Filmi in the House

Ten years ago Harpreet “Sunny” Singh graduated from a high school in suburban Milwaukee where, despite being the only Indian in his class, he had no problem fitting in. Only after he left did he think about why: “I had suppressed my own culture,” he says. “I just went to my high school reunion and I couldn’t believe that I came from there. People were doing country line dances and some people were still listening to Iron Maiden. I notice it now, but back then it was my life too.”

Singh, who was born in Burma (now Myanmar), emigrated to Chicago with his parents when he was seven; they moved to Milwaukee when he was a teenager, but throughout high school and college (at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee), he returned to the area frequently. In the summer of 1989, at a Sikh temple in Palatine that his family still attended, he met Manpreet “Tony” Talwar, another ethnic Indian teenager whose family had come from Burma. Singh was still into “Prince and Michael Jackson–whatever people in Milwaukee were listening to,” but Talwar was listening to Indian stuff, like bhangra (the popular music of England’s Indian immigrant community, derived from traditional Punjabi harvest music) and the scores to “Bollywood” movie musicals, known as “filmi” music. On a lark one day in the Talwars’ basement, the two decided to mix filmi with Chicago house beats–copped from records belonging to Tony’s older brother–and T.S. Soundz was born.

Over the years the duo has sold thousands of CDs and cassettes, performed all over the country, and become the first Indian act in North America to be signed to a major label in India. When I spoke to them, they were about to leave on a five-city package tour called Desipalooza, which also includes the British pop act Stereo Nation; England’s popular bhangra group B-21; and Sukhbir, a bhangra singer from the United Arab Emirates. The tour comes to Chicago’s Congress Theater on Friday at 8 PM.

In 1989 British-Indian star Bally Sagoo was already mixing bhangra with dancehall reggae, but Singh and Talwar say they hadn’t heard him at the time. One day in 1990, hoping to make enough money to buy a pizza, they dubbed ten cassette copies of their work on an ordinary tape deck in Talwar’s basement and tried hawking them to buddies outside a movie theater showing Bollywood musicals.

“I think they felt sorry for us, so they bought some,” says Singh. They took the remaining copies to music and video stores along Devon west of Western, but mostly they met with indifference. “They looked really shitty,” Singh admits. One shop, Al-Mansoor Video, finally took them on consignment; to the boys’ surprise, the store sold them all the same day and requested more. So Singh and Talwar bought 100 blank tapes from Kmart–“That was a big investment for us, like, 80 bucks,” says Singh–and dubbed them in real time from the same master cassette, which of course deteriorated a little with every play. Nonetheless, those eventually sold out too.

Talwar and Singh began presenting underground dance parties for the local Indian youth. They released eight more cassettes and sold almost 2,000 copies of each. Most were bought in Chicago, but the duo took advantage of trips to find new markets. While in New York for a wedding, Singh unloaded 150 tapes at one store, and on a jaunt to Toronto he and Talwar got busted for trying to smuggle several hundred of them over the border. Investing their profits in better equipment–a four-track recorder, sequencers, computers–they improved the sound quality of their releases.

At the end of 1994 they scrounged up just enough money to put out their ninth collection, Kick Back, on 500 CDs and 1,000 cassettes. They couldn’t afford artwork, so they sold the CDs in plain jewel boxes. Although the copies went quickly, it took months to collect enough money from distributors to pay for another pressing, and by that time bootleggers had cut them out of the market–even designing a cover for the record. (Bootleggers are a plague on the Indian music market; Singh guesses they do at least as much business in the U.S. as legal labels.) “There was no way we could beat the piraters’ price,” says Singh. “They were selling it for less than we could manufacture it for. But it helped us. We started getting calls from places like Australia and Singapore.”

Kick Back 2 came out in 1996, in an edition of 5,000 CDs and 5,000 tapes. It sold well, though within two weeks of its release, bootlegged copies began to appear. Over the next three years, the duo concentrated on performing, arranging gigs in locations as far-flung as New York, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Trinidad, Los Angeles, and Hawaii. At their seven gigs in Honolulu, which were mostly attended by non-Indians, they tried out some new original material alongside their remixes and were thrilled by the response. Singh says the group’s Indian fan base is conservative, with little interest in edgier English-Asian acts like Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation, or Fun’Da’Mental. “We played some of the experimental stuff we had been recording and that we could never play for the Indian community,” he says. “To see 1,000 people totally jam to it . . . it blew us away. We came back from Hawaii inspired, and we ended up making about 25 tracks.”

Last summer T.S. Soundz signed a one-album deal with RPG, an English branch of EMI-India. They recorded the new Kick Back 3–for which they properly licensed the music they remixed for the first time ever–earlier this year, but they’re more excited about the as-yet-unreleased Typhoon Asha, an album of the all-original tracks they laid down after Honolulu. The music on it isn’t far removed from what’s coming out of the English-Asian underground, mixing house and drum ‘n’ bass beats with original melodies, Indian percussion, and live vocals in Hindi and Punjabi. Ironically Singh’s search for ethnic identity has come full circle. “I want to reach beyond the Indian community,” he says. “I’d love to work with vocalists from all sorts of different backgrounds.”

Tickets for Desipalooza, which start at $35, are available through Ticketmaster, 312-559-1212, or at Al-Mansoor, 2600 W. Devon, 773-764-7576.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sunny Singh and Tony Talwar photo by Nathan Mandell.