Thoughts on ’10 Ragas To a Disco Beat’

by geeta on April 5, 2010

Last week, some friends of mine in New York and London — friends with very good taste in electronic music — told me I absolutely had to listen to 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat, a new reissue on the Dutch label Bombay Connection. The word going around the Internet is that this album, full of 808-driven beats and TB-303 squelches, was recorded by a Sikh fellow by the name of Charanjit Singh in India in 1982 — predating the Chicago acid house revolution of the mid-1980s. To put the year 1982 in perspective, the Detroit techno godfathers Cybotron released “Alleys of Your Mind,” their first single, just one year before, in ’81. (In 1982, they would release “Cosmic Cars,” followed by “Clear” in 1983.) 1982 was also the year that MIDI, the “musical instrument digital interface,” was introduced — but it wouldn’t be until 1983 that the MIDI was actually being used; the first synths to utilize MIDI were the Prophet 600 and the Roland JX3P, both in ’83. Electronic music as we know it now had some way to go.

Here’s the deluxe new double-LP reissue:

The album — stripped-down, instrumental electronic arrangements of traditional Indian ragas — is fantastic. ‘Disco beat’ is a bit of a misnomer. The disco on display here is minimal, skeletal Moroder-style disco; arpeggiated basslines abound, and the tracks run at a brisk pace. Most of the ragas here feel like they clock in at around 130 bpm. This is techno speed.

Not much information exists on Mr. Singh. Some people surmised that this album was an elaborate hoax — an invention of the Aphex Twin, perhaps. But the more I dug into the story, the more I realized that it was all true. The album was recorded in 1982, and released on EMI India in 1983; Mr. Singh was a Bollywood session musician who had worked on several albums in the 1970s. The original LP was called Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, and it looked like this:

We know that Mr. Singh favored a panoply of interesting instrumentation throughout his career — steel guitars, Farfisas, electric violins, Transicord electric accordions, and so on — and later, the Jupiter-8, TB-303, and TR-808. He released an album of his instrumental music that looked like this. Check out this ace album cover:

Drew Daniel of Matmos had tipped off readers to Synthesizing a few years back, in a bit piece buried in a Pitchfork feature in 2006. “Reissue labels take note,” Drew wrote, “this thing is ready to take a cosmic disco dancefloor to a higher plane.” The Sublime Frequencies label was also hip to Mr. Singh, releasing some of his steel guitar work a couple of years ago, on this rather garish-looking album:

Here’s the tracklisting for 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat:

01 Raga Bhairav 04:56
02 Raga Lalit 04:52
03 Raga Bhupali 04:50
04 Raga Todi 04:49
05 Raga Madhuvanti 04:56
06 Raga Megh Malhar 04:58
07 Raga Yaman 05:03
08 Raga Kalavati 05:05
09 Raga Malkauns 04:59
10 Raga Bairagi 05:07

“Raga Bhairav,” the first track, starts quickly, with a wobbly, almost apocalyptic bassline. It is a raga, according to Indian tradition, that is meant to be played early in the morning. You can hear a (vocodered?) robo-voice in the beginning of the track intoning “Om Namah Shivaya” — the traditional prayer to the god Shiva. Have a listen if you don’t believe me:

Click here for Part 2 of the story.

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