Talvin Singh - virtuoso percussionist, producer, club organiser and musical live wire - is a crucial contributor to the passage of black and Asian music into the wide world of global pop. Rob Young speaks to him about his collaborations with Bjork, Sun Ra and On-U Sound, and hears a vision of the future sound of India. This article originally appeared in The Wire 144 (February 1996).
"We are seen to be heading back to a world-balance similar to that of a thousand years ago, when the initiative in human affairs belonged on Pacific coasts. Meanwhile, a process of cultural colonization-in-reverse-accumulated over the last 200 years - is challenging the dominance of Atlantic tradition" - Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Millennium
A different kind of Orient: Leyton, East London. In Talvin Singh's tropically heated basement studio, speaker cones are straining at their moorings, vibrating under the pressure of deep bass drum and dub bassline, whiplash snare, helium vocals like a geisha from Mars (the singer turns out to live round the corner), rising over neck-prickling chord-swells. In the distance, a carpet of Ambient Hindu vocal, like morning mist drifting across the Kashmir.
And there's something else in there: follow those leads back to the source, from mixing desk through effects rack, snaking up to where they're jacked into the metal rims of a pair of tablas, clamped to a horizontal bar at chest height. Welcome to the future sound of India.
March 1994. I meet Talvin for the first time on the flight back to London from Voss Jazz Festival in Norway. The day before, I'd seen him sitting cross-legged on stage in an open-form improvisation set with Mike Maineri and Bendik Hofseth. The music was reminiscent of the kind of delicate, breathy ambience that began to breeze into ECM recordings towards the late 70s: Oregon, Codona, Old And New Dreams, crossed with Stockhausen's Telemusik. As soon as he gets home, Talvin tells me, he has to fly straight over to the States to rejoin the Bjork tour: this was just a breather for him.
You may not have seen Talvin yet, but you'll almost certainly have heard him somewhere: whether in the late 80s Indo-jazz groups that formed in the wake of the British jazz movement (Talvin still counts Courtney Pine and Cleveland Watkiss among his friends); or his RD Burman-influenced string arrangements and percussion on the Bjork albums Debut and Post. His tablas have also appeared on Future Sound Of London's Lifeforms, Little Axe's The Wolf That House Built, a recently issued Sun Ra concert recording from the Hackney Empire (about which more later), remixes for Natacha Atlas; and as well as the Bjork tour, he found time to co-ordinate 1994's Live And Eclectic festival at London's Ministry Of Sound, where he formed a group with On-U Sound players Skip McDonald and Bim Sherman; opened up for Massive Attack when they took Protection out on the road in 95; and has turned up with his tablas at clubs, raves and parties all over London and beyond: The Big Chill, Megatripolis, Whirl-Y-Gig.
Talvin has never released a record in his own name, but all
that's about to change. He's been biding his time, watching the
first waves of British Asian culture break on the rocks of media
stereotype, niche marketing or simple English ignorance. By the end
of this year, as well as playing on a new Bim Sherman LP due in
May, Talvin will have launched a number of different projects
instigated by himself: Anokha, not a club but a 'global village
congregation', based in London but linked via an ISDN line to
Bombay; The Talvin Singh Band, with live musicians, real-time
sequencing and dub engineering by Adrian Sherwood; One World One
Drum, a project involving around 20 different drummers and
percussionists to be recorded live at Peter Gabriel's Real World
complex; his own Omni label, dedicated to releasing music by his
widening circle of friends and musicians in the UK and India, from
classical music to Indo-dub hybrids; and Future Sound of India,
perhaps the baby closest to his heart: a sonic Indian dreamscape
("Kind of an acid trip in India") constructed from the DATs he
records on his regular trips East, samples from Bollywood
soundtracks, contributions from invited musicians from all walks of
music, and of course, those electric tablas...
Talvin Singh sits in front of me in his studio, nursing the flu. He's in the middle of wiring up his entire house for sound: "The tablas sound wicked in the bathroom, man," he enthuses. Born of Punjabi parents, he was sent, aged five, to study music with Pandit Laxman Singh in Northern India. The guru taught him to play tablas in the dense, attacking Punjab style, which he demonstrates for me, pressing the pulse forward with blurred fingertips. Does his teacher know about his multifarious contributions to global pop? "He encourages al types of music, but when it comes to playing our music, he feels that there's got to be a certain fundamental school you're coming from, and the art of Indian classical music is that it's a whole lifestyle as well. Most of the time that really does me in, because if you go to a late club, you've got to wake up early in the morning and practise, it's really hard, but it's important to me."
It's not enough, says Talvin, to muscle in with a sampler and believe you suddenly hold the key to global consciousness: the Loop Guru world-buffet approach. "They will just get a breakbeat and sample Indian music which has no relational context whatsoever. They would have a sitar which has no tonal context to a tabla: the tabla's got different tuning from the sitar. That's very abstract; I feel that a lot of that stuff has been done. It's more about composing now. It's like Don Cherry [whom Talvin met several times in Norway] said: people like to use different kinds of music, but they don't want to learn about it. Now, if you ain't gonna respect someone like Don Cherry, what are you saying, man?"
