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RIP acid house pioneer Charanjit Singh

After this untimely death this week, we uncover a rare interview with the Indian artist that many credit with inventing the much-loved electronic genre

In October I went to Bombay and rang the doorbell to Charanjit Singh’s flat as I have done many times before – the same flat he’s lived in since 1982, around the same time he began to withdraw from Bollywood. His wife Suparna welcomed me in, and I entered the sitting room through a glass door etched with stylized musical notation, piano keys, and a bass guitar. Singh is sitting next to his computer, Googling himself. His Yamaha keyboard – the chosen instrument he deploys for the private local parties he’s been playing to pay the bills – rests behind him, covered in a red silk cloth to protect it from the ubiquity of Indian dust.

He turns to me and tells me: “whenever I search on the internet, I only see good comments. So, not bad.” He laughs, looks at me for a moment as his face clears of emotion, and then turns back to his screen as if he has just acknowledged a deeply guarded artistic insecurity. Suparna asks their servant – typical of many Indian households and not an indication of wealth – for tea. 

Aware that the European concerts he’s been doing over the last year are gaining traction, he’s been in a state of excitement and fear since 2010 when the wider world discovered that he basically invented acid house.  For the uninitiated, the “disco ragas” Singh made thirty years ago – borne out of a combination of frustration and a sort of creative tipping point – are without peer. Inspired by disco and bored of balancing a steady series of session musician gigs with Bollywood music directors, he decided to do something for and by himself alone, and in 1982 decided to purchase the now iconic Roland TB-303 bassline sequencer, TR-808 drum machine, and Jupiter 8 analog synthesizer.

Disillusioned with the creative insecurity of a music machine that he was now becoming reluctantly a part of, he proceeded to hide away from the unforgiving hustle of Bombay’s film industry and make a record of classical Indian music fused with dance music. He ignored those who told him that it was a bad idea to put ragas to a disco beat and that there need to be tablas. Unrelenting, he asserted his vision.

EMI India released Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat based on Charanjit’s past track record and musical pedigree, but the label “didn’t really promote the record, and so nothing really happened,” he recalls today. “Maybe they lost money, or didn’t want to lose more, I don’t know.” The inevitable outcome transpired: a landmark record banished into obscurity, seemingly never to be heard again. In this case, the record slept for almost thirty years until its re-release in 2010. Observers began to take note, writing about a “lost” record that presented a convincing argument towards the premise that acid house was created in India in 1982.  

A few months after the re-release, I moved to Delhi, and found myself listening to the record for the first time. Confused, curious, and coincidentally on my way to Bombay, I managed to track Singh down. After meeting him and asserting that what he did was remarkable, I was met with complete and utter bewilderment from the modest elderly man, coupled with a query: “You tell me, what should we do?” I told him that the music and story had to be brought back to life. He agreed, though clearly unsure of what that actually meant. I told him that we should go on the road and let today’s generation acknowledge his musical groundwork. And that I should film the whole thing. His reply was classically understated: “why not?” 

“Whatever I do next, I’ll have to include a disco beat.  I don’t know if people will like it or not, but I’ll have to try” – Charanjit Singh

At the age of 72, he is now enjoying a long deserved public response to his solitary vision. We are now 22 shows in and about to go on our third European tour. We are not a typical four piece touring unit. Our days are spent driving around Europe from show to show in a Volvo station wagon owned by Singh’s live production collaborator and producer, Johanz Westerman.  When the sun is up, the enterprise is more akin to taking ones parents on a European holiday, but the evenings are dramatically different.  I’ve seen him play crowds ranging from bindi adorned club kids crowdsurfing and cranked on MDMA in Bordeaux, completely trashed squatters destroying property in Antwerp, stoic Germans studiously analyzing his analog setup at the Berghain, to over 8000 people in a disused warehouse in Lyons collectively experiencing something utterly unique.  

Sometimes his wife questions the authenticity of playing ragas to a rowdy party crowd, but this is always coupled with what has now become a expectation on her part – to see the crowd losing it to the music he makes. I can see the elation on his face after playing, though coupled with a hint of wondering if he did well.  He is a seasoned performer, but he’s never played on this scale before, let alone the fact that this past year has seen him playing his “disco ragas” live for the first time. 

He has shared festival stages with the likes of Carl Cox, Lindstrom, and Caribou, but Singh knows nothing of these artists or their music. “The audience doesn’t know ragas, but they are dancing to the beat.  I just do variations on the scale.” He sees nothing in common between what he did and what “they” did, apart from one thing: “rhythm.”

In many ways, the current chain of events surrounding his live performances seems perfectly matched to the man at the centre of it all – someone who appreciates clocked timing, a crowd of revelers, and beats.  It just so happens that it seems to be occurring in some parallel universe. His day to day in Bombay is spent playing private shows to wealthy patrons for special occasions, and his social life revolves around his closest friends and drinking buddies, most of whom live in the same building as he – a range of characters including property magnates, somewhat shady businessmen, and a former accountant now posing as a spiritual guru to wealthy and naïve Swiss nirvana seekers. They are somewhere between proud and jealous of his new success, but overall, not particularly surprised – they all recognize his talent and his body of work. Yet to the audiences he is playing to now, he’s essentially unknown, and the most unlikely person you might expect to be on stage conducting a rave pit. 

It’s a long way from his Bombay roots. “I sang ‘Oh Susanna’ at school in music class when I was 14. I loved that song. The teacher gave me full marks. Maybe I should sing it at the next show.” This may or may not be a good idea, as it’s impossible to gauge what his current audience expects when watching an elderly Indian man banging out 808 beats and scorched earth 303 acid lines at two in the morning. But judging by responses so far, anything seems plausible. “I don’t really feel any pressure”, he says. “Whatever I do next, I’ll have to include a disco beat.  I don’t know if people will like it or not, but I’ll have to try. Even at this age I can change into what I want.”