on its release, it’s certainly clicking with a lot of people now (...) [and] it’s perhaps the only [record] that sounds like it should have influenced acid house, (...) one of the key factors in driving the album’s march to fame since its ‘re-discovery’ and re-issue two years ago (3)."

If these reactions are anything to go by, Singh’s work in 1982 is akin to the Holy Grail of electronica. A missing link, washed over by the sands of time, unearthed recently by accident. The story is hard to believe, but true: one man, four years prior to anyone else, merged three now iconic, but then virtually untested, pieces of equipment, creating sounds that are now the hallmark of current electronic dance music as we know it; sounds that most of us now take for granted.

The Context.

“Frankly, this was the best thing I did. Other albums are all film songs I just played. But this was my own composition. Do something all of your own, and you can make something truly different (4).”

Among those who are keen on the history of electronic dance music, most narratives point to the emergence of house and acid house within the clubs of Chicago and Detroit in the mid 1980s as being the starting point. It was there and then that the now familiar “acid” squelch of the Roland TB-303 was divulged, tempered with the relentless beats produced by its engineered partner, the TR-808 drum machine. Together these two pieces of equipment forged an entirely new path of making and experiencing music, much to the surprise of those who initially produced these two pieces of gear in 1981 for entirely different purposes - Roland envisioned them as being tools for solo musicians to play unaccompanied.

From house, to acid house, and then across the Atlantic to Manchester and beyond, the 303 and 808 not only changed the way in which we dance, but also the contexts in which we do so. It would not be an exaggeration to say that "rave" culture as we knew and know it would not be the same if not for this essentially accidental application of a bass line sequencer and drum machine.

Yet, there is a missing chapter in this narrative, one that finds its origin not in North America or Europe, but in a far less obvious space - India.

The Composer.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Charanjit Singh worked in Bollywood as a session musician and arranger. Being Bombay based, embedded in the industry, and possessing remarkable talent as a multi instrumentalist, composer, and arranger all put Singh in the right place at the right time. In 1982, Singh traveled to Singapore and purchased the Roland TB-303, TR-808, and a Jupiter 8 synthesizer. Upon his return to India, he booked time at EMI Studios in Bombay. This, coupled with his possessing a long term interest in electronics - he is a bit of a gear geek - ensured a an utterly unique context for authorship. Over four days, alone, and after teaching himself how to use the gear, he recorded one album using this now classic set up.

“Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat” consists of ten variations on Indian classical music, true to the classical raga form, but composed on what was then an entirely novel basis of instrumentation, namely the 303 and 808. The underlying minimal beats and bass lines may sound recognizable now, but at the time, no one else could have made this record, and there was nothing that sounded anything like it. Perhaps due to this, the album failed to resonate, and the number of copies pressed by EMI was limited to the hundreds. It essentially disappeared.

The Reissue.

Twenty years later, a Dutch vinyl collector, Edo Bouman, traveled to India to track down and write about a number of musicians, as well as to buy records. In a market in Old Delhi, he found a copy of this record, though at that time had no idea of its existence. Intrigued by what he saw on the cover – a kaleidoscopic image of a Jupiter 8 synthesizer with what appears to be a TB-303 sitting gingerly on top – he bought a copy, went back to his hotel roo