Mrs. Rupa Sen, by all appearances a regular suburban Bengali housewife, opens our conversation with a dig of self-deprecation, accompanied by a proud smile. “How is it that all of a sudden the world is interested in my music? I am like a dead fossil.
I say something about the power of the internet to create new audiences and connect people in unexpected ways, especially for music obsessives like me. But it’s a good question. Why, nearly 40 years after its release, is the nerdy world of music collecting paying so much attention to a spur-of-the-moment homemade record in the Canadian Prairie city of Calgary?
The record may only have four tracks and was released on an obscure German label (Ovular), but it has an ambitious title: Disco-Jazz. Arguably no work of art since Tolstoy War and peace marked himself with so much nerve. Bursting with energy synonymous with disco but nuanced by long jazzy instrumental segments and sophisticated drum breaks, the music manages to both intrigue the mind and move the body.
Since its reissue in 2017, Disco-Jazz was hailed by critics as a “Holy Grail“, and like “Essential” and “Unavoidable”. He has been featured on music snobs websites such as Boomkat and was released – again – on March 29 by famed Chicago-based archival music company Group Number. Hugely successful, it has sold out worldwide and another release date will be announced soon. The original copies of the LP have been recovered hundreds of dollars.
What’s going on? Why all this fuss? What is the story behind this rediscovery”transcendent” “indian gemof world popular music?
After hearing the record, I wanted to know what happened to the creator whose face beamed so brightly from the cover. Was she alive? What happened after the release of the disc? Was she still singing? Several months passed before someone contacted me to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear: Sen was alive and well. And she lived in Kolkata.
When the Skype camera turned on, Rupa Sen née Biswas greeted me with a namaskar and that contagious smile. She was accompanied by her son, Debayan, and her niece, Anneka, to help, if necessary, to bridge the language gap.
Sen grew up in the 1970s in Calcutta, a typical middle-class Bengali girl, but “fairly liberal”. There was music in the family. “My mother, Sabita, was my first guru, and she taught me to sing classical music,” Sen said. But the 1970s generation looked beyond Indian shores for their music like the Beatles and Tom Jones. And of course, the voices of Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar were everywhere. “My dream was to sing in playback,” Sen said.
She performed in small shows around town, but in an era before multiple TV channels, FM radio and YouTube, there was only one way to reach large audiences – All India Radio. Sen approached the broadcaster’s Calcutta station in 1978 and auditioned. “I didn’t make it the first time, but I tried again,” she said. “After a second audition, AIR aired me singing a pop song.”
Unsure of a career in pop, Sen was admitted to the University of Calcutta and began studying biology. She continued to sing “here and there”, until a family vacation in Canada finally opened up the world of music to her..
“In August 1981, we went to visit my older brother, Tilak Kumar Biswas, in Calgary,” Sen said. day of our arrival. Some members of the local Indian community were also invited. “So impressed” were the audience members with her singing that they asked her “to do a public show”.
A few days later Boris Roubikane Hall at the University of Calgary was booked for a live performance by Geet and Ghazal. About 1,000 people attended, including boundary-pushing sarod player and son of Ali Akbar Khan, Aashish Khan. Sen sang for three and a half hours that evening, and Khan was thrilled enough to approach her brother. “My brother and Aashish had known each other for a long time and were good friends,” she said. “After a few days, Aashish came to my brother’s house and we started doing jam sessions together. We even performed together on local TV. It was after this show that Aashish offered my family to do a recording.
As time was running out – the Biswas family were due to leave for England for the second leg of their summer vacation in a week’s time – Khan assembled a group of local studio musicians at the home studio of drummer and producer Richard Harrow, who was known as living room. There in the studio were Harrow and a local Calgary guitarist and Khan student, Don Pope. Pope, who had nurtured an interest in Indian classical music since his teenage years, would embark on a tour of India the following year as part of Khan’s fusion group, the Third Eye Band. There was no doubt then that he would support his guru in this impromptu recording event.
Over the next week, Sen went to the studio for three to four hours each day and sang lyrics composed by Khan’s wife, Saroj. The lyrics weren’t complex, but like the opening track of Disco Jazz, Moja Bhari Moja (Fun, Great Fun), they fit the spirit of the times, which was all about dancing and having fun.
Disco-Jazz is anything but your usual 1980s disco record. It manages to use the shape, sounds and structures of club dance music to achieve another level, which, while not exactly jazz, is something entirely its own form.
Although belonging to a much decried genre, the musicality on Disco-Jazz was remarkable. It’s not hard to see why critics swoon over the record. Fast drum beats and funky basses hold the low end firmly in place and create wide space for Pope’s guitar – by turns hypnotic and searing rhythm – and the inevitable waves and swirls of the synthesizer. Pranesh Khan, Aashish’s brother, fills in the gaps with beautiful tabla rhythms. But the clear instrumental hero here is Khan’s sarod, electrified and amplified for this special occasion. It’s this unexpected and exotic sound that makes the songs so different from other disco music of the time. That and the fact that they are sung in Bengali.
Soaring above all the fast-moving musical traffic, Sen’s voice shimmers and glides – she’s as adept at scattering as she is singing or even pouting flirtatiously. What stands out, however, is how natural she is in the studio. Small live gigs in your hometown are one thing. But it’s as if finding himself in a studio surrounded by crack musicians, Sen gets rid of his inhibitions and enters his destiny.
“It was my first time in a studio but I was so excited,” Sen recalled. “We recorded everything live.” There was even an appearance on Calgary TV. Were you nervous? “No. I was enjoying the attention. Being there with Khansahib and Don Pope. It was amazing.”
After the recording was completed, Sen packed her bags and flew to the UK to visit other family members. Although the experience was thrilling and far too short, “all the musicians have become friends and visited me in India over the years.”
Following the recording, Sen’s two brothers financed the production of the LP and in October 1982 the record was released in India. “It was in the shops of Calcutta, but…”
“Around the same time Nazia Hassan’s record came out,” Sen said. The young Pakistani singer from Karachi had become a pan-Asian sensation after her debut in Feroz Khan’s Hindi film. Qurbani in 1980. By the time Sen’s Disco-Jazz came out, Hassan and his brother were flying high not only in the subcontinent but also across Asia and the UK. Legend has it that the siblings Disco Deewane sold around one lakh copies in Bombay alone shortly after its release.
Given the lack of hype and the absence of a major label, Disco-Jazz struggled to get much airtime. “It was so exciting to see the record in stores, but unfortunately the Nazia craze made it difficult,” Sen said. While she sang several “songs around Calcutta in various shows”, such as Ke jeno aakashe rong e rong tuli diya (As if someone had added colors to the sky with a paintbrush) – the music and lyrics of “Sudhin Dasgupta, who was my guru” – and Aami jodi hotam mago vhor belakar phakhi (Mother, if I were a morning bird), her time in the limelight was to be set back decades.
Sen views the recent attention his little record is garnering with mixed feelings. As someone who “loves attention”, she is thrilled that her record is reaching new audiences. She has created pages on Facebook and other social media platforms. “But nobody asked my permission to release the record,” she said. “I haven’t received even a rupee from any of these companies, even though it’s my name, picture and voice on the record.”
With dreams of stardom and professional singing seemingly unfulfilled, Sen embraced the life that was available. But there is no trace of regret or bitterness. “I believe my life is like a coin,” she said. “Rupa Biswas is just one side. On the other side, there are other things which are equally important and good. Over the years, Sen has served as a music and beauty columnist for Aajkal journal, teaches students math and science, raises a family, and takes up painting, gardening, and embroidery. “And I still sing.”