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Going Gaga over India's desi rhythms

In releasing a Bollywood remix of her latest single, Lady Gaga follows in the footsteps of Britney Spears, Rihanna and Snoop Dogg. So who's behind the trend?
Chained by convention? Not Lady Gaga, who embraced ‘desi’ sounds in a remix of her new single.
Chained by convention? Not Lady Gaga, who embraced ‘desi’ sounds in a remix of her new single.

She may seem a little unhinged at times but Lady Gaga is unsurpassed when it comes to self-promotion. Having acquired an impressively varied western audience with her funky anthems and freaky antics, the newsworthy New Yorker is now looking east, but in a noticeably more stealthy, low-key fashion. Her passage to India begins with a remix.

Gaga is the latest major star to refashion a single specifically for the South Asian, or "desi", audience. The Gujarat-born composers Sulaiman and Salim Merchant have given her huge hit Born This Way a modern Bollywood spin, adding sitar breaks, tumbling dhoºl beats and a traditional Hindi backing vocal, sung by Salim. It's a radical rework that, according to the accompanying press release, kicks off her "strategic foray into the Indian market".

Remixes are hardly a new phenomenon, having helped musicians to infiltrate different types of dance floor for several decades, but using one to take on a whole nation is a little more ambitious. Not that Gaga is unique in this respect. Despite some previous false starts and a lingering concern about the Indian market - more of which later - the likes of Britney Spears, Rihanna and Sean Paul have all "gone desi" recently.



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To do so, they utilised the services of Desi Hits, a San Francisco-based company run by three second-generation Asian Britons.

"I think the world and the labels are waking up to this massive demographic," says the Desi Hits co-founder Anjula Acharia-Bath, who is now firmly embedded in the US music business.

"If you look at south Asians as a whole, we're one-fifth of the world's population and I don't think they've ever thought about creating content with us in mind. They'll do stuff for the Latin market. Or Beyoncé will do a country track because she thinks 'that's a big demographic that I should go and hit'."

Founded by Acharia-Bath and her husband Ranj Bath - a DJ and digital media specialist - and the London-based producer/presenter Arun Sandhu, Desi Hits's music-heavy website quickly gained an enormous following among US-based south Asians. It filled a vital gap "bringing East and West together," says Sandhu, and major record labels soon came calling.

Desi Hits now sources cutting-edge Asian talent to work with western artists, whereas the US industry's previous attempts to woo the Asian market had been somewhat half-hearted. "What we found in the past was that people would take a track and just literally put dora beats on it; there was nothing intelligent," says Sandhu

The few attempts to match artists directly with Indian creative talent also produced unsatisfactory results, as it invariably meant dealing with the dominant Bollywood industry, who had little empathy with the US fan base. As Acharia-Bath explains: "Snoop Dogg did a movie called Singh is King and I don't think it was done very well, I don't think it was something that could be tolerated by his global fan base outside of south Asia. The same thing with Kylie [Minogue]: she did a Bollywood movie and she did a track that, again, she'd want to keep very much in India and wouldn't want it spread outside, because I think people would worry that it would impact on the current fan base, the brand that they've created."

Today's desi remixes are aimed at audiences in India and abroad. There are actually two new India-inspired Lady Gaga tracks: the Merchant brothers' Bollywood-style remix - also popular in the US - and an "urban desi" version, which was produced with the large British-Asian community in mind.

The latter track - which incorporates elements of the edgy British dubstep sound - was remixed by a US-based desi trio. Well-regarded on both sides of the Atlantic, Culture Shock have also crafted a Bollywood-style version of Spears's new single, Till the World Ends, in which the lead vocals are backed by a range of Asian instruments, the dhol, dholki and tumbli.

Not that Spears is following Gaga's lead; she is something of a trendsetter when it comes to desi collaborations. The video for her previous single, Hold it Against Me, featured outfits created by the Mumbai-based designers Falguni and Shane Peacock, while in 2003 her collaboration with Madonna, Me Against the Music, included two bhangra-style remixes.

How active are the artists in these decisions? Well, both Gaga and Spears raved about their recent Bollywood remixes via Twitter, and the latter has favoured a bhangra version of Me Against the World on several tours. Acharia-Bath - who also recalls seeing the Black Eyed Peas perform a full Bollywood routine at a recent gig - reckons that an openness to new sounds and audiences is a recognisable superstar trait.

"When we first started Desi Hits we'd go to the mid-level artists and we would get blocked by the label and the artist management, they'd say they didn't see it," she recalls. "The really big global artists, you don't really have a problem with them, because they just get it. And that's why they are where they are: they've made decisions that allow them to hit bigger demographics, rather being tunnel-visioned about it."

As well as letting Asian producers loose on their singles, sometimes a few rearranged words will also help. "We've done a lot of work with Sean Kingston," says Acharia-Bath. "What we did with him was recreate his track Beautiful Girls, which was a big hit, as Bollywood Girls. [We] built a whole buzz around it, named some Indian actresses, they all talked about being in it and it started getting a lot of press. And now Sean's out there touring."

"The other artist who's selling really well in India is Akon," she continues. "That first tour he did out there, I don't think he even made any money out of it but he did a publicity stunt, jumped into the crowd and made a real name for himself. Everyone knew him and now he's being invited out with Bollywood royalty to celebrate his birthday, he's done a track in Hindi and really invested in that market."

Until recently, it was generally assumed that making money from music was impossible in India, unless you were a seller of illegal bootleg CDs, but the rise of digital downloads has changed perceptions of that market. Acharia-Bath insists that the dominance of bootlegs was chiefly because of distribution issues - official copies were hard to come by - but digital business is booming.

"India is the second largest mobile [phone] market in the world, so embracing digital strategies is going to be the key thing," she says. "But one of the big opportunities for western acts is very much touring. You're seeing more and more artists go out to India and tour."

It pays to put in a little extra. Future Indian concerts by the likes of Spears and Gaga may well be vastly different from their shows back home, as desi versions of their tracks dominate. And as Akon proved, getting up close and personal with your fans also helps.

When taking on the vast Indian market, there are no half measures.

Updated: April 25, 2011 04:00 AM