An interview with Talvin Singh

Talvin Singh is a tabla player, electronic musician, music theorist, record producer and DJ and is widely considered the father of modern Asian electronic music, known for creating an innovative fusion of classical Indian music and electronica. Here we share our recent conversation with Talvin about his Associate Artist performances at the Summer Festival 2012.

As an artist you’ve had much success around the world, yet you’ve always maintained a strong connection with the East End and its creative community. Can you tell us a little about your relationship with the area?

I was born in East London, I grew up in Leytonstone. I was born there and I still live there now. My father actually went to school in Bethnal Green and later, after a time in Africa, raised a family in East London. So my roots are quite deeply entrenched in East London.

And musically, when you started doing your own gigs and developing your own style, that predominantly started in the East End too – can you tell us about those early performances?

As a working musician, especially in the late 1980s, I travelled all over the world. It was an incredible journey and experience, but I eventually settled down to live in East London and things were just happening. I needed a studio space and someone invited me to come to this building, which was an old brewery, the Truman Brewery. There was nobody in there at the time and we were trying to get a community of creative people working together. It soon became a hub of creative people – musicians, artists, writers, independent record labels – so that was when my association with that part of East London really started… brewing!

So then you went travelling a lot – did you feel like you were taking a break from the area, or had moved away from it consciously, or have you always come back to the East End?

I think East London was a great base, and things were starting to bubble up, in terms of being recognised for what I was doing, (and sometimes for what I wasn’t doing!) but I began to feel as if I was being kept away from things I felt were very important in my life, like my teacher who has been teaching me how to play the tabla since I was 15 and is still teaching me today.

I missed that and wanted to spend more time with him in India so I was trying to do that while maintaining my career here – but I wasn’t always successful. You can’t always have your cake and eat it, and I thought I could. But my soul’s always looking to the East, whether it’s East London or India: I can’t help that.

So your Associate Artist concert is quite a different thing to all the gigs you used to do in East London. It’s in Christ Church, so a very different venue and involves a new collaboration. Can you tell us a bit about what people can expect from this concert?

I’ve worked a lot in acoustic spaces where you have to consider: “this is the space and I can’t just do what I want in the space”. The space already contains some kind of energy and sensitivity, and you have to work with that – I’ve seen it go wrong, and I’ve seen it go right. So when the invitation came from Spitalfields Music – who I’ve known about for many years – I went to see the venue and was convinced that I wanted to do something more acoustic. But I’ve been naturally moving towards acoustic music, and that just started happening naturally, although I still love electronic music.

The tabla solo is… it’s a cake that I’m always trying to bake. Obviously there’s a repertoire for tabla, compositions that are passed down from generation to generation and some happen to have come my way through my master, but not many. He is very minimal; his approach is “if you learn this, you could play the rest. Whatever I’m showing you, you can make many patterns out of, and I’ll also show you how to make the patterns.” And in time you’ll start making the patterns yourself. So this has been a long journey for me. In this concert I felt I wanted a string section to accompany the tabla solo, as opposed to another Indian instrument, although the violin can also be considered an  Indian instrument, it’s had a long history already… It’s amazing, in the world, we share so much through music.

Tell us a little bit about the collaboration with Anne Garner and the piece you’ve been working on  together – what kind of sounds are involved and how have you been working together?

I sent Anne a track – a minimal piece – and she wrote a melody and some lyrics over the top. Within a few days we were in the studio, so it came together quite fast really! I really like what she’s done. I think when you chat or exchange ideas on the internet, there is a distance, which one has to accept, and it’s very rare that something like this happens where you don’t feel such a distance. I had an idea of what I thought I wanted, that I could have explained, but Anne had already done that and sent it back to me!

It’s nice when that happens, it’s like magic. So this [online discussion] happened for quite a while with that kind of energy and finally we went into the studio to make the piece…So (in that sense) the piece has actually developed over a long time. Sometimes one piece of music can carry a long journey and we need to respect that, especially today.

Talvin Singh’s Associate Artist event Tabla Rasa takes place this Wednesday 13 June, 7.30pm-9.15pm at Christ Church Spitalfields. Tickets £5 – £32. Book now

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