The New Sultan of Delhi
Taru Dalmia is about the closest thing India has to a Zach de la Rocha, and in his various projects, this Delhi returnee continues to rage against the machine.
When 30-year-old dancehall artist Taru Dalmia toured the United States for the first time earlier this year under his stage name, Delhi Sultanate, he played a juvenile detention centre in East LA. Backed by dub performers Sub Atomic Soundsystem, the crew set up a laptop and some speakers in a small, drab, grey classroom. The inmates were black and Hispanic kids. Dalmia suspects some of them were medicated, “numb” from anti-depressants. The set was only about 45 minutes long. Dalmia performed original tracks without a mic before giving his audience a chance to rap over the beats for themselves. The gig wasn’t a photo-op or covered by the press. Dalmia just wanted to do it.
“Some of those kids really tore it up,” Dalmia says. If this sounds like a bizarre approach for a rising musician to build a fan base in 2012, it is. But not much that Dalmia does fits the mould. To start with, he’s primarily a dancehall emcee. Dancehall employs a Jamaican vocal style tossed over bass-heavy electronic beats that sound like dubstep or up-tempo reggae. But the first time you catch sight of an Indian guy emceeing in a thick Jamaican patois, you’re bound to do a double take. Likewise, while most modern dancehall acts focus their lyrical content on booty shaking, bling, and power, Dalmia uses the form to tell the least fashionable stories of contemporary India – stories about the poor, about those faraway villagers that industrial modernisation has displaced. Whatever the man known as Delhi Sultanate is doing as an artist, he’s doing it his own way.
Dalmia is gaining global attention for his music these days: In April, the gig he played for Delhi’s Tihar Jail inmates with his band, The Ska Vengers, for which he is a lyricist and vocalist, made headlines in the Guardian. Soon after, one of the country’s biggest record labels, Universal Music India, attempted to sign them. But after reviewing the content in Dalmia’s lyrics about corrupt politicians, oppressed villagers and “dirty cops”, the label balked. According to Dalmia, Universal wanted them to rewrite the lyrics. The band declined. Times Music have now picked them up to release their debut album this autumn.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Dalmia’s musical exploits is Word Sound Power, a multimedia project driven by collaborations with Indian revolutionary folk singers of rural protest movements. The not-for-profit venture is an active expression of political solidarity. It was co-founded by Dalmia and American music producer Chris McGuinness in 2010, and has more recently involved filmmaker Kush Badhwar. What binds these three personalities together is a common understanding that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
“India used to have one project: a dam, a mining project over twenty years,” Dalmia says. “Now you have multinational corporations coming in with forty or more going over just a few years. And people like to go about their day here without thinking about what’s really going on in the jungles of places like Orissa. We [Word Sound Power] won’t let them ignore it.”
Dalmia keeps his hair in a crew cut. He’s lean, clean-shaven and athletic. He’s talkative, serious and speaks in clear and complete sentences, like chinks of prose. It’s not enough to say that he’s thoughtful or says thoughtful things in conversation. Dalmia is obsessed by, and accustomed to, engaging in philosophical discourse at all times.
His speaking accent – which offers only the subtlest hints of the Jamaican patois he appropriates as his stage voice – sounds otherworldly and untraceable, a product of his diverse background. He was born in Delhi to academic parents, an Indian mother and a German father, and raised in Germany from age one. He also did stints in Northern California and London.
When Dalmia returned to Delhi in the early 2000s, he moved to a property near India Gate that was owned by his late grandfather on his mother’s side, Ramkrishna Dalmia, one of India’s great Independence-era industrialists. The bungalow, which Dalmia believes dates back to the 1930s, still belongs to the family. The view from beyond the rusty iron gate reveals a palace of hard white pillars shaded by neem trees. Just beside that you can make out another symbol of old world India – a small satellite home that once served as the estate manager’s living quarters. It’s a separate space built to orbit around the world of a much wealthier man. It’s an unlikely place to find someone like Dalmia, who pens acidic poetry criticising the Indian elite.
When he speaks about his grandfather, Dalmia is aware of how he was an important figure. “He helped break British monopolies at the time of Independence. He ran The Times of India then, too,” he says. “My grandfather used to run India. He once had three houses like this,” he continues. “He used to keep his different wives in them.”
“That works,” I joke.
“Does it? To me it sounds sad and a little crazy,” Dalmia says.
We sit in a Spartan living area of the quarters, a place where he often writes. There are some bass boosted speakers and a few pieces of furniture, small futons and a mini-table. The walls are mostly blank. Folded into what looks like a tiny wooden closet is a small soundproof corner with padded doors that close around the user like a tiny cocoon. Dalmia sometimes records his vocals in there before shipping them off to collaborators.
It would be easy to assume that Dalmia has had a privileged upbringing, but he is quick to clear this impression.
“I wasn’t alive at the time that this [bungalow] was happening. My family had serious money troubles. Back in Germany, my pops [my dad] and I would sleep in the same room. We didn’t even have a bathroom then. All we had was an immersion rod downstairs.”
