While researching the Indian electronic music scene for a book, DJ, producer and writer Samrat B, aka Audio Pervert, came across an album that set the genre back a decade.
B had dated the birth of electronic music in India to the early 1990s. Now he has found the timeline drawn to 1982, not only for India but for the world. It was the year when a little-known session musician from Bombay named Charanjit Singh released Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (HMV/EMI India).
Singh had taken a few days off – and a radical artistic detour – to make the album. Then he returned to background music by RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Naushad, and performed with a wedding band singing ghazal.
For nearly three decades, the record remained as unenthusiastic as its creator. But Singh survived to see this change, after Dutch record producer and Bollywood historian Edo Bouman (who also pitched the album to B), came across…Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat in an old record store in Mumbai in 2002.
Bouman bought the record, played it in his hotel room and was “blown away”, he told the Guardian in 2010, the year he re-released the album under his Bombay Connection label. The album “sounded like acid house”, and to Bouman’s astonishment, it was released five years before the first known acid house record, 1987’s Acid Tracks by Chicago-based Phuture.
Acid house, a subgenre of electronic dance music (EDM), achieved worldwide popularity (and notoriety for its associated culture of drug use and hedonistic raves) beginning in the late 1980s. His sound was defined by three elements: the extensive use of energetic rhythms generated by an electronic drum machine; an accessible and danceable beats per minute framework; and the use of instruments such as the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer.
In …Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, Singh showcased his brand new acquisitions: a Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard, a Roland TR-808 electronic drum machine and the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer he bought in Singapore.
Built on a racy and repetitive synthesized drum beat, the album showcases its 10 Indian ragas on a platform of minimal and overbearing grooves to create a unique sound that is exploratory and futuristic in its design. This is the first known example of these three instruments, which would come to characterize the acid house sound, played and recorded together.
Singh was 70 when the remastered album was released (he died five years later, in 2015). The stories written about him at the time are marked by surprise. Many articles seem to regard it as an Eastern quirk or oddity in the account of the Western origins of acid house music. Mojo magazine calls the album “a startling piece of proto-house that predates the above records (from the Chicago producers) by several years”. Spin magazine refers to Singh as “an unwitting electronics pioneer”.
Nonetheless, the limited version of Bouman remains a sought-after collector’s item, retailing for approximately ₹3 lakh apiece at Discogs.com online marketplace.
Singh was, admittedly, innocent of the cult and culture of what would become acid house. In a 10-minute documentary short made in 2010 by Singh’s manager and agent, Rana Ghose, the bespectacled septuagenarian walks the interviewer (an awestruck Samrat B) through his collection of vinyl records. There is music by Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar, posters of overseas concerts he has performed at, announcing an evening of ‘Hindi film song, Gozal song and Bangoli’, but little information. on what might have triggered… Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat other than, as he put it, “the urge to try something different”.
By 1982, disco had driven its white heeled boots decisively into Indian pop culture via actor Mithun Chakraborty and Bollywood’s megahit Disco Dancer scored by Bappi Lahiri. It came a year after the hit song Disco Deewane by Pakistani pop star Nazia Hassan and British-Indian producer Biddu. “For him, it was just disco. He hadn’t heard anything about electronic music,” B tells Wknd.
Over the course of many meetings between 2010 and 2015, Singh will tell B that he was inspired, among others, by Babla, a Gujarati artist who fascinated the diaspora in the Caribbean and North America with his disco-dandiya music. / chutney in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
After the album’s re-release in 2010, Ghose organized European and American club tours for Singh. Suddenly, instead of geriatric NRI seated audiences looking for an evening of ghazals, the Mumbai musician was faced with thousands of psychedelics in European nightclubs. “He stayed indifferent and stayed focused on his music,” says Ghose.
According to B, the period album was a “fluke”; other music historians have called it “an accident”, “a mistake”. Unquestionably, it was the first of its kind.