Banner Image PC: Dhruv Immortal
Our connection to Taru Dalmia started in 2019, in a pre-pandemic world, when UW. designer David Keyte was on a fabric trip to Delhi, India. David stumbled across a festival which we now know to be Bass Foundation Roots, with an incredible hand-built Jamaican-style sound system. He was taken aback by the music, the atmosphere and the message they shared: "No Borders, No Nations, Just People".
BFR is created and ran by Indian reggae artists Delhi Sultanate (aka Taru) and partner Begum X (Samara Chopra) also lead singer of India's first ska band - The Ska Vengers.
We have wanted to create something with Taru for a while, however, the extremely challenging situation in India put our plans on hold until now. Last week David and Taru had a conversation about his practice in more detail. They discussed the sound system, the ethos of BFR and Taru shared the story behind the powerful message he channels through music.
A big thanks to Taru for putting an incredible set together for us, indulging us with dub and reggae specials. Enjoy.
David: I loved my experience at the BFR Sound System , it really blew me away on so many levels. How long have you been running the system and when did you become a Reggae DJ?
Taru: I've been a reggae DJ on and off since 1996.. though with decade long gaps in-between. I moved back to India from the Bay Area in 2000 and at the time, having a reggae scene here seemed a distant dream. My professional musical journey in Delhi began in 2009 as an MC for a drum and bass soundsystem when a small bass music scene was just coming into being here. I also worked as a lead singer for the band The Ska Vengers along with my partner Begum X.. who also runs the soundsystem with me today. In 2015 we ran a successful crowdfunding campaign and were able to buy state of the art amps, build the speaker boxes and also purchase the red van. Building the system came from a desire to break out of the confines of the club and festival scene. We felt that this was not the best context for music or certainly shouldn't be the only one... it seemed like a way to circumscribe and control the power of people getting together to move their bodies in unison.
PC: Swaraj Srivastav
David: There was a real “international “ crowd the night I was there, with accents I heard from UK, Australia, USA, Northern Europe as well as local Delhites of course. Delhi being the capital there are many offices and embassies and global companies whose staff have an international perspective. But I know you also travel a lot in India and take the sound system, dub and reggae to a more regional India audience, is there a difference in your approach to the place and where you are playing?
It's not so different whether we're in the countryside or the city, the basic building blocks are the same but sometimes we have to work harder to make people connect, especially if we're playing somewhere for the first time... we always have the book store there and we try to collaborate with local artists (not necessarily just musicians, poets, performance artists, dancers or visual artists are all welcome provided we can arrive at a shared understanding). The main difference is that when we go to a new area, we try to do a workshop the day before for local singers.
We introduce ourselves and talk to them about reggae music, where it comes from and what it represents. And then, we introduce them to the MCing concept, the fact that most 7" records have the instrumental on the b-side and that if they connect to an instrumental and feel that one of their songs fits, they can come up to me and request the riddim. We give them a chance to experiment with riding on riddims so that they get comfortable with the idea and don't feel inhibited on the day of the dance. It's very important to connect to local MCs, folk singers and poets. They can speak about local concerns and bridge the gap between Jamaican music, us and the locals there. I also fantasise about the idea of having a lecturer or local leader sometimes addressing people at a soundsystem session. Musically, reggae music is so vast and diverse that we generally manage to find something instrumental that individual singers can connect to, even if you're dealing with say a rapper, or traditional singers. Who we align ourselves with in a given community is also very important because it sets the tone and determines how people perceive us.
We make sure to work with people that share a similar vision to ours. Having our own system has freed us from the industry and has been so enabling. For instance, there might be someone who has a deep relationship with their community and can mobilise thousands of people but who may not have the money needed to rent a PA system and organise a festival. We have our performance and the soundsystem to contribute and we can then see if we can create something meaningful together... to try and find ways to enhance and contribute something to our respective work. When we play somewhere for the first time, we try to ask someone who has trust and standing in the community to introduce us (especially if we're in a place where don't speak the same language). Other than that, we realised over the years that we don't need to switch things up too much, the power of the bass and analogue warmth of the soundsystem do their magic... the Jamaican founders of this culture, in their infinite wisdom, developed a technology that affects the human organism by taking bodies over with sound. Analogue music played over a good and powerful soundsystem never fails to energise people and to create a sense of well being. We also make sure to keep going back to the same places year after year so that we can deepen the sessions and our relationships to places and people.
