Talvin Singh performed with Pakistani pop singer Atif Aslam at Chi last week. They were in Dubai for the first of a regular quarterly event at the popular club.
As ever Time Out’s nightlife editor Becky Lucas was at the party to get the big name interviews with the top performers in Dubai. She spoke to Talvin Singh about breakdancing, musical collaborations and winning the mercury Music Award.
What attracted you to the tabla above other more western instruments?
I think initially it was the dexterity of the instrument and the language. I love the fact that it has a language which kind of represents all the 11 to 14 tones, that’s what really attracted me. The sound, the decay, the natural playfulness and the sensuality of using your hands on a skin. And I love the fact that you sit to play the tabla, it’s very yogic, sitting cross legged and playing. I remember thinking there can’t be a better job then this. My recent art exhibition was very much about the language, the reverbs, people were singing into tabla mounted on the gallery walls.
How did you cope when you were rejected by classical tabla players for your western influences? Did it influence your music further?
I think, with any classical traditions, there is a wonderful thing to hold back and preserve but actually tabla is a modern instrument. It’s only 300 years old.
Do you continue to get resistance from the traditional schools of Indian music?
It’s really interesting - I actually want to play more traditional music now. The good majority of Indian classical musicians are now involved in fusion bands, some 60/70% I would say
Do you still break dance?
No, I don’t break dance anymore. I would before when I would play an African Bambata record cassette on one ghetto blaster, press record on another ghetto blaster and play tabla, the sound was amazing, a real mix, then a rapper would rap over the top.
Which of your many collaborations are you most proud of?
Working with Sun Ra. It was a very mystical, incredible experience. It was on a whole other plain, my good friend Courtney Pine told me not to collaborate with him and that people playing with him never leave his band. He is very magnetic!
Which one was the strangest collaboration? Who was the most difficult to work with?
I think the above was very strange because it was such magical, mystical experience
How much of a milestone was winning the Mercury Music Award for you? Did it change everything?
I think it did change everything, you know. It became quite a difficult period for me, shortly after that the record company just felt that I should sell more records. There was a huge conflict and they wanted me to change my repertoire, which I felt was ridiculous, I wanted the freedom to be more creative. That was difficult, it was a very frustrating time. There was a period when every concert I thought could have been my best concert to date had the worst review!
You’ve voiced an affinity for the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen before. Are there any other new artists that you see yourself in at the moment?
Yeah Stockhausen, we did a special performance, a group of us were invited to do special compositions based on the influences of Stockhausen, we got to meet him too. He’s an incredible character, he wears a different colour for every day of the week and takes his two wives with him everywhere.
Atif Aslam chose you as the person he would most like to play with here in Dubai. Were you surprised? What do you make of his work?
That was pretty amazing! Atif has a very positive vibe about him. I had heard one of his songs - I had it free on an MP3 player - I loved the song. Really raw and special, he’s such a nice person, his spiritual positivity comes across, its very interesting to see a performer with so much light and love, people love him
Who would you pick to play with – if you could choose any musician, dead or alive?
The pick was last night , Niladri Kumar is an incredible musician, we’ve been waiting eight years to work together, he’s so inspiring , he’s taken that genre of music to a new level. He’s like Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar rolled into one. His father was the most senior disciple of Ravi Shankar. Niladri is amazing. The distortion, effects, a perfect pick for me.
Imagine you’re playing your last live set ever: where would it be and which tracks would you play?
I think the venue would have to be the Alhambra in Spain. When they conceived that idea, they wanted to create the most beautiful environment, involving their hearts, describing God in terms of light and smell. I would love to play there.
Your stranded on a desert island – which five albums do you have with you and why?
Beauty, Ruchi Sakamoto, Natural Elements, Shakti, my album, OK, anything by Burial, he’s amazing, on a whole other level, Shivkumar Shermar, a live album, so many, Favoraag Kirwamni.
What was the last book you read?
A short story called laaju, Ishmat Chukai.
What was the last film you saw?
I saw this Pakistani film it just got shown at a film festival, In the name of God, fantastic soundtrack.
What’s on the horizon for Talvin Singh? Any new albums, collaborations or tours?
The release of my album Sweetbox first, I’ve also just produced an album with Niladri, there’s also a tabla solo album which is quite contemporary, not many sounds other than the tabla, it’s just rendered differently, I use lots of applications to render the sounds of the tabla, the tempo just moves. It’s always the sound of the tabla being played live I just render the sound differently like you would use Photoshop on an image.