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Walking The Tightrope: The Delicate Nature Of Sampling Indian Music

Bollywood has been in existence for over a century; its sound within our cultural psyche, bringing together people over harmonious melodies and synchronised dancing. Indian classical and folk music have, in comparison, been around for centuries. Acclaimed artists like Lata Mangeshkar and A.R Rahman have become flagbearers for a universally accepted, cherished and inspiring sound the world over.

Grammy award winners Missy Elliott and Kanye West along with producer Daphni have flirted with Indian samples within their work, influenced by either traditional sounds or Bollywood’s more catchy sensibilities. M.I.A’s ‘Jimmy’, Jay-Z’s collaboration with Punjabi MC have all been big hits in the charts while artists like Prodigy and Britney Spears have also been closely associated with sampling Bollywood music.

The Indian alternative music space on the other hand, whilst shedding its shackles as a 'nascent scene', is still questioning what exactly the relationship is between the alternative music space and the sounds that are traditionally categorised as 'Indian'.


Growing up in India or within the diaspora, it’s hard to get away from the classical, folk and Bollywood sound. London-based artist and Ninja Tune signee Sarathy Korwar grew up “learning to play the tabla in a household that loved Indian classical music.” It’s had a very strong influence on him and continues to with the projects he composes.

Sarathy even finds that when he’s trying to understand the rhythms of a drummer in Brazil, he’d contextualise it through the rhyme foundations in the Indian classical sound. Delhi’s Tritha Sinha has been learning to replicate the Indian classical sound since she was 5 years old and finds that “traditional music is part of our ancient culture. Classical music has taught me the ABC's of music and how one can use this medium for self-expression as well.” Mumbai-based producer Sid Vashi said he enjoys the process of “sampling Bollywood tunes as a way of expressing his relationship with the music”.

But the question remains why, in the current landscape, there’s a disassociation between modern tracks by producers and what is considered the 'Indian sound'. For both Kumail and Sid Vashi, it is because, put simply, mediocrity is what is associated with contemporary Indian music: “I think it’s because of the kind of music that’s coming out of Bollywood today. It’s not good. A lot of people are unaware of the more traditional music,” said Kumail. “For them, Indian music is Bollywood music and they don’t want to be associated with it.” Sid Vashi extrapolated on that by saying, “Bollywood has now been sampled to death in a hip-hop/beat context. Lately, I’ve been more interested to see what can be done outside of that realm.”

Vashi doesn’t believe it could have the same impact on the contemporary space, “every art form is wrought by the context it is consumed in. As long as [new] Bollywood is viewed as the lowbrow mainstream art form, it will never be viewed with a lens of exoticism and novelty.” Sarathy Korwar doesn't agree as "it would be weird if Bollywood has had the same impact in India in the contemporary space. Indians have a very different relationship to Bollywood and Indian classical music than the general population in the West.”

As the middle class exponentially grows, Sarathy says, “I think musicians and producers in India are very aware of what the West considers to be Indian music. Its links to spirituality, exoticism and orientalist ideas are still very strong and Indians do not want to play into those stereotypes, for good reason.”

Musicians in India seem to have a tightrope placed in front of them; one where exoticism is slapped onto them by the West with a desire to break free of the assumed stereotype. All while attempting to please everyone.

Downtempo act Sulk Station is one of the few acts that incorporated the Indian sound with their very unique brand of electronica. Rahul Giri, label head at Consolidate and one-half of Sulk Station, when asked whether historic or traditional Indian sounds are meaningful told us, “I really don’t think it’s important. It completely depends on the individual."

Whether we should be using Bollywood/Indian classical music as samples in contemporary production may just be a moot point. Giri’s lackadaisical answer may sum up all our feelings over this argument: “it’s all dependent on the artist”.

The likes of Four Tet, Madlib and DJ Shadow have released full-length projects, integrating traditional Indian sounds and contemporary Bollywood tracks into their work. Those projects sound more like odes to classical Indian music, inspired by the works of composers like RD Burman and Bappi Lahiri. For some, it’s a tribute; for others, it’s about representing where their roots are. Most famously, the Swet Shop Boys of late have been doing this with aplomb, spotlighting South Asian samples. For one of their members, rapper Heems (formerly of Das Racist) as a second-generation immigrant part of the Indian diaspora, incorporating South Asian samples in his songs is his way of creating culture.

Bollywood and Indian music is seen through a different lens by each artist. To echo what Giri said, arguing for its incorporation into contemporary production depends on the individual artist. Supporting those swaying away from that sound is supporting worldwide culture; creating a sound that can start to be defined globally.

Giri, despite his casual indifference to the Indian sound, cites Aniruddh Menon as an artist that stands out. And Menon’s debut album, ‘Lovesongs’ epitomised what many seek when looking (and arguing) for Bollywood or Indian classical music samples in songs: their childhoods revisited.

Words: Dhruva Balram
Image credit: Sharan Gulati

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04 May 2017

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