Ghettos to glory hasn’t been a cakewalk for Bally Sagoo, celebrated by the British Asian music scene as the “godfather of Bhangra.” Taking brickbats, earning bouquets, he continues on a musical journey that cuts through the constraints of musical genres.
Growing up in Birmingham, UK, taking in initially the spiritually devotional musical influences of his family, and then working towards a funky musical milieu first by experimenting with the musical records from his father’s music store, Sagoo went bombastic fusing Indian music with Western beats producing them in Currywood Studios, his bed-room studio.
Fame was to come swifter with his remixes. He remixed a track, Hey Jamalo in 1989 for a local Indian record label. It won him a huge draw, and he followed it up with a collection of remixes before producing the ground-breaking album, Magic Touch, with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sagoo had arrived.
His concept of “revitalising” classic Bollywood songs augured well for record companies with Bollywood Flashback becoming a huge hit. A single from the album, Chura liya, became the first Indian song to be played on Britain’s Radio One. He wrote and produced Rising From the East, with its single Dil Cheez reaching No. 12 in the UK Billboard Charts in 1996. Over the years, he has teamed with a string of celebrities including Amitabh Bachchan.
Now, globe-trotting, as a celebrity DJ, producer, music-maker, he has launched his own record label, Ishq Records, which has served as a platform for artists like The Rishi Rich Project and Gunjan. Sagoo released his latest album, a hardcore bhangra collection, Hanji recently.
Sagoo was in Dubai for a show. Excerpts from an interview:
From Currywood Studios to Ishq Records, how would you describe your success story?
A great journey, a wonderful one, a dream come true.
What has been the most difficult part in this journey?
It’s very hard to say because it has been a long struggle from my bed-room Currywood Studios to now. A lot of people have knocked me down over the years. Now everybody wants to be like me. Every body wants to copy me. I ask: Why didn’t you listen to me some years ago? Why didn’t I get the backing I desperately wanted?
Indians are slow in taking to things. Now the Bollywood film industry is looking up at me. I have made that much impact. If Amitabh Bachchan can come knocking at my doors, I must be something. If I can work with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I must be something.
I have promoted our music to people who wouldn’t even listen to our music. I have now set up my record label, Ishq Records, which is the new phase in my journey.
You promote a lot of new talent on your record label. How do you spot talent? What do you look for?
I select someone who I think will work, who will appeal to people. Theirs must be a music that sounds happening. I think I have a very good taste for music that comes from so many years of experience. I listen to all types of music. Every day we get at least 50 to 60 demo CDs from around the world; some of these are decent stuff that have helped people like Gunjan, who sang the Noori song. Now’s she an international star. I have also worked with non-Indian people who make Indian music. That’s great perks for me. Now, I would like to make an Arabic CD with Indian people.
Why Indian people?
Because I want to mix Indian and Arabic flavours. Arabic music is being made all the time. I want to make it different. Like say how Hisham Abbas did with Naari naari. It’s a great combination. I think what we need is more hip-hop, more streetbeats, more hard-hitting black music with those influences.
Are you scouting for such talent now in Dubai?
I scout for talent every day. Every day, for me, is a working day meeting and experimenting new people. And I will never forget my roots.
Do you feel your genre of music represents your identity, a British Asian one looking for a more definitive tag?
I don’t think so. I feel my music represents the modern Asian person of today that incorporates black music, Indian music, all sorts of flavours. My first love has been R&B, jazz, disco, pop, reggae. Obviously, bhangra is my forte. When I mix the dol, thumri sounds with those flavours, people love it.
But why does your music take a lot of flak, especially from India? Why do some people just hate you?
I think it is because I am the big hit. I am one of the most popular, the most successful.
But they also feel your music does not do justice to the original music, which you use for your remixes…
They are not down to the street level. They are not down with the kids. You go to the clubs, parties and dancefloors, which is where hits are made and played. This is where you test your stuff. If your music is not working in these places, it is not going to work anywhere.
Then, shouldn’t you be producing your own music?
Yes, we are…
Why then do you need basic inspiration from the old masters?
You need inspiration from every where. Every producer, director, you name it, gets inspiration…that’s how you make music, movies.
So you find nothing wrong in working on old compositions…?
No, absolutely not. I think it is absolutely brilliant. See, I write, I compose, I mix, I make music. I don’t just do remixes. I don’t just do cover versions. I have to sit down with musicians and make new tunes, new bhangra songs. I have made 35 CDs and lots of new music though I have always known as a great remixer.
Are you happy with the tag?
I am very happy.
Instead of being known for your own music, being known for remixing someone else’s tunes…?
It does frustrate me sometimes. It is not ignorance, it is lack of education. People don’t know enough about us, where we come from. We come from the streets, from underground. A lot of people who don’t like what we do haven’t lived the scene that we did. They just do their own things. That’s fine with us, carry on, good luck. But what we really do is make music for a lot of people around the world to enjoy and that’s very important. If so many people do what I do every day of my life, I must be doing something right. For the president of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma, to compliment me and invite me to his palace is more than an achievement.
But why haven’t your music scene not yet produced some one like a Ricky Martin in Indian music?
We want to…we would love to be there. But there are many factors. If you want to see a Ricky Martin, you must be as good as Ricky Martin, if not better. If you want an Indian Britney Spears, she must be better because only then can you compete and go world-wide. Let’s be honest, Indian accents aren’t the best in the world. Also, you need that upbringing, the attitude, and charisma on the mike. Otherwise you will look like a cheesy little pop singer from India who wants to be somebody else. Why don’t we have a singer who looks like Aishwarya Rai? Why can’t we get an Aishwarya Rai who can sing like an Alka Yagnik? It is hard to find all that in one package. We want young trendy people making young trendy music.
Do you see that happening?
I see that happening in the years to come.
In the UK or in India?
Anywhere in the world. It is going to come from the youngsters who are injected with the new blood and new scene. I am already working on a girl band, boy band, new singers. Next month, I am hosting the Asian Pop Star Show on television, where I sit down and judge people. They have two minutes to go on stage and impress me. The ones who win will go on to star in a Bollywood film. I am looking for a girl and a boy, who can sing, dance, do the whole stuff, lock, stock and barrel. I am looking for an Aishwarya Rai who can sing. If there is anyone out there, contact me. If there is a Salman Khan out there who can sing like a Kumar Sanu or Sonu Nigam, contact me.
You haven’t had any aspirations of being an Asian Ricky Martin?
No, because I can’t sing, you see. I have tried but there is a limit beyond which I can’t go. Some people can’t do everything.
Was working with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan the turning point in your career?
Every day has been a turning point for me. But I can say with pride that I worked with the man — not borrowed his music. And we became friends. He said: ‘You are one man that has got a vision of things to come.’ You know what, he was right. Sad he passed away but the album we produced (Magic Touch) introduced him too to a pretty new audience. He said: ‘Bally, you have taken me to a new audience.’ And I said: ‘You took me to a whole new place.’ I think, we both played equally important parts.
Do you think a certain amount of attitude is needed for your genre of music-makers? Like you say, you are the best, you are the most popular. Isn’t it a statement of arrogance?
No, it’s confidence. If I hadn’t had the confidence, I wouldn’t have reached this stage. The most important thing for me now is Ishq Records. I don’t have to give you an album every three months. I am established. I want to continue doing my work and reach out to more new talent. They are the stars of tomorrow. But believe me, it’s not easy finding talent.