PC: Swaraj Srivastav
David: It was great music, but it was also so much more than just music and dancing, I loved the book shop, the vinyl and gift shop and cultural vibe. Is this always part of the mix in your events? Do you have a favourite book and record to recommend?
Taru: You're right, the book shop is an integral part of the sessions and travels everywhere with the system. We wanted to make sure that people see that it's about much more than music and we wanted to give people access to the world of ideas. Also, the book shop is a place where conversations can happen as opposed to the system or the DJ area. Since 2018, we also increasingly started working with performance and visual artists who exhibit or present their work, provided they feel inspired by the space. This allows us to open up multiple layers of communication among people in the arena... something for the body, something for the mind... When it works this can make the whole thing richer and more meaningful. I think that's what the elders speak of when they say 'Word, Sound, Power' Ideally, you'd want the music, the movement and the other forms of artistic expression to enhance and complement each other. The dance you went to took place in an old community center... they had an old badminton court.. and we found that introducing an element of play and games also adds something nice to the gathering... A lot of the artists who work with us are tired of gallery spaces... the same way that we found that music festivals and clubs can dull the radical potential of music and togetherness...
Favourite books keep evolving.. at present I loved Jenny Odell's How to do Nothing. It talks about reclaiming our attention, the power of refusal and something she calls bio-regionalism... to be acutely aware of where we are at a given time, the history of the place, people, animals and ecology .. to deepen our relationship to ourselves, each other and our surroundings as a basis for resistance. ...As for records, I love original foundation Dub music, we often find ourselves in places where people may hear reggae music for the first time.. I think it's important to give people access to the visionary power of foundation dub music.. which was and still is so ahead of its time! Augustus Pablo and King TUbby meets Rockers uptown for instance.. or Lee Perry's Blackboard Jungle ...
PC: Swaraj Srivastav
David: It was also very political and you seemed not afraid to maybe say things that those in political power might not be happy with, you were outspoken in a very considered, passionate, honest and I thought justified way. Is this normal at BFR?
Taru: To try to be outspoken is also a regular feature of BFR Soundsystem sessions, it goes with the ethos of the music. It would not be right to play reggae music in India and not try to make connections with what's happening here and how the deep feelings and convictions of the music can relate to our struggles.. to our reality.. India is going through a terribly repressive and dangerous time.. sometimes it feels like we're on the precipice and we may not make it.. it's armagideon like Willie Williams would say... Its gotten to a point where not to acknowledge whats happening and not to speak on it is immoral and humiliating and can feel like a terribly lonely and desolate place... . We need to energise and give courage to each other. We need to build networks of trust and solidarity. I believe that music can play a small role in this... I recently read Audre Lorde's essay The Power of the Erotic and it made a deep impression on me... Going forward, I'd like to pursue this with more clarity and intentionality.
David: Lastly and I guess hugely connected to question 4 , I loved the slogan of No Borders, No Nations, Just People, can you please tell us more about what you mean with this?
Taru: India, like many former colonies, is going through an aggressive phase of nationalism and identity politics...perhaps this is a reaction to the humiliation of colonialism and the epistemicide of the past centuries, the destruction of indigenous knowledge systems. I think much of the world suffers from collective trauma and the aggressive and toxic nationalist discourses that are proliferating everywhere give lost souls a false sense of strength and belonging. They are inherently violent and exclusionist.
We need to evoke different ways of imagining community... The modern nation state is historically a very recent phenomenon though today it's the dominant way the world is organised.. to the point where people think it's the most self-evident and natural thing in the world... though it's the opposite.. it's unnatural.. and contrived and can be maintained only by great force... we need to loosen the stranglehold these narrow concepts have on our minds.. People don't know their own history and have simply forgotten how cosmopolitan south asia as a region used to be through the ages. It's the place, where after Africa, modern humans have lived for the longest period of time... people have come here and settled from all over the world... Up until the 1600 it would not be uncommon for parts of India to be ruled by people from Ethiopia (Habshi Sultanate in Bengal, Malik Ambar in the Deccan, the kingdom of Janjira.... ) this is something most people don't know and couldn't imagine today.