Charanjit Singh – Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982)
If I’d went in blind on this album (or deaf, because the music is more important than the cover art), I would’ve expected Charanjit Singh to explore archetypal ’70s disco music on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat. Instead, it’s notorious for anticipating the aesthetics and techniques of electronic dance music producers several years later. Between mixing in some elements of Indian classical music, not making much of a commercial/critical impact on its initial release, and then being rediscovered to great fanfare in the current millennium, Ten Ragas was too interesting for me to pass up.
The “classical music” comparison is by far the most important of Ten Ragas‘ many flavors; while India is home to a great many musical traditions, the stereotypical ‘raga’ seems to be the most popular and well known. As far as I can tell, the tracks on this album literally are ragas set to a “disco beat” (more on THAT later), which means plenty of monophonic improvisation over lengthy drones. Structurally, this thing is rigid – every rag begins, proceeds, and ends in a similar if not identical fashion, and Singh generally demarcates this with very specific synth sounds. It does mean that these tracks are mostly interchangeable, even though by virtue of tonality they vary at least a little. I have to admit that I would’ve preferred more variety, but I’ve been known to have a bit of a bias in that regard.
I think most listeners who follow this blog are going to be more interested in the electronic side of Ten Ragas. Singh produced this album entirely with synthesizers and sequencers, most notably the Roland TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bass synthesizer. These went on to feature in an enormous armada of recordings, and are used here in an archetypical techno-trance fashion. Those who insist on minimalist, repetitive rhythms with an emphasis on evolving sounds will find much to love here. Singh’s emphasis, though, is on the aforementioned lengthy, improvised synthesizer melodies that drive a raga. These are very modal – they never diverges from the scale of choice, and to my understanding there are formal rules being followed here that I don’t know anything about. In the end, the instrumentation makes this sound very much like early house/techno music, especially the rhythm section. The organization, though, is dramatically different, and therein lies the uniqueness of Ten Ragas, and thus your stimulus to keep listening once the novelty wears off.
I don’t know how many musicians have followed in Singh’s steps by explicitly combining Indian classical with modern electronic dance music, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the subcontinent’s exerted a more significant role on the many scenes’ evolution than would be initially obvious from your usual historiography. More importantly, I think Ten Ragas is well executed and musically interesting enough to remain interesting after nearly 35 years, but like many of the more minimalistic and ritual music in my collection, it remains situational listening.
Highlights: “Raga Bhairav”, “Raga Bhupali”, “Raga Malkauns”