Talvin Singh has other good ideas. You just have to sit down. And listen. Now. Hyperactive, arrestingly otherworldly, stuffed with knowledge and spouting possibilities, his is an extraordinary life. Brought up in East London by an Indian father who refused to speak Hindi and a mother who hardly spoke anything but, he was playing the Indian drums—tabla—at three. At 16, he flew east and journeyed deep into the Punjabi countryside to meet tabla guru Pandit Lashman Singh, a man who insists on handing down his teaching aurally and, at more than 80-years-old today, has never recorded a beat. After impressing him by mimicking a tough nine-beat rhythm he'd learned from endlessly replaying a BBC Asian music show, Singh stayed with his guruji for more than a year and still spends a few months per annum with the master. Singh went on to found Anokha, an East End London nightclub that broke records for its queues, release a number of groundbreaking classical-India-meets-club albums—OK won the coveted British Mercury Music Prize in 1999—and record with everyone from Madonna to Björk to Courtney Pine to free-fall jazz master Sun Ra. He even invented his own instrument, the tablatronic—as the name suggests, a set of electronic tablas. And just when you thought he might comfortably serve out his musical tenure providing ambient lullabies to the boutique hotel lobbies of the world, he divorced his record company, closed the club, put the tablatronic in storage and started basing himself increasingly in Delhi and Bombay. He came close to giving up tabla altogether, he says. "I wasn't sure where to take it. And guruji saved me. After 10 years of teaching me to be closer to his style, guruji said, 'What we're going to do now is work on your own style.' And we moved onto the next stage." He's currently in India to record a classical acoustic tabla solo album, five long tracks with different accompaniments, from strings, to piano to electronics. The 31-year-old drum-and- bass prodigy says he hasn't opened his laptop in eight months. "It's a huge change, I suppose," he says. "People say to me, 'Talvin, how can you do that?' But first and foremost I'm a tabla artist. It's so easy to have a formula and keep churning it out. But how could I carry on with my career with the teacher I had and not do a tabla solo album?" He laughs. "My mother's funny. She used to complain when I had blue hair. But now she's like, 'You were making more money when you had blue hair.'"
To anyone else, a classical album would seem commercial suicide. But Singh has no doubts it's the right way to go. "You have to always ask whether you are exercising something of yourself. Are you lying or telling the truth? If people want anything from me, they want something new and I'd rather tell the truth and sell less records if it has to be that way.'" And in any case, there's a pop album to follow at the end of the year. "Another massive soup, man," he says, using his favorite term for collaboration. "Like OK but short tracks. Much more accessible, more linear and simple than what I've done in the past." Artists lined up for this project include Richard Ashcroft, of the late British band The Verve, whose decision to disband the group the moment they hit the big time rather than attempt a repeat, Singh clearly admires. But this human tabla machine has myriad other projects in the works: Indian film scores, DJing everywhere from Italy to Ibiza, talks at the Royal Opera House in London, his new label In Recordings, collaborations with photographers and artists, a workshop/cultural-exchange program for up-and-coming Indian musicians and, oh yeah, the complete overhaul of the studio-dominated Indian music industry. The 31-speaker installation, Singh hopes, will shatter by the sheer weight of its artistic integrity the long-held notion that Indian classical music should never be recorded. But more than anything, Singh is just traveling, from Madras to Mozambique via Okinawa and Edinburgh, with a single backpack and a mobile studio, searching out inspiration and forging harmonies from disparate musical traditions. And as a cultural connoisseur, he goes to all the right places. A typical Singh conversation will start, "Well, when I opened for the Tate Modern ..." or "(Bernardo) Bertolucci was backstage at the Albert Hall ..." or equally, "I was at this rave outside Delhi ..." or "When I was recording on these mountains in Morocco ..." It's not that he's showing off. It's more that the nature of his quest for purity and excellence means, as he says, "I don't often end up sitting in the cheap seats."
We take a trip over to one of Singh's favorite Delhi hangouts, gallery-and-art-college-lined Lodi Road. He's become a regular here, dropping in on classical dance practice or sitar sessions, and setting up alongside with his tabla. But today there's not much happening, so we take a tour of some of the exhibitions. Earlier, Singh was expounding on how music, painting, even farming, were all mere mediums of expression and that the key to true artistry was communication and tapping into your core to locate a common human essence. I scan the pictures for signs of this elusive connection, watching Singh's expression for any hint of recognition of the great Om. "Bunch of crap," he sighs and heads back to the car.