This knowledge makes him a crucial contributor to the passage of British black and Asian culture into pop consciousness, and he knows is. And he wants to get it right. "The exposure of bhangra in the early 80s was really weird, because there was a whole big hype about it, people were really interested, but their expectation was for it to be a name they could identify British Asian music with. But there weren't any youngsters involved with it. they were all my Dad's age, mainly wedding and cabaret bands. Now, our generation are bringing on a whole new dimension, which I think is brilliant."
Talvin's friends from the jazz days are coming in from the cold:
Courtney Pine remixed by 4 Hero; Steve Williamson and Diane
Charlemagne entering Goldie's orbit along with Mark Gilmore, live
drummer on this month's Metalheadz UK tour and a contributor to
Talvin's One Drum, One World. Yet things are threatening to go a
bit askew in the Jungle, with the major players' taste for dodgy
fusion-lite: LTJ Bukem citing Return To Forever's Rainbow Warrior,
Goldie namechecking The Yellowjackets; the Jaco Pastorius-inspired
fretless bass antics of new Ninja Tune signing Squarepusher; and
the sobering image of Hardstep soundtracking TV air-freshener
ads...Isn't instrumental virtuosity still up for ridicule when it
hits the pop stage?
"I feel it's changing," Talvin replies. "Goldie wouldn't do a tour with a drummer and bass player if it wasn't so, he would just go out with a sound system. He knows that people want to see somebody strike a drum. We're talking about two different kinds of musicians here: interactive, today's musicians who are getting their own labels together, or someone who plays in a jazz band in Pizza Express because they've ignored everything. They've ignored Cubase, they've ignored the sampler. We shouldn't ignore it, man, we shouldn't be intimidated by those things. It's not the time when Philip Glass or Yehudi Menuhin were sitting up at one end of the world, making records with Ravi Shankar at the other. Now, it's about living club culture, underground culture, HipHop times: we've been part of that and going parallel to that."
Strange things happen to Talvin: like the time in 1990 when he picked up the phone and it was Sun Ra on the line, summoning him to two concerts in Paris and London. "Sun Ra never stayed in hotels, he stays in residences; they had a special cottage outside Paris. I arrived there, and there was frankincense and myrrh, smoke everywhere. It was everywhere, really strong aroma. I got a bit frightened, bit paranoid. Then they introduced me to Sun Ra. He seemed a nice man, had his outfit on. Great aura. Next day we did this gig, and he said, 'Come and sit next to me.' He never told me what to play: just actions, hand signals, orchestrating the whole vibe with his aura. The energy was amazing. I knew exactly what to play: I couldn't jam all over the music, and I had thought it was going to be like that.
"He was into very high mathematical equations, applying formulas on the science of life. His philosophy was that either you be part of the society or you don't. And he wasn't part of it. He created his own. I mean, I actually saw his passport, man. It had some weird shit on it. It had some different stuff, and the people at immigration took a long time over it, but then they seemed to approve it. His last words to me were, 'Yeah Talvin, thank you very much. I'll see you in the sun.' He was very encouraging. So that's quite a heritage."
In the West, TV series like Apache Indian's Apache Goes Indian still sell us the image of India as a dilapidated Third World nation; and (once again) Goa becomes the new Benidorm for middle class hippies looking for a quick spiritual fix. The reality is somewhat different: a huge, socially divergent nuclear power that's rapidly becoming energised by technology. And for those who think this is just another way for the US to get an extra slice of the digital communications pie, get this: India threw out MTV and created its own internal equivalent, VTV. The V is for Victory. Meanwhile, British Asian acts have to rely on unconvincing appropriations of their own cultural stereotype: Cornershop, the Outcaste label.
"I've never felt outcast," says Talvin. "It's so easy to say, 'I'm Asian and it's not fair, you haven't given me a chance.' Outcaste? They're definitely playing to that idea. And it might make one guy a lot of money, yeah? But it ain't gonna do anything for the music, is it? Because we're not trying to be outcast. So how can you carry a flag saying that? What's important for me is doing things on a level where the music speaks for itself."
His musical response is not banner-waving, but seduction. Future Sound Of India music shifts its shape endlessly, the bottomless virtual space of hard disk recording providing a hardware equivalent to the raga's decomposition of measured time. The name is a deliberate ploy to avoid being hidden in the World Music or New Age racks of record shops. "Can you imagine," says Talvin with glee, "they'll think, 'Fuck that, we're going to put this in the Rock & Pop section, this sounds wicked.' They won't put it in the Miscellaneous section: they'd be stupid, because of the name, yeah? And tomorrow, I want to see Future Sound Of Africa, Future Sound Of Kurdistan, Future Sound Of Norway, Future Sound Of Iceland, all in one section, called Future Sound! And it's already started happening; I had a letter from someone in Kenya..."
This article first appeared in issue 144 (February
© 1998 The Wire.