The phenomenon that is Talvin Singh remains an anomaly and is shrouded in mystery in lots of ways. The man who started up a collective called Anokha, meaning unique, in the back streets of Hoxton, London, also helped create a brand collective that became popularly known as the ‘Asian Underground’ some fifteen years ago. Sonia Kumari Mehta takes a closer look into Talvin’s World.
The Asian Underground was a seminal moment in the identity and politics of second and third generation British Asians at a time when notions of ‘Cool Britannia’ were rising to the surface. With Labour firmly in power, England was a place that was now inclusive of all things British and happening. Brown was the new Black and Talvin Singh was immersed into the cultural melting pot, reaching the highest acclaim in the British music industry in 1999, when he won the prestigious Mercury Prize for his debut album OK.
Talvin Singh was catapulted from the margins of London’s East End to the centre of the emerging celebrity world. Having established a London sound that was representative of London’s drum&bass clubhouses, infused with beats that stood apart from popular bhangra rhythms, Singh was, however, still worlds apart from his peers who had been afforded the fame and who had become part of the Establishment. From the likes of Oasis and Blur, the young ones, who represented the archetypal British rock band; Asian Dub Foundation, the archetypal anti-establishment, politico band; Talvin Singh’s music was an eclectic sound that was to have a global language with no particular label.
In 1998, NME said of Singh’s debut OK album: “If musicians are people who string lines across geography and history then Talvin Singh certainly sets his sights far and wide. ‘The world is sound,’ intones a voice at the start of this LP and that sets the agenda: he’s trying to cover the globe with his music.” OK introduced to the world a new breed of Asians who knew their art inside out and upside down. This was possibly the first comprehensive collaboration of classical instruments, such as sarangi, Indian mandolin, Indian strings and more, all in one space at one time.
Talvin Singh was, however, stringing the lines across continents and beginning to build bridges between the Western and Indian classical forms. He says his first training came from observation, understanding and visualising the architecture of sound. This journey led Singh at the age of 15 to return to India, to earn pupilage under the eminent Pandit Laxman Singh, of the Punjab Gharana, where he lived the life of a tabla student and sought guidance from the wisdom of his musical ancestors through his teacher, securing a foundation that today allows him go back and forth with relative ease.
At a young age, his teacher would refer to him as ‘roo-dar’ – a free spirit. It is perhaps this free spirit and the guidance of his teacher that make up the essence of the artist. He is steeped in both classical music and the world of electronica. His next album Anokha Sounds of the Asian Underground took him back to the fields of Punjab and the essence of a new emerging India with Ha and nurturing a brotherhood with Rakesh Chaurasia in Vira.
To enhance the prominence of tabla, he invented the electronic version in 1991. This allowed him to use the instrument alongside other electronic devices that are a regular feature of his performance; his laptop and MPC all working hand in hand to create a sound that is uniquely his own. The hallmarks of his performance are the incorporation of spoken rhythm bols which come to him with the ease of natural speech patterns.
Singh has produced and collaborated with the likes of Madonna, Bjork, Massive Attack and Jay-Z in the Western world of popular music, and on the Eastern side – Ustad Sultan Khan, Rakesh Chaurasia, Ustad Imrat Khan, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, U Srinivas, Shankar Mahadevan and Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, among many more. It is perhaps this leading edge that brought together Talvin Singh and the young up-and-coming Niladri Kumar, a fifth-generation sitar virtuoso, in a fresh and exciting collaboration in the autumn of 2009.
Waiting for the performance at Dingwalls, London, was somewhat reminiscent of the experience of fans the world over, eagerly expectant of the revelation of a new sound – be it the Beatles or Ravi Shankar. As Niladri and Talvin emerged, the audience gravitated towards the stage to form an intimacy that is often afforded to recitals of the classical kind, changing the aesthetics of a typical London venue to a space that would have you fooled into being somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, with its visual prompts (tabla, sitar) and the fragrance of hand-rolled incense. Cue Talvin Singh who sets up his tabla and various electronics, while Niladri tunes his sitar. Suddenly a round of applause erupts and we are taken back to the days of Ravi Shankar receiving rapturous applause for just tuning up his instrument. A bygone era fused with a decade of change. The dynamics of Niladri’s meends were so sweet, they were a performance in themselves. They seemed to have been plucked out from the melody tree and transformed into the space of our memory banks as sounds of bygone and future eras; evolving around the beats of the London Asian Underground, ragas and rhythms melted into each other as well as providing recognisable compositions like Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, so seamlessly.
Upon asking how they first connected, food was the common denominator and all else followed thereafter. They performed their first UK tour last year, resulting in a live BBC radio performance for the BBC’s special music archives. 2010 will bring their sound to the global ear.
You can hear more of Talvin Singh’s music at: