I am calling this post “Going Full Circle” because, as some people might know or may have noticed, I actually began this blog at a time when I was listening to a lot of electronica and other kinds of pop music that used electronics extensively. The focus of the blog may have become something very different – especially during a period of six months that ended more than 15 years ago (a fact that I discuss in much more detail in my “About” pages) – but I have never lost my fondness for electronica or electronic music in general (among many other kinds of music, of course). I do still happen to believe that people over the years have made great musical innovations and created a lot of very enjoyable sounds while playing with synthesizers, samplers, loopers, and so on. In addition, I have always enjoyed it when contemporary electronic music included older Indian influences – folk music, classical music, and old film music.
Fifteen years ago, I actually discovered a lot of the older Indian music by tracing influences from the contemporary electronic creations that I was exposed to first. Today, on the other hand, I am sort of coming at all of this from the other side, having enjoyed an intense self-education in different kinds of Indian music for quite a few years. But in one sense, that education doesn’t matter so much, since I still very much appreciate the same general kind of fusion.
With such a build-up/intro, you might think that I’m about to give you an encyclopedic selection. Actually, though, for now (at least), I’d like to focus on just three innovative acts – two solo artists and one duo. Maybe sometime in the future I will write a sequel post or two – which I know is a promise that I make often, but sometimes I do keep it. Also, maybe in a future post, I will discuss more male artists – another promise that I often feel that I need to make. (I know, I just tend to focus so much more extensively on female artists – especially female singers – that I might even seem to neglect the male sex entirely. There may be a few reasons for that, but that is a subject that I will have to discuss in more detail at another time.)
In any event, I guess it’s more than time we got started here…
First, I would like to talk about an electronica combo that was formed by the Mumbai-based Sufi music and ghazal singer Pooja Gaitonde (whom I mentioned in this blog once before) and her brother, a percussionist and electronic musician named Prasad Gaitonde. This combo also seems to collaborate sometimes with other named DJs/mixers or musicians (this happens so often in the world of electronica, it’s often difficult to figure out who should get more credit for what), but I have chosen to address the Gaitonde siblings as a separate outfit in Indian electronica worth following regardless of whoever else joins them. Maybe I feel that way partly because I am well acquainted with Pooja Gaitonde for her more traditional performances, which I am also very fond of, having seen and heard them on YouTube for several years.
The first clip that I’m including below contains a very sweet rendition of a traditional Sufi song based on a poem by Amir Khusrau. I’m going to include the description that also appears below the video on YouTube because I think it’s very accurate. And by the way, the “Asian Underground” that it says they are consciously emulating was the source of a lot of that Indian electronica that I listened to so much in the ’90s and ’00s.
Per the YouTube copy:
“Ae Ri Sakhi” is inspired by the sounds of Asian Underground Music infused with rich Indian Sufi vocals backed by a fast-paced tabla beat which takes you on a journey of the celebration of love from one lover for her beloved and the joy expressed for his presence. Together we have infused classical Indian Sufi- influences with the pulsating space of Drum & Bass and created a vocal-led stunner in the most provisional and empirical manner.
The next clip seems a little more subdued in terms of the background music, but it certainly does show Pooja’s prowess as a classical vocalist. Here, according to the YouTube credits, the siblings are also collaborating with someone named Ragasuram – in fact, it is on his channel, and he might be claiming the higher credit in this case. This track is pretty perfect in certain ways, though I wish it didn’t end so abruptly. It seems very short, actually, but at 3:17, it is not all that short for a pop song. But it is not a really a pop song by most standards – the copy on YouTube is correct in saying that this “is a track different from mainstream music nowadays.” So, maybe because of that, I do wish it had gone on for much longer.
If the Gaitonde siblings (and Ragasuram) have gone outside the mainstream, I think the next artist has gone even farther. But, almost ironically, she’s become the most famous in this post.
I never would have expected the kind of fusion that Arooj Aftab creates to become the proverbial talk of the town. Very recently, I have looked a little more into her history, and I see that she earned praises in somewhat higher-brow circles, such as from (mostly western) classical music aficionados, public radio broadcasters and the like. But if she had very wide recognition before the past year or so, I admit that’s news to me. I think a lot of things have started to go her way ever since about a year ago, in 2022, when she became the first woman of Pakistani origin to win a Grammy Award. (The word all over the press is that she is the “first Pakistani woman” to win a Grammy, but if we want to be accurate about it, she lives in Brooklyn – unless she has moved to somewhere else very recently – and she has for been there some time.) But she did win the Grammy in the area of “Global Music,” where I think innovation is more accepted than in other, more popular categories.
At any rate, you can’t really put Arooj Aftab into a specific musical category in general, because she goes all over the place. She does a lot of borderline jazz – which is not actually a kind of music that I listen to all that much – but she also veers into somewhat more traditional North Indian or Pakistani music (though never doing it in a conventional way) as well as electronica, of the more experimental variety. The latter, of course, is the kind of Arooj Aftab music that I wanted to focus on here.
The first clip that I wanted to share is a remarkable performance from 2017. The YouTube description says it’s [at] Threes Brewing NYC. I imagine this is a small and relatively unknown event (far from the Grammys). But among the YouTube clips of her that I have seen, it is, in my opinion, one of the best. Some readers who know about Indian classical music will recognize from the title “Ras Ke Bhare” that this is a famous thumri. If you want to know who recorded this song first, the answer is Gauhar Jaan, all the way back in 1905. But Arooj Aftab’s version is probably based most on the rendering several decades later by Begum Akhtar, whom she claims as a major influence. I think that if you pay attention to Arooj’s vocals, you can recognize Begum Akhtar’s influence, but the musical rendering here is very electronic – albeit in an atmospheric way. That is to say, the music is less like electronica for the dance floor than it is like ambient music or – even closer, to my ears – spacey ethereal goth. Anyway, in addition to being pleasing to the ears, I find this audio clip to be fascinating and unique.
The next selection will have a slightly more recognizable feel to fans of electronic music – although this is also very much in the vein of ambient electronica as opposed to, say, club music of the kind that the Gaitonde siblings did in the clips that I posted before. There is something familiar about the song that she is singing, although I can’t recognize it among any North Indian classics that I know. (Maybe I am missing something that some readers of this post will be able to get.) The description below the video tells you pretty much what to expect: “Curated by vocalist and composer Arooj Aftab, SAUVE (South Asian Union Voltage Experiment) is an annual new music festival, a platform for collaborative and experimental new works in the electronic, modular, synthwave, and dream-scape genres.” (By the way, “synthwave” and “dream-scape” are nice genre labels – maybe I should have picked one of those for my description of the prior video. I have no idea, though, whether these are real established categories – perhaps known to people who are hipper than I am – or just phrases made up on the spur of the moment.) Incidentally, the man she is collaborating with, Jace Clayton, is someone whose name I recognized instantly. I also listened to him a number of times at the beginning of the 2000s, when I was aware of the albums that he produced under the stage name DJ /rupture. (In fact, I even bought a CD of one of those albums, though I also lost it or scratched it up or something some time ago.) The latter half of the video consists just about exclusively of Jace’s electronic noodling, so those who tune into this video specifically for Arooj Aftab’s vocals might not care for that part as much. I don’t think it’s as interesting, either, but it’s still intriguing enough to keep me listening to the end.
In a way, the Indian pop singer Vasuda Sharma is at the opposite side of the musical spectrum from Arooj Aftab. Vasuda creates pop music that is very hummable and catchy, and when she does covers, she chooses to cover either well-known pop songs (usually from the U.K. or U.S.) or Hindi film tunes. (By the way, if you are wondering where in this blog I have mentioned her before, that was in my Noor Jehan covers post, where I included her charming version of “Jawan Hai Mohabbat.”) Vaasuda has delved into classical music, and she has had a very eclectic history of musical training. In fact, like Arooj Aftab, she even once studied at the Berkley School of Music in Boston. (It seems, though, that her residence in the U.S. was very temporary. From what I can tell, she has spent most of her music-making life in Delhi and Mumbai.) But Vasuda also has a long history (at this point) in pop music, ever since 2003, when she began as a member of the pop band Aasma.
