Following our piece about the new BassFoundation Roots Sound System, we got into a more candid interview with Taru Dalmia and how he came about doing all the things he does. It was a very personal conversation, some of it a revelation to read. Taru spills all beans possible and makes clear about his years growing up, his music, where his attack on capitalism comes from.
Where and when did you start MCing? What was it that led you to take the plunge? When did you realize that this was something you’d make your life about?
When I was 15 we started our own sound system called Tallawah Vibes. In my town, there was a youth center called Epple Haus. The center is named after Richard Epple, a 17 year old youth from the same town I lived in who had been mistaken as an RAF member by police and shot dead in a car chase.
It all started in Epple Haus. The people running the center were very kind to us. They let us use the basement which was the club part of the house and had turntables and a decent sound system for practice. Me and 3 friends started saving up to buy records, we would meet there every week and would soon organize our first dance/party there. We started doing regular nights at the age of 15/16 that attracted a couple of hundred people. I became the MC of the collective, apart from our own sessions; I would grab the mic wherever I got a chance. People knew me in the area and other crews were always happy to let me get on and toast or rap over an instrumental.
Your delivery is that of the Jamaican patois and your voice is about the corrupt practices and the ill-doing, corrupt system. How do the two of them match and is there a reason to bring this style to an Indian audience.
Patois is the language of reggae music. It originated in Jamaican ghettos and has in the meantime become a global language of reggae but also in hip hop. I learnt Patois listening to reggae music and am most comfortable singing in patois. I was born in Delhi and moved back here in 2000. That’s the reason it’s here now. People ask a lot of questions about the use of patois and that in itself is interesting to me. For instance, if one sings in American English or performs on a theatre stage in India with a British accent it is considered normal, speak in English from another colony and people start raising questions at once. JA to my knowledge is the only colony that managed to export it’s for of English globally. Hip hop music has done this to an extent with Ebonics as well.
Did your travel and life abroad affect your understanding of Indian troubles? Was your education also an aid for you to pick up problematic socio-political subjects in your music?
Yes, growing up in Germany I was not part of a privileged class. We faced racism, were discriminated against and did not have a lot of money. I also used to be afraid of police harassment. These sort of experiences tend to make you view life differently. I spent some time in America as well and witnessed some of the darker, more violent aspects of the American dream.
The music I listened to, the books I started reading all helped me to process this experience and understand it in a historical context. Reading Pramodiya Ananta Toer, Frantz Fanon and Ashish Nandy as a kid helped me to make sense of what was happening around me. So yeah, both life experience and education formed me as a person. Also, I lived in the Bay Area, this is where the student movement of the 60’s originated and also home of the Black Panther Party. If you live in the Bay, unless you’re in some yuppie gentrified San Franciso bubble, this tradition will rub off on you.
Your family background is nothing short of affluent and yet your words on stage are contrasting. It is common to see you cursing the capitalist, whilst being born in an Independence era Industrialist family. How does that work?
I did not grow up rich. As a youth, we lived off my mother’s salary who was teaching Hindi in Germany at the time. My father was trying to finish his PHD. There was not a lot of money, we had to be careful but we always had good quality food to eat and clothes to wear. We used to save so that we can come to India every year with the family. There was a period when I was 11 and my parents separated which was tough. I left my mother and stayed with my dad. We rented a small room in the attic of an old lady. My father was doing a course in nursing as his Ph.D. That was not working out as my mom had been the bread earner before. We lived in one room together, part of the room functioned as kitchen. We didn’t have a bathroom but used a bucket bath with an immersion rod in the basement. I was used to bucket baths from India and my father always made sure the place was comfortable and there was plenty food. My father is not an industrialist as some people think from my family name. He now works as a zen priest, he is a working man, a great cook and an excellent carpenter.
