Charanjit Singh, ‘Inventor’ of Acid House Music Dies

Charanjit Singh in action. Photo: Sacha Pohlflepp, CC 2.0

Charanjit Singh in action. Photo: Sacha Pohlflepp, CC 2.0

Mumbai: Charanjit Singh, the man credited with the invention – albeit not intentionally – of acid house music, passed away in Mumbai in the early hours of Sunday. Friends of his said the 75-year-old guitarist and keyboardist had gone to sleep and did not wake up. His death shocked his close friends who said he had been preparing hard for a show in London and had plans to produce an album of Indian folk music.

A one-time sessions musician who had played with R D Burman, Shankar Jaikishen and many others, Singh had mastered not just the guitar but was also an early proponent of the synthesizer. He was discovered by international music lovers and the media just a few years ago as the man who had fused different sounds and created acid house music, which is a sub-genre of house music developed in the 1980s in Chicago.

His album 10 Ragas to a disco beat, which was released in India in 1982 was a flop but its discovery in 2002 and re-release in early 2010 made him a star among DJs and electronica music mavens.

Rana Ghose tells the story:

Twenty years [after it was first recorded], a Dutch vinyl collector, Edo Bouman, traveled to India to track down and write about a number of musicians, as well as to buy records. In a market in Old Delhi, he found a copy of this record, though at that time had no idea of its existence. Intrigued by what he saw on the cover – a kaleidoscopic image of a Jupiter 8 synthesizer with what appears to be a TB-303 sitting gingerly on top – he bought a copy, went back to his hotel room, and placed the record on the platter of his portable Fisher-Price turntable.

The needle drops. Bouman is agog. This was unlike anything Bouman had ever heard before. He is stunned, but more sustainably, he is hooked. The next day he attends a classical music performance of santoor master Shivkumar Sharma, and by sheer luck, met saxophonist Louis Banks, who also happened to be in attendance. Over a conversation, and compounding the remarkably good fortune of meeting Banks in the first place, the fact emerges that Banks is Charanjit’s neighbour. Oddly, this all happens within twenty-four hours of Edo discovering the record. Soon after, he meets Charanjit face to face.

Almost eight years later, Edo releases the record on his own imprint, Bombay Connection. As the above referenced statements from the press indicate, it is difficult for many to fathom that a record of this calibre, of this kind of historical significance, is actually real. I was equally as sceptical and was in disbelief that such a record was cut in 1982, let alone in Bombay.

Until I met Charanjit myself.

According to Charanjit Singh’s entry in Wikipedia,

Singh produced Ten Ragas using three electronic musical instruments made by the Roland Corporation: the Jupiter-8 synthesizer, Roland TR-808, and Roland TB-303. It was one of the first records to use the TB-303, a machine that has become synonymous with acid house. Singh had bought his TB-303 in Singapore soon after its introduction in late 1981. He didn’t know much about the three machines at first, so he spent time figuring out how to use them, and eventually discovered that it was possible to synchronise the TR-808 and TB-303 with the Jupiter-8 keyboard. According to Singh: “At home I practised with the combination and I thought ‘It sounds good – why not record it’. While the TB-303 was originally designed to fill in for a bass guitar, it was awkward when it came to reproducing conventional basslines, so he found a different way to employ the machine, particularly its glissando function which made it suitable for reproducing the Indian raga melodies”.

Vijay Pithwa, who knew him for over 30 years, said Singh was a very reticent man who came alive only when he was with his keyboard, which he began playing from early morning.

Early experimentation

Singh’s early experimentation led to unusual sounds that created a sensation when they were “discovered” by a new generation. As the Guardian said in a profile in 2011, “With this fame though has come a level of notoriety – and uncertainty. Much has been made of the album’s astonishingly advanced sound palette, the high recording quality, and the unexpected use of a 303 on a record made in Mumbai so soon after the machine’s official release in Japan at the end of 1981. These factors, coupled with the original record’s astonishing rarity and extremely unlikely and enigmatic creator, have led many to believe the album was a hoax.”

But it wasn’t a hoax. Singh may not have intentionally set out to create a new sound, but he certainly had a good idea that he wanted to try something new. Years later, he made another album Experiments in Calypso, showing that he was always game to go where no composer had gone before.

Here are two classic Charanjit Singh tracks, the first from his conventional days as a Bollywood musician, and the second from his acid house period:

  1. Chura Liya

2. Raga Bairagi

  • SixPillars

    He was a great guy and pioneering musician. He had a great life, and even as an old man had us all dancing wildly in the sunlight!

  • Jonathan Balthasar Fremond

    RIP and thnx for all the inspiration you have given the electronic scene

  • vdbss

    wow, this definitely picks up the prize for most interesting thing I have learned about this week. Respect!