Live Music + Gig Reviews

Talvin Singh @ Union Chapel, London

16 November 2000

We flocked in our hundreds to see London-based Singh’s second Untouched concert, at which we were to expect spiritual music in a definitively spiritual setting.

Joined for part of the set by sarang master and singer Ustaad Sultan Khan, who had flown in from India specially, Singh sat centre stage, four drums surrounding him. A video documentary (that wouldn’t have been out of place on BBC2) projected above the stage explained what Singh had been up to in India, and what he considered to be his education in the drumming culture of that country’s southern regions.

A brief break was followed by at least six tracks of just drums, with a backing track of one drone note. The video had been busy telling us that, as a drummer, Singh hadn’t wanted to be obscured at the back of the stage while a band took the limelight, but when Ustaad Sultan Khan began to play sarang we saw that the focus of the event moved to him. To be out of the limelight must surely, however unfortunately, be the drummer’s lot in life.

The sounds made by Khan with his bow were mesmerising, and the music overall had me remembering another Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to be precise, whose Qawwali music and singing were on the point of taking the world by storm when heart failure robbed us of him at the age of 49. There was an inherent spirituality which, in this sacred place, was brought to the fore. But it was a pity that Nusrat wasn’t on stage to sing, as his voice was infinitely superior to Ustaad or Talvin. The pair of them mumbled through vocals occasionally for mercifully brief periods – but after all, they are more noted for their mastery of instruments than for their vocal prowess.

I had expected some synth-funk drum and bass, even if they were backing tracks, after having heard Singh’s music in the past, so this stripped-down acoustic turnout was rather a shock – at once a let-down and a pleasant surprise. There were things that were worthy (not least the Chapel’s newly-installed heaters!), with the lighting and video show giving the eye something to focus on. And while the musicianship on display was impressive, the show overall left me a smidgen deflated and wondering what might have been.

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Talvin Singh @ Union Chapel, London