Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Nostalgia captured within music

Niraj Chag’s debut solo – an uplifting labour of love
By Ashanti OMKar (

This is the ultimate chill out album, combining 6 languages, a plethora of sweet instrumental sounds and stylistic vocals creating a magical ambience – music that transcends boundaries while sticking to the Asian/East African traditions Niraj was brought up with. Revealing his seamless fusion of pure Indian Classical Ragas (scales) like Dharbari Kaanada with electronica and drum and bass and creating a unique poetic lyrical flow, using sublime vocalists and instrumentalists – listenable harmonies in perfect pitch and wonderful production values makes it a must buy. Niraj Chag explores his debut album and the trek ‘along the dusty road’ of his musical journey with us.

Background, heritage and upbringing

My family originally comes from Gujarat, India. My grandparents moved to East Africa very early on in their lives (like many Gujarati families) seeking a better life for themselves and their families. My parents were born in East Africa and spent much of their lives there until the early 70s when Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda. Having British passports my family moved to Southampton where I was born. I had a very working class upbringing – both my parents were factory workers. Lucky for me, they were both very passionate about music – my Dad about Bollywood and my Mum loved devotional music. This combined with 80’s pop, soul and electronica (which my older brother introduced me to) was my early musical exposure.

Life as an Asian in Southampton

Fond memories are what I have, of my childhood in Southampton. I grew up in an ethnically diverse part of Southampton called St Mary’s. At the time it was a pretty rough neighbourhood – drug crime was rampant. I was quite free spirited and always did what I wanted to regardless of what people said. Some would say I was a bit out of control. Amongst them were my parents who decided we should move to a more suburban and middle class part of town. I was 11 at the time and I hated where my parents moved to. I felt incredibly isolated and alone. I had no friends in the new neighbourhood and I was the only Asian in my class. This was all quite strange to me as I came from a school which was incredibly ethnically mixed. It was in this isolation that my interest in music started to blossom - it was my release. I started further developing my keyboard skills. This was also the time when music technology was becoming increasing prevalent in production techniques. I started reading up on sampling and sequencing and nagged my Dad for years, to buy me a sequencing keyboard and sampler. Finally he relented and I started composing – I think I was about 15.

On studying music

I really wanted to learn music theory – and get my head around harmony and chord progressions. So I applied to do A’ Level music but was rejected on the grounds that I couldn’t read music or play an instrument to a sufficient enough grade. I was devastated – but in my mind there was nothing else I wanted to do so I kept hassling them to let me in regardless. They gave in eventually and I started the course. It was really difficult – I was in a class with students who had been learning music from a very early age and here I was trying to get my head around the basics. I kept at it and absorbed as much as I could but was asked to leave after a year – as I still couldn’t read music. I worked out a deal with my teacher Jane – who was such an inspiration for me. I wouldn’t moan about having to leave as long as I could continue attending classes regardless of not being on the course. She agreed.

Working at Mark Hills (Craig David/Artful Dodger) studio

I started working with Mark around 1995 – this was 4 years before the whole Artful Dodger and Craig David thing. It actually started as a work experience placement through one of my thousand college courses I was doing at the time (I changed around a lot). This was an interesting time as Mark was a struggling producer and there wasn’t much work actually coming in. As a result I got to assist quite a lot when work actually came in. It was such a fun time – I remember hanging out with the team there and watching old episodes of ‘The Fast Show’ I got really stuck in with the music and learnt a lot about pop production values. This experience really helped me when I started working with pop bands like Liberty X.

On moving to London

I moved to London about 10 years ago. I convinced my parents that I was coming here to study but my real motive was to try and get record companies to listen to my music and hopefully release it. So armed with my bag full of course books (I never actually read) and my four-track demo tape, I moved to London. My university attendance was terrible – I was never there. My time was spent mailing out demo tapes and calling record labels. My first break through came from licensing a track to the ‘Lost in Space’ compilation. Shortly after that, I got a record deal through Outcaste Records. At which point my university attendance dropped even further due to my release and promotional commitments.

The Outcaste (alongside veterans like Nitin Sawhney) records signing

Being signed to Outcaste was amazing. People still talk about the ‘Outcaste days’ with fond memories. It was such an exciting time. The Asian scene was being recognized – it was hyper cool and we were making some really interesting music. Outcaste provided me with an avenue to release the records I loved to make – and I was only 20 at the time.

Theatre work e.g. composing for 'Baiju Bawru'

Working in theatre is so refreshing for me. People are so passionate – I love working with people who feel passionately about their art. I really enjoyed doing ‘Baiju Bawra’. I had never even seen a musical and was given an opportunity to create one. So I went in with a totally open mind. That’s one of the greatest things I’ve learnt from theatre – to have an open mind and have confidence in your ideas, even if they break convention.

