Mindful connection: Baalti are the Californian duo shifting perceptions on South Asian sounds

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What have you guys been up to recently?

J: We’ve been busyyyy, we just put out three singles that lead up to a five-track EP that’s dropping super soon. It’s our favourite project yet, and definitely our most fully realised and coherent one so far. We’ve also been cooking up hella new music. Been on a real creative spurt the last couple of months, and now we’re sitting on about two more EPs’ worth of tunes that will be fully ready to rip after this one drops. There’s also a remix bundle in the works for this EP, and it’s shaping up really well right now! We roped in some of our favourite producers to remix the songs, and they’ve come back with some proper heaters. Wish we could share more details right now but more on that soon.

M: We’re also spending a couple of months visiting our families so we squeezed in a bunch of US shows before leaving… and I’m just realising that we played five out of six consecutive weekends. It was super fun but we’re definitely enjoying a bit of rest now.

How did you both meet? And at what point did you start Baalti together?

M: We met on the first day of college in the US since we were freshman year floormates, so we’ve been friends for almost 10 years now! We did a lot of music stuff together during that time before Baalti existed like playing in jam bands and going to festivals. Baalti started a few years after we graduated, when we were discovering a lot of incredible old South Asian records and started sending sample flips back and forth, trying to put our own spin on them. Over the course of a few months we landed on a consistent sound that felt really good to us – it was like a bunch of house tunes that we had wanted to hear but didn’t really exist yet. Before we knew it we were sitting on an EP’s worth of stuff that we really wanted to share, and Jaiveer moved into my apartment for a month so we could polish and mix it down properly. I think Baalti officially became a thing when we invited a few friends over for a listening party at our apartment in SF that summer.

J: Also part of the thing was, we were hearing what other people were doing at the time with South Asian sounds in electronic music, and it just seemed like something was off. It was either very Western-catering (we’ve seen rooms of white people doing yoga to deep house with sitar), or it was just straight up cheesy and watered down, like slapping a kick drum under a tabla sample. It seemed to miss the point.

You guys connected through a mutual love of finding old Indian sounds – has that process helped you both to connect more with your South Asian heritage?

J: Yeah for sure, but that’s also a tough question to answer. We both actually grew up in India, so we never felt a need to ostensibly “connect” with our heritage, we were both just in it. It’s like fish don’t need to “connect” with water. But we’ve been in the US for almost a decade now, so we’re just about starting to feel like immigrants and confronting questions about cultural identity in new ways, starting to question why we’re living away from home and what home means to us, and what we carry forward with us when we’re not at home. And since starting Baalti, we’ve been forced to think about these questions way more – like what do we want to represent, and what’s the essence of the culture we’re highlighting? We could probably pretty quickly slap together UK funky edits of Chhaiya Chhaiya or some other nostalgic banger, but does that feel authentic and true to us? Or is that just watering down and Westernising that music? And when people hit you up in your DMs saying they feel culturally represented and personally addressed by the music, you just can’t half-ass it, you end up thinking about these things way more.

Read this next: How clubbing is helping young British South Asians explore their creativity and identity

M: To add to that, because of Baalti, we’ve also discovered a lot of South Asian music from eras and cultures that we probably wouldn’t have heard otherwise. As we follow those threads and think about the questions Jaiveer mentioned, we try to be pretty intentional in how we tell stories through our sampling and production. It feels more important now since people are resonating with the way our connection to our heritage shows up in our art. We didn’t set out to be representatives of the diaspora, but we wanna show up mindfully while making bangers that feel true to us.

J: Totally, all we’re trying to do is express ourselves through the music, and our personal cultural identities are parts of that so they naturally make their way into the music.

You have an impressive technique for sampling old tracks – how do you go about choosing which samples to use? And what is the process like in regaining a modern sound?

