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Wednesday, September 8, 1999 Published at 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK


Talvin Singh: Closing the divide

Talvin Singh: Mixing the sounds of four continents

The Mercury Music Prize may have a reputation for backing outsiders, but Talvin Singh's success probably provoked more jaws to drop than most.

Some of his fellow contenders - such as the Chemical Brothers, Beth Orton or Thomas Ades - could hardly be described as mainstream either.

But it's Singh's particular marriage of traditional Indian sounds and cutting edge dance that makes his victory such an achievement.

[ image: Collecting the coveted Mercury award]
Collecting the coveted Mercury award
"I am very, very happy. This is incredible as far as the music industry is concerned," said a delighted but surprised Singh at the ceremony.

"With me being from Asian origin I am a minority and this is celebrating the struggle of our forefathers."

But he went on: "The industry needs to accept music that's a bit colourful. I am not a minority anymore, I am a majority. This is celebrating that."

Singh says he hopes he can now play a major part in the integration of Asian music into the mainstream.

But more than that, he says he wants to break down cultural barriers throughout the world of music so it can all be enjoyed just for what it is.

Life pattern

It's an ambition played out on his award-winning debut album OK - a work which moves between identities, cultures, destinations and languages.

What's more it does much to describe the pattern and philosophy of 28-year-old Singh's life.

Growing up in east London meant that as a child and teenager he unwittingly moved between different worlds.

One minute he would be at home with his Indian mother and father, who had come to Britain from Kenya after fleeing Idi Amin's regime in the Sixties.

[ image: Icelander Bjork: One of Singh's many influences]
Icelander Bjork: One of Singh's many influences
The next, he was breakdancing to electro with other young Asians, listening to Secret Affair and The Jam.

But it was only at the age of 15 that he got his first true taste for travel and his rich cultural roots.

After taking his exams early, he left school for India to learn the tablas - a percussion instrument consisting of two drums - with a master of the art, Pandit Lashman Singh.

He stayed a year and still visits his tutor every winter. But despite the pedigree of the teaching, on Singh's return to Britain he was rejected by the country's classical Indian promoters.

He also began to feel, for the first time, a conflict of interests in his own heart.

"There have been times in my life when I just wanted to play Indian classical music but that's where my identity crisis kicked in. I didn't feel it was really me," he recently said.

Conflict of identity

[ image: Singh eventually returned to his  Indiian instrumental background]
Singh eventually returned to his Indiian instrumental background
Soon he was going his own way, absorbing a whole variety of styles and sounds as he collaborated with Icelandic singer Bjork, Courtney Pine, Cleveland Watkiss, Little Axe, Bim Sherman and more.

He took up DJ-ing at Anokha, the club night he ran at London's Blue Note, and which became one of the 1990s' coolest venues.

In 1996, he also compiled the album Soundz of the Asian Underground - although it failed to find a strong distributor.

But the thirst for sampling and club culture began to wear off and Singh felt himself returning to his instrumental roots, which is where the award-winning OK came in.

Although written in London's Brick Lane, the album was formulated and recorded in a blur of travel between London, New York, Okinawa, Bombay and Madras.

On top of that, not all its influences were musical. The track Mombasstic, for example, relates to his father's ejection from Kenya.

Music for life

Future projects include another album, Soundz of the Asian Overground. He is also said to be planning more collaborative work with other artists.

[ image: OK: The title sums up Singh's musical philosophy]
OK: The title sums up Singh's musical philosophy
But whatever he goes on to do, the title of his prize album, said Singh in another recent interview, sums up the overall meaning and purpose of his work.

"It's the most common word in the world. You go anywhere in the world and people know what OK is," he explains.

"Music shouldn't have boundaries. That's the way I've always seen music. It's just language that everyone can identify with.

"That's the most valuable thing in music today. We're living in that time when things have got to unite."

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