Music for dance - e.g. for Gauri Sharma Tripathi’s Kathak

I have so much fun working on dance projects – every time I work on one I feel I grow. Dance and movement has this primal spiritual aspect which I love to tap into when composing. I love the stuff coming out of the UK dance scene right now – it’s so cutting edge. I have a track on the album which I worked with Gauri on called ‘Kanya’. This track incorporates layers of Kathak Bhols. I have been working with Gauri for about 4 years now. She is an amazing artist.

Dum Dum Project (DDP) and Sean, 1 Shanti and transcending borders with the US element...

I started working with Sean ‘Cavo’ Dinsmore on the Dum Dum Project back in 2001. Sean had heard my stuff on Outcaste and wanted me to actually remix a DDP track (he started DDP in 1998 from NYC). It worked really well and we became good friends. I soon became one half of the band. Sean then introduced me to Shanti – a rapper from NYC, we then started featuring him on some of our tracks. We were all from totally different backgrounds but the whole setup just worked it was so organic. DDP has taken me around the world – we have had 2 top 20 hits in Thailand which was all a bit surreal and gigged all over Asia. It’s such a cool mix of UK Asian sounds with the US Urban flavour.

Styles of music, e.g. experimental Electronica, D+B etc...

I have had quite a journey musically. I started out doing quite a lot of Drum & Bass. D+B was a good place to start as it is very technical. The programming techniques people use are really advanced. It really pushed me to keep on top of my game technically. Now my sound is a lot more organic – I love natural instruments. I would say the album represents this duality. For example the earthy tones of tracks like ‘Bangles’ to the futuristic vibe of ‘Ghar’ although very different they just flow. I generally love experimenting with sounds. I’m lucky enough to work in so many different arenas that I can take influences from all of them as I evolve my sound.

Cinematic elements in your music – perhaps stemming from a love of Bollywood…

Bollywood music inspired me greatly as a kid. I think this influence is more evident with the song-based work I do. Songs seem to be the emphasis in Bollywood. The cinematic influences come mainly from Hollywood films where the background scores are such an important part of the film. The whole dusty road album was very visual it felt like I was scoring a film in my head.

Musical Inspirations

The biggest inspiration for me is meeting interesting, creative people. It’s so important to be open to what people are saying – I think perception is everything and I really try to understand where people are coming from. It’s important to try and see the world from someone else’s eyes now and again.

Views on the world today and favourite 'quiet' space for chilling...

The best place to chill is at my mum’s every Sunday when she makes the wickedest daal (lentils).

Solo album creation the inspiration behind it…

This album has been inspired by my grandmother and that generation of Asians who left their homelands in search of a better life. I remember the stories my grandmother told me before she died 7 years ago. Things like how she arrived in east Africa for the first time – there was some confusion so no one actually turned up to pick her up from the airport. So she ended up waiting for hours totally scared – not knowing this new land, until someone finally arrived to pick her up. This album’s about those feelings – Isolation, separation, hope, nostalgia. It’s incredibly personal.

Collaborations on this new solo album - voices e.t.c

There are some great musicians on this album. Melissa Baten – a British Asian singer/songwriter who worked with me on ‘Baiju Bawra’ - she has such a pure voice. Swati Natekar – Very established singer from Mumbai originally – stunning voice. Faheem Mazhar a classical vocalist from Pakistan – this guy is simply amazing. He has an amazing range and a passionate voice. There’s also Denyse Anyogu – an incredibly spiritual poet and of course Kathak artiste, Gauri Tripathi Sharma.

Myspace – the new global phenomena for musicians

I’ve just got my head around the whole myspace thing. It’s a great idea. What I love about it is the fact that you get exposure to audiences that you often don’t get through other media channels. It’s actually quite exciting logging on to see who has contacted me. It’s also a great way to communicate with like-minded people and dare I say ‘network’. There’s definite value in it.

Videos for the album tracks

The first video ‘Bangles’ was made by my brother, Ajay. He was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to work with me on the project. We scripted it together – he shot it and then I edited it. The video is about an old women looking back on her childhood and how she was married off at such a young age – at which point her life changed. We wanted the video to be moving – we got some great performances – Padma Sharma (Gauri Tripathi Sharma’s mother) plays the role beautifully

UK/World tour

Working on translating the album into a live set – Should be happening later on in the year.

Will Asian music to transcending to the mainstream again

I think its all about authenticity – let’s not be contrived in our efforts for any sort of mainstream exposure. People are intelligent and see through that. It’s important to simply be honest.

Messages for the fans...

Thank you so much for all your kind comments and feedback on my website ( and on myspace. It really does mean a lot to me that you guys feel the emotions this album is conveying. Thank you for all your support.


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