When Charanjit Singh’s “Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat” was issued in the West almost 30 years after its 1982 Indian release, some listeners insisted it was a hoax. The Mumbai musician, who performed two shows in the District on Thursday, had somehow made a record whose stark, squelchy sound resembled the “acid house” style that wouldn’t emerge until five years later.
That odd coincidence aside, the album sounds very little like what its subtitle promises. As he did Thursday night at Tropicalia, and a few hours earlier at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, Singh chanted or played the melodies of such classical ragas as “Bhairavi” over beats generated electronically by a Roland TR-808 — a Japanese-made machine so emblematic of the late 1980s synth scene that it figured in the name of one band of the period, 808 State.
But Singh’s jaggedly syncopated rhythms, produced in concert with the help of Dutch producer Thee J Johanz, sound nothing like the Latin-funk hybrid of original American disco. They’re not even close to the more Teutonic chatter of Donna Summer producer Giorgio Moroder. Nor does the music share much with the Bollywood film scores for which Singh used to play guitar, keyboards and violin.
Now in his early 70s, Singh is reportedly a reserved man who doesn’t talk much about how he devised the style that eventually made him a dance-music cult star. During his hour-long Tropicalia set, Singh said little more than “thank you,” although he did sometimes grin and wave at the audience. While some of the music was preprogrammed, he often played a Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard and sometimes sang, his vocals heavily treated so that they sounded more like Kraftwerk than a Bollywood playback singer.
The cracks of the TR-808 and the rubbery bass lines produced by a TB-303 provided a sound that was both uncanny and kind of familiar — acid house, dubstep, drum-and-bass and other recent dance-club genres have a similar vibe. But Singh’s keyboard playing suggested an earlier era, when garage-rock bands and jazzman Jimmy Smith highlighted the electric organ. Sometimes, it recalled the pumping harmonium used by Indian and Pakistani qawwali groups, who layer vocals over simple drones. Rather than summon qawwali’s religious ecstasy, Singh’s music was eerie and eccentric. It sounded like disco not from a foreign land but from another planet.
Because of technical difficulties, Singh and Johanz played an abbreviated set at the Kennedy Center. The performance, available on the center’s Web site, had a cleaner sound than the Tropicalia show, but that might be just because the duo didn’t get all its gear working.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.