RIP Charanjit Singh, The Most Influential Musician You May Have Never Heard Of

08/07/2015 1:30 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Courtesy Rana Ghose

For renowned Bollywood sessions musician and electronic music pioneer Charanjit Singh, Saturday was a normal day. He had spent the day resting, practicing on his keyboard with his headphones on and had ended it by having dinner with his family at his residence in Mumbai's Bandra area. The 75-year-old veteran multi-instrumentalist -- who had played regularly and tirelessly in the orchestras of renowned Hindi film composers such as Naushad, RD Burman, and Laxmikant-Pyarelal between the '60s and the '80s -- had been taking it relatively easy, as he'd just been diagnosed with blockages in his heart in June.

"We had a nice, quiet dinner and a drink afterwards," said his son Raju Singh, a renowned music composer who has composed background scores for more than a hundred Hindi films. "He'd been taking all these blood thinners and his health for the past 15 days had actually been fine." When their mother accompanied him and his sister downstairs, Singh appeared at the window to wave goodbye: a gesture that surprised them because they'd never seen that from him before.

The next morning, he was found cold and motionless in his bed. Doctors said that Singh had suffered cardiac arrest in his sleep and passed away peacefully.

Charanjit Singh was one of the most influential musicians in the history of contemporary music in India that you may have never heard of. Millions of Indians have heard him play key parts on iconic Bollywood songs for decades without knowing they were played by him. Some of these include the unforgettable opening drone to 'Dum Maro Dum' (played on a transichord -- a synthesizer version of an accordion) from Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) and the keyboard solo in the beginning of 'Mere Umar Ke Naujawanon' from Karz (1980).

Raju related a story to me about how Burman, on whose songs Singh is said to have introduced and popularised the usage of bass guitars in Hindi film music, had said of his father: "You remove the bass track from my songs, they will fall flat. He has taught me that the bass can be used as a solo instrument."

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A younger Charanjit Singh playing the bass guitar as a Bollywood sessions musician

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Singh with legendary Bollywood playback singer Kishore Kumar (right)

But this was only one of the facets to the senior Singh's life. Towards his final years, a period of time most people his age spend in and out of hospitals or being bed-ridden, Charanjit Singh was discovered to have accidentally created a sub-genre of electronic music called 'acid house'. In 2010, a Dutch DJ and record collector named Edo Bouman re-released one of his older, forgotten albums -- Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat (1982) -- on his label Bombay Connection.

A completely electronic album created with help of the then-newly-introduced Roland TB-303 bass synth, it had turned out to be an acid house record that released five years before Chicago-based Phuture's Acid Trax, generally regarded as the first. From 2012 onwards, the then-72-year-old musician, who grew up amidst modest circumstances in Mumbai's Matunga area, found himself touring Europe twice and the United States once as a DJ with Dutch producer Thee J Johanz. From having helped forge a sound that was familiar to lovers of Bollywood music across the world, he spent his final years playing to often-tattooed young electronic music fans at festivals like the inaugural 2013 edition of Magnetic Fields in Rajasthan.

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Singh performing to a crowd at a club in Groningen, Netherlands, in May 2013

Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat, whose contents are exactly what its title suggests (keyboard renditions and arpeggios adhering to Hindustani classical ragas set to electronic drums), was described by Bouman as "stunningly modern... like an ultra-minimal Kraftwerk". Back in 1982, when it was released by HMV, it was so ahead of its time that it, naturally, went completely unnoticed. Utilising some of the most up-to-date Roland synthesizers of the time, Singh had unknowingly laid the foundation to a genre that would -- according to several credible, published historical accounts that have traced the history of electronic music -- go on to influence many popular genres like trance, breakbeat, big beat, techno, and trip-hop.

A day after his sudden demise, Raju Singh had barely recovered from the shock of losing his father, a man he remembers as a quiet, introverted man consumed by a life-long passion to learn and master virtually any instrument he could lay his hands on. He started with the mandolin and Hawaiian steel guitar, then moved to bass guitar, and then to more unconventional instruments like the clavioline (a French electronic keyboard whose sound Hindi film music lovers will recognise as that of the 'Nagin' tune), the transichord, and eventually the synthesizer.

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A picture from 1980 showing Singh playing a synthesizer

"He wouldn't talk much," he said, over a phone conversation. "I remember him sitting in his room and practicing sometimes for 15-16 hours a day." In June, Raju and his 20-year-old son Joshua Singh, drummer of indie rock act Spud In The Box, were supposed to accompany him on a Europe tour that had to get cancelled because of his health problems. "It would've been the first time three generations from our family would've performed together," he said.

Over the course of his career, Charanjit had nine featured releases, eight of which were cover albums. One of the most notable ones was One Man Show (1974), which featured him reinterpreting popular Bollywood tunes with a transichord and a drum machine. However, according to a 2010 article by The Guardian, Bouman said, "He told me, 'Frankly, this [Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat] was the best thing I did. Other albums are all film songs I just played. But this was my own composition. Do something all of your own, and you can make something truly different.'"

In the '70s, his readiness to experiment with new technology and global musical trends set him apart from most of his peers. According to his son, the likes of Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal were known to cancel or push sessions to accommodate Charanjit's availability. He was also apparently the only musician who had the privilege of being allowed a glass of whiskey before recording a take -- such was the confidence in his ability. "He believed in putting 24 hours into practice and then spending the next 24 hours recording," said Joshua, who didn't meet his grandfather during his childhood as often as he heard near-apocryphal accounts of Charanjit's spartan discipline and unfettered determination. "Music was his entire life and he never stopped being excited about it."

Over the past five years, Singh would often be said to react to his growing hipster-cred and enthusiastic audience response with a mixture of bemusement and nonchalance, as is evident in this 2011 interview to The Guardian. Another interview, by The Border Movement, describes an experience from one of his European concerts thusly: "...he experienced a surge of adrenalin in Brussles [sic], when they exploded into frenzy at the drop of the 808 bassline on Raag Bhairav and he felt "happy" to be reunited with the Roland Jupiter-8, TR-808 and TB-303, 31 years after he first laid hands on it."

By the end, his contributions to contemporary Hindi film music and electronic music arrange themselves in a pattern that matches his disciplined and patient approach to music itself. Singh may now be feted and remembered as the inventor of a somewhat esoteric sub-genre of electronic music that not many in India may have a taste for, but the realisation that this sound's genesis had been hidden for the past 30 years in the layered arrangements of the country's most popular and mainstream genre without us realising it is sobering.

His incredible re-emergence is proof that sometimes genius takes its own sweet time to find its way out of the haystack of obscurity, and that perseverance always pays off.

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