Crispian Mills from Kula Shaker nearly ruined it for everyone. But East-meets-West fusion doesn’t have to be a floppy-haired twat with a sitar or The Beatles waddling around Rishikesh in a cloud of smoke. To celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, we’ve put together another of our monthly mixtape primers. This time around, we’re looking at the phenomenon of cultural crossover, and what happens when Western musicians interpret Eastern sounds, and vice versa. There’s a full Grooveshark playlist at the end – or stick it on a C60 and play it in the car!
1. Charanjit Singh – “Raga Bhairav” (4:58) From 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat, 1982
Released in 1982 and recently reissued on double vinyl, Charanjit Singh’s 10 Ragas To A Disco Beat was startlingly ahead of its time – so much so that when the reissue was released, rumours went around that the album was some sort of elaborate joke. It’s not, though – it’s just wildly inventive music that set traditional Indian ragas over analog synths and in the process created something that sounded remarkably like acid house, years before some kids in Detroit started playing around with a TB-303.
2. M.I.A. – “Jimmy” (3:29) From Kala, 2007
Bollywood has a long and not especially proud tradition of lifting songs from the West, so much so that there are entire websites devoted to cataloguing what was copied from where. As such, no one could complain too much that MIA’s “Jimmy” is basically a cover of Hindi disco pioneer Bappi Lahiri’s “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja.” At least she gave Lahiri a songwriting credit.
3. The Brian Jonestown Massacre – “Swallowtail” (4:19) From If I Love You, 2001
“You fucking broke my sitar, motherfucker!”
4. Asha Bhosle – “Itni Jaldi Kya Hai” (5:49) From Commander OST, 1981
For many years, the soundtrack to 1981 film Commander was apparently something of a Holy Grail as far as Bollywood disco went, commanding crazily high prices amongst collectors and aficionados. It probably still does – if you can find an original vinyl copy, anyway – but happily, the magic of the internet means that we can at least hear what the fuss was about. The music is pretty great – Hindi film songs with bouncing, squelchy Moog parts, funk-influenced basslines, and the occasional bout of hilarious, orgasmic wailing. This track features legendary playback singer Asha Bhosle giggling her way through a decidedly disco-influenced chorus number.
5. Serge Gainsbourg & Michel Colombier – “Psychastenie” (3:43) From Le Pacha OST, 1967
The ever-unpredictable M. Gainsbourg went onto an excursion into psychedelic funk with his soundtrack to 1968 film Le Pacha. The results were almost unfeasibly good — and you’d never know this was Serge if you didn’t read the liner notes. You can also find this track on 2006 compilation Sitar Beat – Indian Style Heavy Funk, which is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in, um, Indian-style heavy funk. It’s the business.
6. The Chemical Brothers – “The Private Psychedelic Reel” (9:08) From Dig Your Own Hole, 1997
Turn on. Tune in. Bliss out.
SIDE TWO 1. Voice of the Seven Woods – “The Fire In My Head” (3:30) From Voice of the Seven Woods, 2007
Western musicians who get hold of the sitar have always had a penchant for going endearingly mental with it. Here we have Brooklyn’s Rick Tomlinson, who’s since renamed this project Voice Of The Seven Thunders, letting loose with one of the great sitar wig-outs of recent times. Joy.
2. Cornershop – “Brimful Of Asha” (5:15) From When I Was Born for the 7th Time, 1997
Sure, pretty much everyone knows Fatboy Slim’s remix, but the original version of Cornershop’s tribute to Asha Bhosle is a top track in its own right – less immediately appealing, perhaps, but full of warmth and genuine affection for the music that soundtracked Cornershop main man Tjinder Singh’s childhood, and also evocative of the continuing connection that much of the second-generation diaspora feels for the subcontinent.
3. Taken By Trees – “To Lose Someone” (4:46) From East of Eden, 2009
Former Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman decamped to Pakistan to make her second solo album and came back with a sparse, beautiful record that took on local influences without ever seeming contrived or affected. Sufi singer Sain Muhammad Ali adds his vocals to this opening track, and the results are gorgeous.
4. Nitin Sawhney – “Fragile Wind” (4:16) From Human, 2003
Along with Talvin Singh and his “Asian underground” movement, Nitin Sawhney helped introduce subcontinental sounds to Western dance music in the mid-‘90s. He remains one of the UK music world’s most fiercely intelligent and outspoken figures, and he’s also a versatile composer – as demonstrated by this delicate, beautiful track from his 2003 record Human, featuring Hindi lyrics from Bengali vocalist Jayanta Bose.
5. Eddie Vedder & Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – “The Long Road” (5:34) From Dead Man Walking OST, 1995
Transcendent qawwali vocalist Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was already a living legend on the subcontinent, having recorded innumerable albums over the best part of two decades, by the time his gaze started to shift westward in the early 1980s. He released several albums on Peter Gabriel’s Real World imprint throughout the ‘80s, but it was his work with Eddie Vedder on the 1995 Dead Man Walking soundtrack that truly shot him to stardom in the West. Tragically, he was dead barely two years later.
6. Debashish Bhattacharya – “Prema Chakor” (9:20) From Calcutta Slide-Guitar, 2006
Unlike Western classical music, Indian classical remains a living, breathing tradition, one that is played by musicians whose discipline and technical accomplishment is kinda humbling. As proof that cultural interchange works both ways, Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya has introduced slide guitar to Indian classical music. The results are often spectacular, as in the case of this extended, slow-building masterclass (the title means “lover’s eyes”, incidentally).
Listen to the whole thing: