A Brief History of Hindustani Music

Bollywood, like India itself, to me is a cultural melting pot of sound. With such a rich history that spans thousands of years, India is home and has been home to a myriad of influences and traditions that makes Hindustani music so unique unto itself.

The film music of Hindustan is such a mish-mash of genres and sounds, at it’s best, it can shatter your preconceived ideas of what music is, and what music can be. In no other music can you find Spanish guitars with Qawwali rhythms, fuzzy psychedelic-rock meets big band arrangements, and where proto-electronics are infused into classical pop structures. 

Bollywood has constantly evolved and innovated within itself that its legacy often gets overlooked, drowned in the cliche’s of over the top dance routines, and Amitabh Bachan ‘dooshom dooshom’ fight scenes. The discography is hard to dive into, with producers and songwriters often not credited, and track names that are so closely aligned with the film of which it is scored, that they make no logical sense to the outsider. With so many films being made, and countless interpretations of the canon (Asha Boshle alone has 11,000 solo recordings credited to her name), it’s a daunting task to know where to start and where to end.

It is in this spirit, that the ‘chalo’ compilation was born, to serve as an entry-point into modern South Asian sounds. As such, I thought it would be nice to give a beginners rundown of the major players from my favourite era of Bollywood music so that folks can begin their own journey down the rabbit hole of Bolly-Funk.

Jitwam has built his reputation as a DJ, producer and label head for The Jazz Diaries, who’s latest release, Chalo, is a carefully curated compilation of contemporary South Asian music, featuring the likes of Nabihah Iqbal, Aroop Roy, Jaubi and Riz Ahmed.

R.D Burman – Dance Music

R.D Burman is long heralded as India’s most celebrated and revered film composer, scoring over 330 films and revolutionising the industry by incorporating western production and songwriting techniques in Hindustani film music.

Its hard to choose just one, but the song ‘dance music’ from the film MUKTI is most notable for being sampled by Madlib for the Bandana project with Gangsta Gibbs. But whilst Madlib’s flip focuses purely on the crazy concoction of orchestral sounds with a rare groove beat, the original really shows how well versed Indian music is in jazz and psychedelia, with its uniquely oddball arrangement ending in a cacophony of strings to settle into a double-time breakbeat with what could easily pass as a Roy Hargrove trumpet solo to ride the tune out. 

Truly innovative and truly a timeless piece of Hindustani music.

Ashe Bhosle – Dum Maro Dum

With a discography spanning decades, most recently with the Kronos Quartet amongst others, Asha is one of India’s most celebrated playback singers. But her track ‘Dum Maro Dum’ composed by R.D Burman, signals a revolution in Hindustani music, with its fusion of Bhajan vocal stylings over a driving psychedelic rock beat popularised by the Beatles invasion of America in the late 60s. The track’s literal translation is ‘take another puff’, and firmly cements itself as one of the finest ode’s to smoking weed you’re going to find anywhere in the world.

Lata Mangeshkar – Wada Na Tod

Lata Mangeshkar began her career in the late 40s, and dominated the film industry during the 50s and 60s, pretty much featuring on every composition worth its salt during these decades. With a falsetto that puts Mariah Carey to shame, her range spans over 3 octaves and her career spanned nearly six decades, recording songs for the soundtracks of more than 2,000 Indian films.

Unlike other tunes of the late 80s, ‘Wada Na Tod’ is tasteful in its production and the arrangement is pure perfection, allowing Lata’s voice to shine and the song to break through. The rhythm section breakdown is fascinating in its execution and the tune is so powerful, it evokes memories that aren’t even yours.

Bappi Lahiri – Jimmi Jimmi Aaja

Bappi is most famous for his over the top jewellery and ushering in the disco sound to India (check out his interview on Red Bull). This tune was sampled by M.I.A for her tune of the same name, and the Todd Terje edit of this goes off on the dancefloor. Definitely one for the disco heads.

Charanjit Singh – The Burning Train

Amongst STW readers, Charanjit is probably most famous for his proto-acid record ‘10 Ragas to a Disco Beat’ recorded in 1981. Notable for being the first recording combining Singh’s use of the TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bass synthesizer, his record predates Phuture’s seminal Chicago acid house record “Acid Tracks” (1987) by nearly five years.

But during the 70s Charanjit was a pioneer in his field, being the go-to-guy for R.D Burman’s explorations into the synthesised world. And there is not a better example than the theme tune to ‘The Burning Train’. When the time is right, and the dancefloor is at its peak this proto-techno stomper found on the Burning Train OST never fails to get reactions on the dancefloor – it’s an exercise in pure otherworldliness, where arpeggiated synthesizers groove over a mid-tempo beat, only to be met with the sound of a literal burning train and a barrage of brass that leaves listeners dumbfounded in how this tune was even made.

VS Narasimhan – Mokshamu

This was the first tune we heard for the Chalo compilation from Arca’s twitter feed back in the day. As soon as I heard it I was mesmerised… There are some notes that can only be heard in South Asian music and VS Narasimhan’s rendition of the Mokshamu raga attests to that. It’s a blessing to be releasing this on  wax for the very  first time and the perfect way to close out the Chalo compilation.

Chalo, curated by Jitwam, is out now via The Jazz Diaries.

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