It was during this period of financial difficulty in Stuttgart when Dalmia found himself drawn to local minority communities whose cultural outlook influenced his teenage perspective, beginning the evolution that has led to the political and musical ideologies underpinning his work today.
As a kid, Dalmia was attracted to hip-hop music. He listened to Ice-T, NWA, artists he calls “raw and politically assertive”. As a teenager, he discovered reggae. It was a commodity that was difficult to find in Germany. “We used to have to go to all the way to Hamburg to get our reggae albums,” he recalls. “Because they had an African community.”
In Stuttgart, Dalmia watched young Turkish guys DJing and emceeing at a community centre with a sound system. At the centre, he got his first opportunity to try emceeing for himself. At around 15, he took the stage for the first time under his own name, Taru. He had parts of his lyrics written and the rest were free-styled. “I wasn’t nervous,” he remembers. It would be another decade before he would take the stage for the first time as Delhi Sultanate.
Apart from finding these subcultural outlets, Dalmia refers to his experience in Germany as largely one of an outsider. “I spoke German but I always held myself back,” he says. “Here in India you go to even some tiny little village and people have a context: They’ve heard of Shakespeare and Michael Jackson. But it doesn’t work the other way around. The West doesn’t understand the East.”
The next stop was Berkeley, California. Dalmia’s parents separated and he lived there with his mom. He kept to himself in school. And while his mother headed up the Asian Studies Department at the University of California, Dalmia learned first hand “how two economies, one legal and one illegal, could work seamlessly hand in hand in America,” as he puts it. He ran with a tough crowd. Drug dealers and thieves would be in and out of his living room, he says. Some of those guys are in prison now. But he also says that he felt as out of place with thugs as he did with his more clean-cut classmates.
“In America, you have that ghetto fabulous bubble and then there’s everybody else,” Dalmia recalls. “I was somewhere in between all that – alone.”
Dalmia found solace from his isolation through literature. He took advantage of Berkeley High’s independent study programs. There, under personalised tutelage, he read books like Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and the work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. It was this personalised education as a youth that helped to shape Dalmia’s moral compass as an adult. It formed what he refers to as his identification with the “ghetto and colonial experience”.
Dalmia returned to Delhi in the early 2000s because he felt he didn’t have a future in the US, where he was stuck working in a restaurant. He studied at Hindu College, and spent one year in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and finally, earned an MPhil at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Medieval Indian History, where he discovered the war poetry of Rajasthani Charans, religious or folk singers who he likens to gangsta rappers for the way their lyrics encouraged soldiers to fight. In his spare time, he became obsessed with martial arts, training all night and all day until his body was sore. “I was attracted to the discipline of it,” he recalls. But after this final stop at JNU, and around the time he stopped doing martial arts, Dalmia’s artistic voice began to speak. Taking the stage name Delhi Sultanate, which comes from “my love of history,” he says, “I started doing literary festivals and poetry slams as Delhi Sultanate without any beat at all.”
Then in 2009 he started emceeing with Martin Klein from Holland and Praxis from England, as Bass Foundation. It was a time, Dalmia says, when Delhi nightlife was primarily a five-star hotel scene and he and the two DJs introduced an alternative, by staging monthly drum and bass nights. Dilliwalas could get a taste of something more diverse now – Jungle, Dubstep and the vocal styling of Delhi Sultanate in the Jamaican patois, a lyrical expression of defiance against the elite.
“It was great fun,” Dalmia recalls. “I used to do sound system for those guys and we kind of created a scene for ourselves.”
The exposure of these performances introduced Dalmia to the members of The Ska Vengers who’d just played their first gig. At a Bass Foundation show, he met music producer McGuinness, who in the late 1990s used to work at the Cutting Room, a New York City nightclub, recording and mixing hip-hop acts like Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Lil Jon. McGuinness’ beats remind me of early English dubstep: dark, driving, and hypnotic.
“He [Taru] and I were right away on the same page,” McGuinness says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “We wanted to do something with politics.” McGuinness’ interest in global issues and music were a perfect match for Dalmia’s conscience-driven approach to making music. “For me it’s not just about a hot beat,” McGuinness says. “We want to do more than that.”
Dalmia expands on the impetus behind Word Sound Power: “We felt – we both still feel – that more work had to be done in portraying the social realities of India.”
To unite these interests, Dalmia felt it was important to incorporate voices from beyond his “urban experiences.” So he and McGuinness started expanding their reach into more remote parts of India.
Word Sound Power first drew notice in 2010 for their collaboration in the agricultural hinterland of Punjab, with the Dalit Sikh protest singer Bant Singh, whose story Dalmia discovered by reading an article in Tehelka. Singh, a local legend for his role as an activist challenging agricultural labour violations had his arms and left leg amputated after enduring a near-fatal beating at the hands of upper-caste henchmen in 2006.
“We called him [Singh] on his mobile,” Dalmia says. “He was really excited to have [other musicians] over. So, we just went to his place and only a short time after we got there we were jamming.”
The Bant Singh Project introduced Singh’s music and personal saga to a new audience of urban Indians and Westerners. According to Dalmia, suddenly high school and college kids, who had likely found the music online, would write to him and say “they were bumping Singh’s music”. That’s an endorsement that means more to Dalmia than any of the positive words the project has received from the press.