J: When listening for samples we usually just ask ourselves: “Does it slap?”. To us, things with masala, flavour, spice – that’s what slaps and that’s what we’re drawn to, things that capture the essence of the music. The visual representation would be a bowl of chow mein or rogan josh with a glistening layer of oil on top and peppers floating in it. To me that slaps. In these older South Asian records, that usually manifests as deep hypnotic grooves, dusty percussion, and spiky resonances. Either that, or just straight up sincere emotion, expressed simply – like with our tracks ‘Staying in Touch’, or ‘Buttons’.

M: One of the reasons it’s been easy for us to select samples together is that we’ve had a shared definition of what “masala” means from the very beginning. As for modern sounds, those are more a byproduct of us creating music that channels our inspirations and influences, a lot of which revolves around bass music and UK underground music right now. We just make sure that they complement and play nicely with the bits from the samples that we consider to be flavourful. Nothing should overpower the masala.

J: Also, when it comes to sample selection, something that is important to us is maintaining the essence and heart of this music and not representing it in a way that exoticises it. That matters more than ever right now since there’s such a big spotlight on “diasporic” music scenes and the “global south”.

M: Yeah – living in the US, we’ve seen a lot of tablas and sitars tossed onto beats and called “tribal house” or something. Those sounds can often feel like they’re playing into stereotypes or like they’re executed carelessly or indifferently. In reaction to that, we’ve tried to think about how to represent South Asian-ness in ways that feel dimensional to us based on our experiences, and we’ve never really been drawn towards those super “on the nose” South Asian sounds.

J: We’re not really into rinsing nostalgia by making d ‘n’ b flips of Bollywood tunes or whatever either. That’s cool, and can be a genuine way for people to connect with the culture if they’re not from here, or reconnect with it if they’re part of the diaspora – we totally see that and respect it. But if you’re from the region then you’ve probably already heard wedding DJs in India do that stuff for decades, so it’s probably not very interesting or new to you and it isn’t pushing the sound much. There are a lot of producers now like Ahadadream and Malfnktion (his newer stuff especially), who are digging deeper and taking this music to the next level entirely, using modern tools and frameworks of dance music while retaining the essence of the South Asian-ness. Tthat essence can be way more subtle, like the groove and “feel” of percussion, or the very specific EQing and mixing done on old South Asian records. It can be hard to pinpoint it exactly and zone in on that “masala”, especially if you’re looking at this music from the outside.

M: Sonically, that can manifest as us highlighting artefacts in the samples that someone else might cut out. Although it’s easier to use clean samples, we don’t really stray away from really noisy or low-quality recordings. It’s pretty common for us to take a really dusty sample and EQ out some “mud”, only to immediately notice that the power and flavour is gone, so we end up keeping that stuff in.

J: It’s not even about the samples and instrumentation sometimes – we might hear a song with no traditional samples and it might still feel familiar in more subtle (and powerful) ways. Like in ‘Staying in Touch’, the main stuttery lead isn’t an Indian instrument, it’s just regular keyboards that we’ve chopped up and resequenced in a way that makes it feel more familiar. Even on ‘Wedding Season’, the main percussion is a timbale, which is more Latin than South Asian. It’s just the feel and groove with which we’re sequencing it that makes it feel like we’re at a shaadi or ganapati visarjan or something.

That question of “what do we wanna represent?” gets even more critical to answer when a lot of your audience is Western, and there might be tension between what sells to that audience, and what we think is true to our culture. Success in this scene is also gatekept by Eurocentric media, which makes that relationship a lot more complex. How do I grow as a producer, while making sounds that are truly authentic to me, but also appealing enough to get approval from the West? It’s tricky, and there’s definitely some heavy post-colonial undertones there.

Read this next: A deep dive into South Asian electronic music

There’s also this weird thing where music made by the diaspora often gets more attention than music made by people who still live in the native regions, and that’s because the places where the diaspora live often have a lot more resources and influence in the dance music world, so if you’re making “diasporic sounds” (like us in SF), there are way more chances of you being noticed than if you were doing it in India. I wonder how our music would have been received and who would have picked it up if we released it while living in India instead of SF…

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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