In the late 1990s, Talvin Singh was the global face of South Asian cool. The tabla player, composer and producer had worked with some of the biggest names in contemporary music, including post-punk visionaries Siouxsie and the Banshees, avant-pop auteur Björk, and trip-hop pioneer Massive Attack. Anokha, the club night he ran at the Blue Note club in Hoxton, London, was the hotbed of a new wave of South Asian producers who would storm the UK charts under the “Asian Underground” banner. His debut album—1998’s transcultural epic, OK—earned rave reviews and won him the prestigious Mercury Prize. This working-class immigrant kid from East London was poised to change the face of UK—and global—pop music forever.
Then came the dreaded sophomore slump. Singh’s 2001 follow-up, Ha, failed to replicate the success of his debut album (the New Musical Express, or NME, called it a fusion of “the tedious and the indulgent”), and, in response, he retreated from the idea of a career as a solo pop star. There would be one more album—2008’s Sweet Box, which sank without a trace—as well as collaborations with Niladri Kumar, Rakesh Chaurasia and Sangat, along with a steady drip of live performances. But it was all low-key, as if Singh was avoiding the spotlight, having been burnt.
“In a way, I felt like it was a second record that I was just committed to make,” Singh says of Ha, speaking over Zoom from London, where he was wrapping up things before flying to India for two sold-out shows at Mumbai’s Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre on 30 September-1 October. With a new single titled Ankahee (featuring Hamsika Iyer) due in November, ahead of a full album in March next year, he seems to have found his mojo again, which is perhaps why he’s so candid about the failure of Ha.
“I didn’t want to do it because I wasn’t ready but the record company and all the machinery around you is just working hard, and they are just asking you about the next record. After that, I stopped believing. I saw no value in the idea of putting out music.”
The early 2000s were a disheartening time for musicians in the UK. The Asian Underground movement—of which Singh is considered the “godfather”—went from being music press darlings to instant near-obscurity, at least in part due to a post-9/11 backlash. The music industry was in the throes of online piracy-induced collapse, with sales evaporating. Even worse—at least from Singh’s point of view—was the awful state of early digital music production. With its loudness wars, bad compression and lossy bitrates, early MP3s sounded sacrilegious to Singh’s audiophile sensibilities.
“I never stopped making music, I have got a full archive of unreleased work,” he says. “But when it came to releasing it, I just lost faith. Every time I would get to the mastering stage I would just back out. And it wasn’t just me. I remember being in this really famous mastering studio in London, and we are working on a piece when the engineer turns around and says, ‘why bother, it’s only going to be heard on MP3.’ Even he had lost it.”
So Singh focused his energies on what he says had always been his goal: to learn how to be a really good musician. He dove deeper into the study of Indian classical music, mastering his technique on the tabla and learning other Indian instruments like the surbahar. There were compositions for experimental film and theatre productions, forays into sound installation and even photography. In his free time, he took care of his growing collection of traditional Indian instruments, many of them rescued from the eBay equivalent of garage sales.
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Over the years, India became a second home. He would travel to Delhi for musical study, go to Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh for a spiritual yatra, hang out for a few weeks with friends in Mumbai. When the covid-19 lockdown happened, Singh—who was actually on the last flight out of India—found himself suddenly cut off. “I felt the distance of India and the uncertainty of whether I will ever get to see it again,” he says.
When the world finally opened up, he decided to spend more time in Delhi, where he has set up a studio. And suddenly, 15 years after his last solo release, he felt like he wanted to put a record out again. “I put most of this (new) record together in Delhi, because somehow (there) I could think very straight,” he says, adding that he was inspired by the creative energy of India’s capital city. “I would go out to Dhan Mill and see amazing young creatives making sculptures or clothes, or kids with headphones just hanging out practising their dance moves. And I was really feeling it. It started to make me feel the same buzz I felt in East London around the time I made OK.”
Singh calls the new album an “anthology” of all the musical styles he loves, with a strong emphasis on the bass music culture that propelled him to stardom in the 1990s, and that he has rarely engaged with since. “It has got drum and bass, jungle, deep-house, all the various elements of breaking and dance music culture,” he says. “So I am visiting all those spaces in the way I am using the low end to glue all the pieces together.”
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Singh showcased some of these new soundscapes during his Mumbai gig: tabla rhythms drenched in clouds of reverb and delay, semi-classical vocals layered over keening Moog synths. It’s a sound at once contemporary and rooted in the genre-bending global spirit of the late 1990s and early 2000s, full of the virtuosic transcultural bridge-building that characterises his best work. Singh himself, though, is more excited about the more traditional tabla and sarangi set that preceded his electronic experiments. The maverick tabla player—who was once considered too out there for Indian classical music promoters in the UK—now talks about reclaiming the instrument from what he calls the “tantrik” style of playing, and bringing it back into the fold of a ritualistic “mantrik” tradition.
“I want to show that there’s more to the tabla than this pyrotechnic style, where I am going to build up this really fast to get to a climax, and then I am going to enjoy the claps of the audience,” he says. “I really don’t want claps. I may never manage this in my life but if I can play tabla solo and make people cry, then I think I will feel like I have achieved something.”
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.