When I was 16, I moved to California with my mother, she got a position as a professor in Berkeley and went on to head the South Asia department there. She received a good salary and life changed for us. I had family in the Bay Area and I did not like America. It’s a violent and awfully racist place. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I finished my high school there and worked odd jobs, at first I didn’t have a work permit so I worked illegally as an attendant for a disabled person. Being an attended involves a lot of different kinds of work. I had to clean the man’s house and cook all his meals. Then wake him up, wash and clothe him. change his catheter etc. I used to look after his pets as well and even did some carpentry work. I learnt a lot. I used to save my money and buy records. A lot of tunes you here on the BFR system were bought during this period. Later I worked in restaurants and catering services. Not really bright career prospects. I was too young to go to clubs and music venues and I used to make music with my cousin who was making gangster rap. Though I come from a very academic family and was always into books and ideas, in America I did not have the confidence to go to college. It’s only after moving back to India that I began going to college and that my life normalized. It was also odd that coming back to India, I was at once part of an extremely privileged class. Both because of my family name, my address and the fact that I was a foreign return. My class, caste and privilege here continue to be a source of unease.
I live in the heart of Babylon. Behind the Intelligence Bureau and down the road from Nitin Gatkari. I see how people cower in front of perceived wealth and power. When police came to my house because my number showed up in their phone records of one of the JNU kids they had been hunting, they spoke in soft voices with extreme politeness. If I had been a Kashmiri kid staying in a barsati somewhere they would have assumed a different tone and thrown their weight around. Now that I am back in India, should I represent the class interests of my caste and class? No, I grew up with reggae music, with the tradition of Garvey, I was in Cali as a youth and hung out with sons and daughters of the panthers. I’m going to look elsewhere for solidarity, strength and unity. I know what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. I know how to sing in Patois and play reggae music so that’s what I’m going to do.
When and why did you come up with Word Sound Power? Who all did you collaborate with? What were the major difficulties that you faced in the collabs and production?
I started Word Sound Power with Chris McGuinnes in 2009. I’d had the idea for a long time. I have moved back in 2000 and always felt that the only way for me to practice reggae music here in a meaningful way would be to find connections with Indian traditions that share the revolutionary ethos. So far we have collaborated with Bant Singh, Bhagwan Majhi and Lima from Kucheipadar Orissa, and Gaddar from Telangana. I cannot rank them because each experience taught us a lot and was very special to us. Bant Singh was the first person we worked with so working with him is what started us on this journey. Each project is unique and took us into a new world. In Orissa, we spent time in an Adivasi village, being able to step out of our own social context in and off itself was an invaluable experience. We also learnt a lot about how people have used culture and music to forge unity against powerful enemies. We saw with our own eyes how the Indian state will collude with powerful corporations against their own citizens. We saw a colonization process unfold in front of our eyes. We also saw magnificent nature and lush forests. We experienced, even if shortly, a different way of living.
Gaddar was another ball game, he is larger than life. Seeing how he worked and hearing about his life and the history of the struggle from him was inspiring.
Is Samara aka Begum X a part of BFR soundsystem as well? What role did she play in getting it in place?
Begum X is vital to the system. She is part owner and has been a part of this from the start. We ran the crowd funding campaign together, she also designs all the graphics. The graphics as everything else is very important because they need to be a visual representation of our vision. Apart from this she also sings and is a performer on the sound. She is also a brilliant organizer with an incredible eye for detail. A lot goes into curating and creating an event. Someone has to think of and put up banners, candles, place lights, arrange the book store, where to place the sound etc. A lot of things that are taken for granted by a person who just comes to the dance have to happen in order for the event to take place, for people to be comfortable and for us as performers and the people who come to be a sense of freedom and unity.
As expressions against fascist rule and the rich-poor disparity, your work is great probably a first such project seen in the country. But at the same time having events in big cities with rich kids as audience doesn’t seem like a wasted effort?
Sometimes it seems like a wasted effort, at other times it doesn’t. I think our strength is that we can insert a certain discourse and politics into spaces that are otherwise apolitical. I’m striving to play in more inclusive venues and I don’t think our audience is only rich at all. The people who came to Champa Gali, the kids who came to our show in JNU, a lot of the kids who hear the Ska Vengers at festivals or venues are not rich. A lot are kids who are already politicized and many are not. If rich kids come to the shows then I’m glad they are listening to us instead of David Guetta. The rich need to interrogate how society is organized around them and where their position lies.