Further thoughts on ’10 Ragas to a Disco Beat’

by geeta on April 6, 2010

So what motivated Charanjit Singh to cut an acid house record in 1982, in India? (Here’s the reissue, if you’re new to the story.) What inspired him to play some ragas on a Jupiter-8 with some heavy 808 beats and squiggly 303 basslines? Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to piece the puzzle together.

The first question I had was this: Was it really that strange for Mr. Singh to have had these synths in 1982? The Roland TR-808 came out in 1981; the TB-303 was released in 1982. It’s entirely conceivable that a successful Bollywood musician, one who liked working with lots of instruments and crazy gear, would have had access to new synthesizers as they came out. The 303 and 808 were small, portable synths that cost under a grand (the 303 was around 400 bucks) when they were released. The Jupiter-8 came out in 1981. As Cybore points out, the Jupiter-8 is the synth that’s on the trippy cover of Mr. Singh’s Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat.

Now, a word about the 808. After years of reading about the 808 — an enormously expensive antique plaything these days — and playing with software versions of it, I actually put my hands on a real 808 for the first time a few months ago. I was in a shed filled with synths in the bucolic French countryside with my DJ pal Tom, who was showing me how to make music with the 808. (He also had a Jupiter-6.) I was stunned by how easy it was to use the little machine. Within minutes, I was making beats — beats that actually sounded pretty good. The preset buttons sounded ace, too; every familiar sound I’d heard in so many techno records came to life. I put cowbell in everything because it was such a great sound. (I know, I know.) The 808 is appealing because it sounds cool and it’s easy to use. It makes sense that Mr. Singh would have used it, if he had access to it.

Singh’s use of the 303 on his raga disco record is more of a mystery. The TB-303 isn’t easy to use — at least not correctly. I have a 303 sitting here on my desk, and it’s a clumsy thing. It was designed to emulate a bass guitar, but it’s pretty hard to figure out how to get it to make regular basslines. It’s easy to get it to make all kinds of interesting noises, but making something normal is difficult. It also sounds wonky, but in a really intriguing, from-space kind of way. It’s likely that Mr. Singh didn’t read the manual. (I bet the manual was in English, anyway, and there was no proper Hindi translation.) He probably just messed around with it, in a similar way that the Chicago house guys would do a few years later. That said, Singh doesn’t use the TB-303 in the wild ways that, say, DJ Pierre used the 303. (Few people did.) Singh uses it in a more conventional way. But the 303’s now-familiar rubbery sounds, combined with unearthly raga melodies, send shivers up the spine. The 303 ends up being perfect for the slithery glissandos in Indian music, the sliding between one note and the next.

The second thought I had was this: What else was going on in India in 1982, in terms of electronic music? It ends up that Bollywood was coming up with epic synthesizer tracks in the early ’80s, modeled on 1970s Moroder. Nikhil Patel pointed me to this song, from a 1982 Bollywood film called Star. The film’s soundtrack is the work of Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan and the Indian disco producer Biddu; in a way, they’re the South Asian version of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder. This song, “Boom Boom,” bears more than a passing resemblance to “I Feel Love.” Dig that galloping bassline!

India was always a few years behind in terms of assimilating American pop culture, but in other ways, India was a few years ahead. India wasn’t as “with it” as the United States and England were, maybe, but that meant that they got to entirely skip some pop culture revolutions that we should have probably left in the bin. It also meant that in 1982, they were still rocking the cool Munich robo-disco when the rest of the world had moved on to Duran Duran.

The first song Indians saw on MTV wasn’t “Video Killed the Radio Star”; because they got MTV later, their first video was Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” (If you’re interested in reading more about Bollywood and Michael Jackson, check out my essay in this new Michael Jackson book.) When I was in India in 1992, I remember watching the music video for Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill” on TV, which was presented as if it was a new song. Kate Bush’s song seemed as strange and modern in 1992 as it probably did when it came out in ’85 — if not stranger.

In India, 1982 was also the year that the Bollywood cult classic Disco Dancer was released. Check out the glitzy poster:

That man in the sparkly suit is Bollywood legend Mithun Chakraborty, the disco dancer. Here’s a quick synopsis of the plot from Wikipedia (Wikipedia’s film synopses are a lot funnier than IMDB’s):

Rebranded as “Jimmy”, the rising disco star must take the throne from Sam and win the heart of Rita (Kim), P.N. Oberoi’s daughter. All seems to be going well until Oberoi hires men to connect Jimmy’s electric guitar to 5,000 volts of electricity, causing Jimmy’s mother to die in a tragic accident. With his legs broken by Oberoi’s goons and guitar phobia from the incident with his mother, Jimmy must claim first place for Team India at the International Disco Dancing Competition amidst strong competition from Team Africa and Team Paris.

Basically, Mr. Singh’s sped-up Moroder disco beats in ’82 make total sense. They didn’t emerge out of a vacuum; they were part of the zeitgeist. His idea to pair those beats with mystical, repetitive, instrumental Indian ragas — and that particular array of gear — was a genius move. With no vocals (except for the occasional robotic utterances), and a drastically faster tempo, 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat propelled Singh away from disco, and into a techno future.

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