Charanjit Singh – Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat
I went into Rough Trade yesterday and, as I have explained before, Rough Trade has the ability to bankrupt me in a matter of minutes. It’s my Vegas away from Vegas. So as I was wandering about picking up bits and bobs I remembered this disco track that one of my friends played a few weeks ago, in my head the only thing I could think of to describe it was ‘Middle-Eastern disco’. Clearly no-one had any idea what I was on about, least of all me, but what I found instead was something beyond my wildest dreams.
The closest approximation to what I was looking for turned out to be ‘Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat’ by Charanjit Singh, Phil described this as, “from the 80s but it sounds like modern techno, it was just unearthed and it sounds really REALLY contemporary.” Contemporary is an understatement, this record is so far ahead of its time its unfathomable and closer to what Factory Floor have been doing over the last year; industrial, repetitive and brooding but with a discernible club potential.
What it actually is though is a selection of ten ragas, which are classical Indian compositions that work upon the variation and improvisation of five to seven notes according to strict traditional rules, synthesised and played to a disco beat.
I think what I love even more about this album is the liner notes, specifically the short essay entitled ‘Was house music invented in India?’. I think it’s safe to assume that Chicago and Detroit have little to worry about in terms of global house reputation, but the question is still an interesting one. This record is from 1982 and is a lot closer to the experimentation happening in Detroit with underground minimalism and even the much later global Acid House movement. The history of house music is a complicated one, the proliferation of cheap electronic instruments in the early 80s meant that different sounds were synchronously popping up all over the place whilst largely taking a great deal of their influence from the same places: disco, funk and club cultures of the late 70s. This has always lead to differing opinions over who did what first however, for fifty minutes whilst I listened to this record I rolled with the idea that techno started on the streets of Bombay with Charanjit Singh.
Regardless of whether Charanjit Singh really did create one of the first house or techno records, what he actually created was something that took electronic music to its absolute limit, taking historical and culturally specific music and synthesising its traditional instruments to a point where they once again sound ‘real’. The only crying shame of this work is that it was lost and forgotten for so long and I can only wonder where we would be in terms of electronic music today if works like this had proliferated.