Aasma consisted of the 2003 winners on the Indian version of an international TV talent show called Popstars. Popstars was the same show that had spawned Viva – which included another of my favorite contemporary singers, Neha Bhasin – in 2002. (And, incidentally, both bands had a fair amount of electronics in their sound – though more so in the case of Viva, I think.) I have to admit, though, that nothing that I heard or saw by Aasma ever really grabbed me, even though I have kind of liked at least a couple of videos by Viva. But none of that really maters at this point, since both singers have moved on quite a lot since those beginnings. In Vasuda’s case, she even took a break from playing publicly (maybe for a few years) in order to broaden her musical education.
However, Vasuda has made a specialty out of one particular kind of music making that is not all that common. She is an expert at looping – that is, recording different sounds and then turning them into an electronic loop (using machines designed for that purpose) and mixing them, sometimes enhancing everything with just the right electronic effects. Even more special is that she has posted many brilliant examples of live looping – that is, videos in which she performs, loops, mixes, and sometimes even writes the songs live.
I could say more to describe this process, but in the next video, Vasuda does so well at describing it, herself. At 28 minutes, this Tedx Talk is a little long for blogging, but I’m hoping that people who see this post will be able to watch the whole video and will find it as enjoyable as I did. It’s not often that you get to see an electronic musician explain and illustrate the process involved in creating a piece of music and, on top of that, most of Vasuda’s performance here is pure improvisation. The ingredients that she puts into this musical mix are pretty minimal compared all the things that she has included in some other performances, because she was not able to bring any non-electronic musical instruments with her. But regardless of whether she plays a lot of instruments, the live looping process enables her to become – as she accurately proclaims, herself – a “one woman band.”
Within the context of her talk/lesson, Vasuda performs three songs. The first is an improvisation based on a looped sneeze and cough, because at the time when she did this, she was still getting over a case of COVID. (How many musicians would think of turning a respiratory illness into a song?) The second song, “Maula,” is one that she had done in a few different versions before and which also had appeared on her album, Attuned Spirits. And the last piece, “Let It Rain,” is for the most part another improvisation, though she says it is a song that she had already been in the process of creating. Actually, it sounds a bit like a western gospel song, and on YouTube, you can also find an old gospel song by the same title as well as other similarly named old songs, but Vasuda may not have consciously intended to allude to anyone else’s music. If other influences seeped in, maybe that happened subconsciously – which actually makes the improvisation even more interesting.
The other Vasuda Sharma video that I am including here contains an excellent mashup (or “LoopMash”) between two Hindi film songs, and here we really do get to witness how versatile she can be at playing good, old-fashioned non-electronic instruments. As she does often in her live looping songs (and other songs also), she uses a ukulele. But not only does she use the strings of the instrument; she also drums with her fingers on the wooden frame. In addition, she plays a frame drum, claps, and makes a percussive sound with her voice, building up an altogether very compelling rhythmic background. And while she does all of that, she simultaneously processes everything in the looping machine (or loopstation, as it is officially called) by operating its controls with her feet.
The songs that she chooses to cover are very interesting, too. The first one, “Jag Ghoomeya” (from the 2016 film Sultan), is attributed in the YouTube description to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, but there is a female version in the film sung by none other than Neha Bhasin, which I also happened to include in my Neha Bhasin post. (When it comes to vocals, I have to say, Neha Bhasin has the edge; I think Neha’s voice is very rich! But Vasuda Sharma’s voice is very nice also, and, anyway, I’ve never seen Neha take care of all the instrumental backing by herself while she sings.) The song that this is mashed up with is “Yaara Seeli Seeli,” which was originally sung by Lata Mangeshkar for the 1990 film Lekin. I imagine that these were not easy songs to work with (and certainly not easy acts to follow), but Vasuda does very well at transforming both songs into her own distinct creation – all in one sitting and completely in front of our eyes.
There are many more performances by Vasuda Sharma that I thought about including here, but maybe some of those could go into a separate post devoted just to her. (I have been a fan of hers for about a decade.) For this post, I wanted to give all the artists that I’m writing about something close to equal attention, because I think they all deserve to get a lot of attention in general.
I am happy to see that Arooj Aftab is getting a good amount of recognition right now. She certainly deserves it, and I hope that it will last. Although the number of works that I have seen by the Gaitonde siblings is relatively limited, I think the public should be getting more exposure to them, and at this point, Pooja Gaitonde should be highly recognized for her singing voice in a few different genres. And, of course, at least in my mind, Vasuda Sharma should be a superstar.