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Far East Beats

Talvin Singh brings his Asian-influenced breakbeats to the Bay

As history repeatedly suggests, music has never been one for monogamy (sonically speaking of course). Starting most notably with jazz, the elements of musicianship revealed a new sense of playfulness, a boundlessness that seemed to bring together even the most diverse and esoteric of sounds. It was an awakening of sorts, that tested the dusty logic of yore where structure and custom dictated the music-making process. But over the past decade, never has the world seen such a fierce acceleration of musical change. And never have music critics looked so desperately for words to describe this evolution. As exemplified by musicians like Afrika Bambaataa, Stereolab, and even the Dixie Chicks, music has turned into a grand orgy of genres, tonalities, instruments, and ideas all swirling into oneness -- a truly postmodern representation of sound and its endless possibilities.

Very few people can understand this in the way Talvin Singh does. As a teen, the London-born Singh, who is of Indian descent, became classically trained in the tabla, quickly developing into a precocious handler of the ancient instrument. But just as fast as Singh excelled, so did he understand the limitations of this intensely conservative and exclusive art. And it was the emergence of electronic music in the 1980s that proved catalytic for Singh, as he found himself moving from classical Indian music towards the realm of popular music -- eventually working as a session musician with Siouxsie and the Banshees. It was a crossing-over that turned out to be the first of many.

Singh’s discovery of turntables, mixers, and digital gadgetry in the early 90s gave birth to what he called “sounds from the Asian Underground” (which would later become the title of his first compilation LP). Singh experimented with melting the organic sounds of tabla and sitar over breakbeats of Japanese and Indian influence, forming a luxurious blend of sound both exotic and hypnotic, challenging the Euro-centrism of modern club life. But ironically, it was Europe that rewarded his efforts when, in 1999, he received Britain’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize for his debut LP, OK. When asked why he titled his album OK, Singh responded by saying, “Because it’s the most common word in the world. You go anywhere in the world and people know what ‘OK’ is. Music shouldn’t have boundaries. It’s just language, that everyone can identify with.”

In the year 2000, Singh pushes the envelope of musical convention even further with his “Untouched Tour,” which stops in San Francisco on December 3rd. Rather than playing the somewhat static role of DJ, Singh will revert back to his Indian beginnings, playing a live tabla performance covering classical and modern influences. He will be accompanied by Annie 001, a “visual DJ,” who will fill in the rest of the senses by synchronizing a video mix to the sounds of atmospheric drum ‘n’ bass, Indian chants, and Singh’s tabla set. Preceding the performance will be a special screening of Talvin’s film, Drum and Space, which examines the power of Asian influence on electronic music. The event promises to be an exciting amalgam of sight and sound whose influences are not always musical, but whose effects are nothing less than ethereal.