Born in 1970 in London, England. Education: Studied Indian classical music with master Pandit Lashman Singh.
The music created by British drum 'n' bass musician and tabla player Talvin Singh unites the classic traditions of the East with the modern dance-club textures of the West, a style he defines as "tablatronics." Rising to recognition in the mid-1990s, Singh was one of the first to introduce Indian music to today's mainstream youth and to simultaneously inspire a new direction for emerging electronica artists. But unlike most of his followers, including some simply taking advantage of the growing interest in Eastern music, Singh aptly uncovers the common rhythms inherent to both forms, and the result sounds fluid and natural, not contrived or forced.
Excluding creative talent and years of practice, a central reason why his compositions and arrangements work so well in comparison to others' is the fact that Singh views music-making as a personal process. "One thing I don't do, I don't take, I give," he asserted in Connect magazine. "Taking is a different skill but my thing is to give. My music is very much a reflection of my own personality. Often before I even make my music, I usually make a video in my head. It's an Indian thing, like a raag mala, you have a picture of the emotions."
Singh's exposure to both cultures has likewise played a major role in his ability to identify and articulate the common threads. "Music shouldn't have boundaries," he commented in an article at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News website. "That's the way I've always seen music. It's just language that everyone can identify with." He was born in 1970 in London to Indian-born parents. His mother and father, after fleeing the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda in the 1960s, had arrived in Great Britain via Kenya. From a very young age, Singh felt drawn to both the world of his family's origin and to the place of his own birth. An energetic child, he expressed a penchant for percussion at an early age, playing pots and pans at home around age five. He then took up the tabla, a percussion instrument made of two drums, at around age seven. Not much later, he also began break dancing to hip-hop with other Asian kids in the neighborhood. By the 1980s, Singh was listening to every type of techno and acid house music he could find.
In addition to his varied interests, Singh remained dedicated to traditional Indian music and percussion as well. At 16 years of age, he traveled to the Punjab region of India to study classical tabla with the master Pandit Lashman Singh for a year, continuing thereafter to visit his teacher for a time each winter. However, Singh knew that on a certain level, he could not play exclusively Indian classical music. "There have been times in my life when I just wanted to play Indian classical music, but that's where my identity crisis kicked in," he concluded, as quoted by the BBC. "I didn't feel it was really me."
Similarly, Singh refused to exclude the traditional from his repertoire. "I see the whole dance thing as an outsider but I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing," he admitted to Jim Carroll in an interview for the Muse website. "My percussion and drumming is coming from a classical perspective, so what I'm doing is taking little bits of everything and applying it to create something entirely new."
In London in the 1990s, Singh began living out his desire to innovate. In addition to participating in the club culture, he took work as a studio musician and earned a reputation in the music industry for his tabla playing and Eastern-influenced arrangements. Jazz, pop, and world musicians, as well as purveyors of dance music, soon lined up to work with Singh. By the middle of the decade, he had opportunities to collaborate with an eclectic list of artists such as Björk, Sun Ra, Courtney Pine, Cleveland Watkiss, Madonna, the Future Sound of London, Little Axe, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Massive Attack, and others. During the same period, in 1995, he founded the now-famous Anokha, meaning "unique," at the Blue Note in London. The club soon flourished into one of the hippest venues in the city. Here, Singh performed tabla and percussion alongside a number of emerging Asian DJs and bands. He also remixed and contributed to many of their recordings. In 1997 he released Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground, a compilation album comprising songs by Singh and other Anokha artists.
The following year, in addition to performing a celebrated concert with Indian traditional musicians at London's Royal Festival Hall, Singh released his first solo outing. OK, an East/West fusion album populated by arrangements of strings, breakbeats, and tablas, won for Singh the highly coveted Mercury Music Prize. His competition that year included such names as Beth Orton, the Chemical Brothers, and Thomas Adès. One of the most memorable tracks, the rhythmically complex "Mombasstic," discussed his father's experience of ejection from East Africa. Listening through this piece and the remaining songs, all held together with trance-like rhythms, one is alternately confronted with both chaos and order. Strikingly, these disparate forces blend and transition seamlessly in the hands of Singh.
But regardless of such merits, the work inspired critics, and later even Singh himself, to accusing OK of sounding too showy---an attempt to prove just how much he could pack into one album. "The thing is, OK was my first solo album and I had accumulated so much baggage, musical genre baggage," Singh admitted in an interview with Wire's Peter Shapiro. "There were so many styles of music that I like, which I listen to, and I wanted to try to fit it all in. So even though to me it doesn't sound cramped at all, it does sound ... a bit like a compilation album."
Singh's next effort, however---2001's Ha---resolved the over-eagerness of his solo debut. The songs---including the epic opener "One" and the pulsating techno number "Dubla"---individually are composed and designed with a greater sense of structure, and overall the album feels more cohesive. "This album, I suppose, is a bit more compositional, especially as far as using Indian raags and how to frame them into a concept, a sonic design, as opposed to just an Indian song," he explained to Shapiro.
In addition to solo success with OK and Ha, Singh remains a much-sought-after producer, remixer, performer, and collaborator. Perhaps his greatest achievement in this capacity was accepting an invitation to join Tabla Beat Science, an outfit featuring percussionists Zakir Hussain, Trilok Gurtu, and Karsh Kale, sarangi player Sultan Khan, and composer/producer/bassist Bill Laswell. In 2000 the group released Tala Matrix on Laswell's Axiom label to great acclaim.
by Laura Hightower
Talvin Singh's Career
Founded the club Anokha at the Blue Note, London, 1995; produced and released the compilation album Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground, 1997; released debut album entitled OK, 1998; released Ha, 2001.
Talvin Singh's Awards
Mercury Music Prize, 1998.
- Selected discography
- (With others) Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground Polygram, 1997.
- OK Polygram, 1998.
- (With Tabla Beat Science) Tala Matrix Axiom, 2000.
- Ha Polygram, 2001.
- Wire, March 2001, p. 25.
- "Calcutta Cyber Cafe: Drum & Space," EthnoTechno.com, http://www.ethnotechno.com/talvin_ccc.php (May 9, 2003).
- "Interview," CMJ Online, http://www.cmj.com/features/singh.html (May 9, 2003).
- "Reviews: Talvin Singh," Armchair DJ, http://www.armchair-dj.com/reviews/t/talvin_remixsingh_ok.asp (May 9, 2003).
- "Talvin Singh," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 9, 2003).
- "Talvin Singh," Art and Culture Network, http://www.artandculture.com/arts/artist?artistId=1029 (May 8, 2003).
- "Talvin Singh: Closing the Divide," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/441762.stm (May 9, 2003).
- "Talvin Singh: Indian Tastemaker in London," International Herald Tribune, http://www.iht.com/IHT/SOUND/98/mz102898.html (May 8, 2003).
- "Talvin Singh: Muse Interview," Muse, http://www.muse.ie/archive/interviews/singh.html (May 9, 2003).
- "Talvin Singh: OK," Pitchfork, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/s/singh_talvin/ok.shtml (May 9, 2003).