“Raga Bhairav,” 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.
In 1982, veteran Bollywood composer Charanjit Singh visits Singapore and gets his hands on the now holy trinity of a Roland 303, 808, and Jupiter 8 – the core of acid house and arguably the precursor to electronica as we know it today.
The thing is, he does this four years before the clubs of Detroit, Chicago, and Manchester do.
Later that year, EMI India releases an album limited to a few thousand copies: “Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat”. It presents Charanjit’s effort at using what was then entirely new technology to bridge the gap between programmed beats, synth lines, and classical Indian music motifs.
It essentially sinks without a trace.
In 2010, Dutch label Bombay Connection re-releases this LP to an unsuspecting and wholly ignorant public, convinced that these beats were established in the clubs of Chicago, Detroit, and Manchester in the mid to late eighties.
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.
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.