Back in 1997, the instructions to DJ Arjun Vagale were clear—he could play half an hour of electronic music at the Delhi club where he worked, but that was it. After that he had to go back to the usual repertoire of Bollywood songs. Today, Vagale, a founding member of the electronic group Jalebee Cartel, is helping organize the third year of the Sunburn festival in Goa—three days of unadulterated blips, beeps and beats of what is called electronic dance music (EDM).
Electric version: (clockwise from top) Jalebee Cartel playing live in Singapore; Avinash Kumar of Basic Love of Things (B.L.O.T.); Gaurav Malaker (in the foreground) of Qilla Records.
Most EDM is produced on laptops and synthesizers, and usually played at nightclubs. While some EDM compositions are intended purely for dancing, and played as part of “sets” that last hours, many electronic artists also write songs—often with the use of multiple instruments (actual or mimicked) and digitally enhanced vocals.
“The EDM scene in India is growing really fast,” says Vagale. “In any given week you can catch a big international act playing in one of the metros.” When Western rock bands go on an “Asian tour”, it usually means stops in Japan and Singapore before flying to Australia. But when it comes to electronica, the trend’s changing: An India stop is fast becoming mandatory for most DJs and groups.
At a typical EDM concert in a Delhi club, Jalebee Cartel plays to crowds of over a thousand people—the “band members” stand crouched over laptops, faces shrouded in smoke and reflections from the psychedelic light shows that accompany their music. An EDM “concert” follows a certain arc: The music builds over time, with the DJs layering new elements on top of a basic beat and bassline; once at a crescendo, the songs break down into skeletal elements like a stack of building blocks—the beat disappears, a discordant guitar line plays on repeat—and the pieces are rejoined in different combinations. Every hour or so, the music is put on autopilot while the group takes a break, sometimes even joining the dance floor. “India is a new hub,” says Vagale. “It is often compared to the burgeoning underground scene in Europe 10 years ago. Everything is raw and fresh and edgy, and the audience welcomes experimentation and isn’t judgemental.”
In the last two years, the Sunburn festival has attracted names such as the Dutch trance duo Growling Mad Scientists (GMS) and Armin van Buuren, both electronic artists with large international fan bases.
Local talent has also come to the forefront. “We have loads of Indian DJs who can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best international artists and play incredible music,” says the former MTV veejay Nikhil Chinapa, who now runs Submerge, an event management firm that organizes EDM concerts. A telling sign of shifting trends is Global Groove, a second EDM festival starting this month in New Delhi. Its main sponsor? That venerable institution of rock-and-roll journalism in India—Rock Street Journal.
In 2009 alone, three Indian electronica acts have gone on national tours to promote their new albums—Delhi-based MIDIval PunditZ, Goa-based TaTvA Kundalini and Jalebee Cartel. Electronica-centric record labels such as Mocha Musica, ChillOM Records and Qilla Records have emerged to scout for new talent. Jalebee Cartel tracks appear in Nokia advertisements, and Indian artists are now regulars on the international circuit.
But electronic music has also had to face uncertainties along the way—from unsure audiences and wobbly access to technology, to Bollywood’s dominance over club culture. In the mid-1990s, when electronic music in India was nothing more than “a few parties on the beach in Goa”, artist and producer Ma Faiza remembers selling cassettes at the Anjuna flea market in north Goa. “No one here had access to this kind of music,” she recalls. “You only heard new songs when ‘aunty’ went to America and bought you a Michael Jackson CD.” At first, only some foreign tourists were interested, but then Faiza began to notice a lot of Indian youth trying out electronica—first as “a cool new tape they could put in the car” and later as dedicated, discerning listeners.
Around 1995-96, childhood chums Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj of the group MIDIval PunditZ began to throw EDM-focused parties in Delhi. “The parties were called Cyber Mehfil, where we’d play some DnB music (short for ‘drum and bass’, a subgenre of EDM characterized by fast beats and heavy basslines) we’d gotten from the West,” says Raina. The mehfils (gatherings) initially attracted small crowds of 20-30 people who, Raina recalls, “listened to the music more than dance”. Gradually, the fan base started growing. “That following became a lot. Cyber Mehfil started attracting people in three figures. Our gigs become larger, and bigger,” he adds.
At the turn of the century, clubs in the metros began to get interested in EDM, and the demand for DJs grew. On certain days of the week, most clubs would take a break from Bollywood music to give electronic music a chance. “At the time, it didn’t matter what genre you played. You could be playing alongside a tech house artist (an EDM genre that mixes ethereal, ambient sounds with prominent beats) and a DnB person and it would just be called ‘Electronic Night,’” says Vagale. With the divisions between genres becoming clearer, it would be musical sacrilege to put them together today.
It was the arrival of cheap broadband Internet access that catalysed that change. Electronic musicians now had easy access to sounds, inspiration, and the chance to promote their own music online. “Compared to, let’s call it the ‘pre-broadband’ era, a lot more original ideas are coming out of Indian electronica. Acts have been creating their own original sounds,” says Arjun S. Ravi, editor of online music magazine Indiecision.
Indian EDM is now spread across the genre spectrum—from trance music (driven by artists such as DJ Sanjay Dutta and Pune band Lost Stories), tech house (Jalebee Cartel) and techno (artist Madhav Kohra, band Bhavishyavani Future Soundz). Festivals, says PunditZ’s Raina, are the culmination of this long, steady, and now rapid growth—from advertisements and websites to even the background music for news, EDM is “one of the most prevalent genres today”.
For Vagale, the the surest sign is in omnipresent Bollywood finally taking notice. “Electronica has always been the anti-Bollywood. Now, they’re taking influences from us—the remix culture, the production techniques,” he says. Faiza found affirmation from another unlikely source. “I was watching a Godrej advertisement the other day, and the background score was, like, full-on 135 beats per minute, pounding dance music,” she recalls, “and I’m thinking, c’mon, Godrej is using electronica?!”