Crate-Digging for Indian Disco on the Streets of Calcutta

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

Earlier this year, Mutant Dance Moves took an extended vacation through India (so long in fact, that the editors at MTV Hive threatened to change the column name to “Beats, Pray, Love,” prompting a return flight). While there, I did what any music fan would do: I dug for music. And while there have been articles, charticles and listicles about the return of vinyl, the world’s second largest populace failed to get the notice. Ravi Shankar albums, Bollywood soundtracks, even ABBA albums, when they can be found, are generally coated with decades of exhaust dust, their sleeves eaten by mold. And yet a wealth of pop music riches still exist in India, a resource that Western music’s savviest music-makers continually mine for their own hits.

On the streets of Kolkata, I happened upon a lone stand stocked with moldering records, the shop’s emphasis being on drastically more popular items like lighters and Bob Marley t-shirts. And yet I need only flip past a few disintegrating copies of Concert for Bangladesh before happening upon some bizarre looking Bollywood soundtracks. One  that stood out featured a haphazardly-suited Creature From the Black Lagoon groping at polyester-clad disco-goers on a Bombay dancefloor. It was for a movie called Maut Ka Saya and featured a soundtrack by composer Bappi Lahiri.

At first glance, I would swear Lahiri was the Indian version of Ronnie Milsap or perhaps some sort of track-suited cat lady. But as the excellent Bollywood Bloodbath compilation from Finders Keepers/ B-Music makes clear, Lahiri is one of Bollywood’s most influential composers, scoring hundreds of films. He’s also widely hailed as the “Disco King,” the first Indian film composer to deploy out of the box drum machine dance beats and wheezing synthesizers in his compositions. Lahiri’s unhinged work for B-grade horror films appear often on this woolly disc.

One Bappi Lahiri soundtrack, Disco Dancer, became an international sensation with its deft mixing of old Indian tropes to modern electro ticks. Excerpts from this bizarre film make for fine YouTube fodder. The soundtrack not only inspired Devo to cover “Disco Dancer” but was more recently appropriated by M.I.A. for her Kala single, “Jimmy.” The more classical Indian strains of his 1983 soundtrack Jyoti wound up being lifted wholesale by DJ Quik on his production for Truth Hurts’ “Addictive” (after he was slapped with a $500 million lawsuit by Lahiri, he ultimately settled the suit out of court).

Following up the deep digging that Finders Keepers’ head honcho Andy Votel always does, the label recently released a compilation from South Indian chanetuse K.S. Chithra, known throughout South India as “Little Nightingale.” Chithra’s voice often chirps like such a bird, the backing music matching it, be it drum machines that sound like thrumbed rubber band or synths that gurgle like frogs at night. I had no luck digging up any of her old records, making the label’s studious work all the more appreciated.

What I did ultimately dig out from India was a dusty album by Ananda Shankar. Shankar, the nephew of the Beatles’ pal Ravi Shankar, was one of the first Indian musicians to meld the classical tradition with the mod sounds emanating from the West. While the Beatles were content to sprinkle some sitar atop “Norwegian Wood,” Shankar embraced the ‘60s sound enthusiastically, like his cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” from his self-titled 1970 album. A bizarre mash-up of go-go girls, gurgling guitar, farting Moog and Shankar’s nimble sitar lines, the song escaped from its ‘60s exotic ghetto, finding fans in artists like Beck and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and even winding up on both Rhino’s excellent What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves box set as well as on the soundtrack for Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories game.

In his home country, such fusion was frowned upon and success came much later for Shankar. My score was Shankar’s even deeper 1976 album, Ananda Shankar and his Music, which features two dancefloor cuts that made the rounds on the UK’s rare groove and trip-hop scenes in the 1990s: “Dancing Drums” and “Streets of Calcutta.” The former often cropped up on episodes of NBC’s Outsourced, while the latter … well, there was a certain poetry in finding the furious tabla rhythms of “Streets of Calcutta” literally on the streets of Calcutta.