• Shwetant Kumar

The 808 in India

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

It’s 1981. Bombay-based session musician Charanjit Singh has just gotten his hands on some new Roland gear: a Jupiter 8 synthesizer, a TR808 drum machine, and a TB303 bass synthesizer. He has been toying with the idea of performing Indian classical music solely with electronics, and he records an album over a few nights of studio downtime. It disappears without a trace.

Charanjit Singh at work, 1981.

It’s April 2010. Singh’s Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat has been freshly reissued, and he is now hailed the world over as the accidental inventor of acid house. I stumble upon the album the same week and promptly bore all my friends with it (only for them to rediscover it on their own years later and excitedly play it back to me – there’s no justice).

Once I got over my shock that all this now-prized equipment made it to India, I began wondering if the album was really the one-off it was made out to be. Surely I’ve heard this music in a different context and didn't know it?

I was so right.

India’s obsession with disco, which began with Boney M. and the Bee Gees in the late 1970s, had led it to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Kraftwerk (who performed in Bombay in 1981 as part of their Computer World tour). Like everything else, it was but one ingredient in the Indian music melting pot. (Years later, on hearing Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”, the song that started acid house in 1987, Singh wryly called it “very simple.”) While there are stray instances of earlier drum machine usage in India – here’s a photo of Singh with, among other things, a Roland CR78 – it was the 808 that really got things going.

Singh was an in-demand multi-instrumentalist, and one of his closest associations was with R.D. Burman, whose “Dil Lena Khel Hai” from Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981) must be one of the first uses of the 808 in India. Burman tended to treat it as the backbone of his percussion section: “Yeh Din To Aata Hai” from Mahaan (1983) opens with it, while the breakdown of “Dekho Idhar” from Boxer (1984) goes from Paco de Lucía to the S.O.S. Band in forty seconds (note the presence of yet another Roland instrument: the first solo is on a GR300 guitar synthesizer). The culmination of Singh's use of the JP8-808-303 setup would be “Tu Rootha To” from Jawani (1984), allegedly the first Indian song with an entirely sequenced rhythm track.

Burman was far from the only one. Kalyanji-Anandji's title track for Haadsa (1983) kicks off with that infamous cowbell; Bappi Lahiri’s “Yaad Aa Raha Hai”, the least kitschy song from that epitome of kitsch Disco Dancer (1982), has practically the same 808 pattern as the Ten Ragas excerpt above. The film's sequel Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984), on the other hand, has Lahiri's ultra-minimal "Come Closer", which I guarantee you've heard before.

Of course, I can't not mention Vanraj Bhatia: here's “Kya Hai Awaaz” from Surkhiyaan (1985). Bhatia has told me a number of times he did the song under duress and considers it among his worst, but, having seen the score, the chord progression at 2:34 alone deserves some kind of award.

We now jump to another part of India, where one man was trying to harness all this newfangled technology for his own ends. Enter Ilaiyaraaja, who perhaps did more to make the 808 not sound like one than anyone else at the time. One of his earliest uses – “Kiliye Kiliye” from Aa Raathri (1983) – sounds like maybe, just maybe, he’d heard Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing".

Like Burman, Ilaiyaraaja began by using the 808 as a pulse: in “Megam Kottatum” from Enakkul Oruvan (1984), it's obscured by Rototoms, cymbals and a mridangam (you can hear it “naked” at 3:18). He then began using it to mimic Indian percussion instruments: it's merely one element among many in “Puthiya Poovithu” from Thendrale Ennai Thodu (1985) and “Un Paarvaiyil” from Amman Kovil Kizhakale (1986); it replaces the percussion section altogether in most of “Maalai Soodum Velai” from Naan Mahaan Alla (1984). This is as close to the spirit of Ten Ragas and as far from its sound as one can get.

I'm inclined to think the 808 merely fell victim to progress: the LinnDrum arrived in India around 1985, and Roland's own Octapad series would soon change the percussion scene forever. However, the 808's programmability – and the fact that it sounds nothing like real drums – meant it was put to some wildly inventive use in its time here. After all, an instrument is only a tool: it’s what you do with it that matters.

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