This pilot project helped form the aesthetic on which the group would build from in Orissa, where anti-mining resistance movements were linked to a rich tradition of folk protest music. He’d heard about this from friends and was immediately intrigued. So in August 2011, McGuinness, Dalmia and Bhadwar, the newest member of the project, went to the region of Kashipur, a key tribal area affected by mining corporations.
“In some of these villages [where we’ve recorded] you only heard silence and nature for the longest time,” Dalmia tells me. “Now the sounds of machinery and industrialisation starts creeping in. Chris records the environment around him and incorporates that into the music and video.”
While there, Word Sound Power had the word and sound, but often lacked the power. There was one shack in the village with electricity to charge equipment and it was typically out of commission. So to charge up they would sneak into the same industrial refineries that were the targets of their artistic aggression. “It was the first time in my life I ever remember looking at the orange light on a piece of equipment, just waiting for it to charge and turn green,” McGuinness says with a laugh.
The name of this project, Blood Earth, launched at Delhi’s Max Mueller Bhavan in July this year, comes from the red colour of bauxite, a mineral that keeps the ground fertile, its nutritive richness elevating surrounding villages into subsistence economies. It also helps to make aluminium for Coke cans and war machines.
Dalmia says what he observed there was difficult to stomach. Now, rather than making their living from farming, as they did traditionally, many Orissans have turned to stealing and selling scrap metal, something the corporations more or less permit in order to keep people earning and to eliminate excess trash from their refineries. Alcoholism is also rife. Where in the past, only older people consumed alcohol, today younger Orissans are more prone to alcoholism – blowing the few hundred rupees they make selling scrap metal on a local liquor called sahab.
An early peek at the Blood Earth project, which will be loaded onto the Word Sound Power website, included rough edits of documentary footage and music tracks featuring the singing of three unique performers: Bhagwan Majhi, a self-taught singer and leader of the people’s movement; Lima, an important resistance movement activist and Salu Majhi, a tall, blind bard who breaks into fits of musical storytelling not unlike free-style that sometimes last for days.
Although each of these characters evokes fascination on screen and in sound, Salu Majhi stands out. Impossibly tall and lanky, he stalks around a muddy patch of land playing a one-stringed instrument supported under his chin called the dundka. “The king is going mad, and I don’t know why,” he intones in his native Kui. The bard’s singing went for six hours straight until the equipment’s batteries finally died out.
It’s McGuinness’ job to bridge these unique voices with Dalmia’s deep baritone, over his own original electronic music compositions. In the track “Go Away”, Majhi’s song and Dalmia’s spoken word plays over electronic beats and sounds captured in the natural environment, such as the croaking of frogs. In these lyrics from the song, Dalmia assumes the perspective of a villager from Orissa resisting the unwanted influx of cops and companies:
Try and decline politely
When strange men first come round and declare say dem waan displace me
Waan come make me like Europe and America – go away – that kind of talk can’t bait me
Go away – but them come back again with a new talk to motivate me
Them bring a little bit a money to pay me she dem waan educate and a compensate me
Please go away –
Dem Come back again with a few thugs persuade me
Police start to intimidate
Violate the sanctity – and house and doors them break it
The traditional folk music that Word Sound Power recorded on their trip was originally written to be the determined anthems of a resistance movement, but the indigenous musicians performed them in what amounted to a revised, almost melancholic style. It acknowledges their disillusionment with trying to fight somewhat unbeatable forces. The darkness in these tracks sounds more like the eulogy for a movement that has failed.
Dalmia and I take a break from our conversation to eat thalis at the eatery in Andhra Pradesh Bhawan. After we return to his place, he gives me a Spanish brandy called orujo, we trade some rap music, and he shares some of his theories on heroism. Dalmia is intrigued by the desire some of us have to play this part.
“I think people want to experience themselves heroically,” Dalmia says. “Being a pimp or a drug dealer is a shit life, you know, but in gangsta rap, for example, they createthis world through music to glamorise it.”
Dalmia, like those rappers, makes urban music. It’s what makes him one of the few Indian artists I can think of who can find himself playing a show in an East LA juvenile detention centre. I ask him if he wants to experience himself as a hero.
“No,” Dalmia says after some thought. “I don’t.”
“If these [resistance] movements in Orissa are already defeated, what’s the point?” I ask him. “What are you trying to accomplish by choosing this material?”
“I think that could best be answered by thinking in terms of sound clash.”
Sound clash is a phenomenon in dancehall music not unlike a rap battle. Two sound systems go head to head. They try to outdo one another. Ideally, the end result is that both sides are driven to new artistic heights.
This style of performance is something apart from mainstream Indian entertainment, where economic aspiration plays such a big role, but Dalmia believes the middle-class dream – that “we’re on our way to becoming Europe”, as he puts it – is a lie.
“Right now I’m clashing against all the other voices that are out there,” Dalmia says. “I want to grab the imagination of these kids by defeating the crap they’re listening to now. I want to defeat the culture.”