East Asian Club Nights on the West Coast

Posted on March 5, 2006


Picture courtesy: newindpress.com


An East Asian influence in a West Coast nightspot? Baradwaj Rangan finds out more, in a conversation with musician Dhruva Ganesan.

MAR 5, 2006 – THERE ARE TIMES WHEN YOU’RE sitting across someone, speaking to them, when you see their mouth forming the words, you hear the sounds of those words, but they remain just that – sounds. If those sounds have meaning, you don’t know what they are.

I heard a lot of sounds from Dhruva Ganesan one afternoon in Chennai. Club Night. Visual DJ Mixing. Dub Reggae. Rave. Jamaican Club Culture. Glosterbrunksy. Okay, I made that last one up, but you’d have to be a bit of a musical encyclopaedia to keep up with this 27-year-old as he talks about Dhamaal. That, by the way, isn’t just another sound. It’s, as Dhruva puts it, “the name of [our] group and also the name of a monthly event, which takes place at a nightclub in San Francisco, among other cities.” (Ah, hence “club night.”)

The Chennai-born Dhruva is one of the producers in Dhamaal. (His family moved to the States when he was about four; they have now moved back to India.) That means he makes a lot of the music tracks. He’s also one of the percussionists. He’s also one of the DJs. Thankfully, he isn’t into fine art, so there is room for others in the band. “This group is a collective of artists – from DJs to classical musicians to fine artists to designers,” he explains. “It’s not just music. All of these skills filter into one presentation.”

Get it? This isn’t merely a bunch of kids going up on stage and spending the rest of the evening trying to blow the audience’s eardrums out. It’s “a presentation,” something like this: When you enter the club, the first floor has live classical music, from Hindustani to Carnatic to folk. You go downstairs and this is the dance floor level, where DJs are mixing all kinds of electronic music, along with percussionists and emcees. Here’s where there’s the Visual DJ Mixing, and that sound gets a meaning as Dhruva tells me what it is: using images to sync with the music.

“That’s our aesthetic,” says Dhruva, “the melding of the South Asian sound with the electronic sound.” He adds that Dhamaal is the first instance of a club night where this mix has happened, where an entire floor is devoted to each kind of music, so people can circulate between floors, or simply stick to the kind of music they prefer. This mix is there in the audience too. “It’s not just a desi party. Only about fifty percent of the crowd is probably South Asian. A lot of different communities converge, and even the group isn’t fully South Asian.”

Dhruva’s title of producer means he keeps shuttling between Dhamaal (the club night) and Dhamaal (the group). He wears the latter hat mostly when inside a studio, making a track. He writes the piece and constructs the electronics and makes the beats and the bass lines. He arranges it. He mixes and engineers the sound. Essentially, he does the things done by Janaka and Maneesh, the other main producers in Dhamaal. “We all have the same general aesthetic but very different approaches,” Dhruva explains. “Maneesh is very influenced by dub reggae, which came out of Jamaican club culture. Janaka grew up in London, in the heyday of rave, so his music has bits of that sound. With me, I’m the only South Indian in the group, so there’s a Carnatic influence in my stuff; sometimes Hindustani too.”

If you’re reading this, it’s thanks mainly to Janaka and Maneesh. “Janaka was having a house party in Berkeley, California,” Dhruva recalls. He had friends over, and one of the guests was a disciple of Zakir Hussain. He’d brought his tablas along and started playing as Janaka was DJing. People were really enjoying themselves, and they suggested that this mix would sound good in a club.” So you’re thinking at this point that Janaka and Maneesh founded Dhamaal. They didn’t! The club night they founded in 1999 was actually called Azaad; only later did it become Dhamaal.

Dhruva joined Dhamaal about four years ago, “from hanging out in similar circles. I started playing with them, and they said, ‘Why don’t you join as one of the percussionists!’ So I did. It was a very organic process.” Far less organic was getting his parents to agree. “Like all Indian parents, mine too had apprehensions about their son being financially secure and all that. But they’ve been very supportive of music throughout. My father is very much into Carnatic music, and my mother, Uma Ganesan, runs the Cleveland Cultural Alliance, which is now 15 years old; she produces classical dance dramas.”

It also probably helped that Dhruva was making ends meet through other means, through business consulting work. He did, after all, study Economics and Music at the University of Michigan. (Now that should have given his parents a clue!) “I also did summer programmes at the Berkeley College of Music,” he says, and traces his musical beginnings back to the time his folks had him play the piano. “But what I really wanted was to play the drums, which I started doing around 1990, in college bands and stuff like that.”

Not surprisingly for an instrumentalist, Dhruva is into Zakir Hussain, Shashank and, especially, U Srinivas, “who kind of broke the mould, being a Carnatic virtuoso on such a non-traditional instrument.” Dhruva does like vocalists – “Pandit Jasraj is great” – but for the most part, he listens to instrumentals, “not because it’s better or worse; I just gravitate towards it more.” That’s the classical side. The blame for his headbanging predilections would be shouldered by sources as varied as Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. [The latter] was one of my favourite bands right up to Californication. Then there’s this new artist called Deadbeat.”

Dead beat would also describe Dhruva’s condition now, as he’s at Columbia University, wrapping up a grinding graduate degree. “It’s a combination of International Business and South Asian Development Studies.” If you’re wondering how this will help a musician, you’re right. It probably won’t. But it will help a future entrepreneur who dreams of starting a company that does global artistic development, affording commercially viable opportunities to emerging artists from developing countries, “principally from South Asia, because my roots are here. Also, there’s so much talent here.”

Talent, shmalent… isn’t this essentially some sort of outsourcing? Dhruva nods. “But it isn’t just music. It could be design or motion graphics or whatever. Let’s say there’s a company in the west. If they need an internal marketing campaign, they could maybe get the jingles done from here.” Ask him if serious artists would sell their souls like this for a few lousy bucks, and he shoots back unfazed, “Hey, the money they get would help them continue with their art and not be struggling.”

That’s a long-term goal. In the more immediate future, Dhruva sees himself cutting a solo record. Then there’s the new bicoastal event he’s launched. “It’s called Sub Swara, and it’s presented by Dhamaal.” Then there’s the promotion work for the album from Dhamaal, the just-released-in-India Dhamaal Sound System. “I just played in Mumbai with Maneesh. It’s been a real honour,” says Dhruva. Is it enough of an honour to make him consider moving back for good? “For good I don’t know, given that I’ve spent most of my life in the States. But definitely for a few years. Given the nature of our music, it’s nice to get the opportunity to perform in both worlds.”

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