In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel, a deaf and mute Japanese schoolgirl walks into Womb, a Tokyo nightclub, with her friends and gapes all around her. It is no ordinary venue; with four floors of music, the world’s largest disco ball, and one of the best sound systems across the globe, Womb is every electronic musician’s dream. So when Arjun Vagale played his debut set there in April 2014, he knew he had arrived. “For anybody in the underground circuit, Womb is the holy grail of clubs. To play where Nic Fanciulli, John Digweed and The Chemical Brothers have played was terrific,” says Vagale, who was invited to play there again, two months ago. A DJ, producer, and former Jalebee Cartel member, Vagale, 36, is India’s biggest export to the international underground and techno scene. And if the names Richie Hawtin, Adam Beyer, Sasha and Fat Boy Slim mean anything to you, he has played alongside them all.
It’s a far cry from his early years in Bangalore in the Nineties. There were few pubs, a nightclub called The Club and a handful of young boys who just wanted to make people dance. “It was 1995, I was 15. I had no equipment at all, and I started DJing with a Discman and a Walkman. A friend would cue the Walkman to the beginning of the songs. If you pressed pause and play long enough, they’d sync at some point,” says Vagale, who caught the bug when his father took him to Ghungroo, the Delhi nightclub, for his 13th birthday. He had always known that he belonged on a stage, but for the first time he saw himself behind a DJ console. “I started to think about how I could play music instead of performing it. And it had to be electronic music, the nature of the genre is so fluid, so inclusive,” he says.
An average student at school, Vagale dropped out of college after a year of studying commerce. “I’d already started DJing and making a little money and I told my parents to give me two years to make a mark,” says Vagale, who first began performing at Someplace Else at The Park. After DJing solo in Bangalore, Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi for a couple of years, Vagale joined Jalebee Cartel in 2004, one of India’s first live house/techno acts. The group performed for eight years and disbanded in 2012. While touring with Jalebee Cartel, Vagale began playing his own sets at different clubs in Europe.
In a genre that consists of mostly repetitive instrumental passages of music, Vagale’s brand of techno is as fresh as it is memorable. Armed with drum machines and samplers in the studio, he spins loops that are, on first listen, catchy. As the tracks progress, different layers start to emerge; hypnotic basslines begin to take root in the listener’s mind and one can make out the almost subliminal movements that Vagale has woven into the tracks. His soundscapes are atmospheric and impossible to stay still to.
“You are actually writing all the music that you make. It’s not true that techno hasn’t a soul,” says Vagale. He’s also shattered a glass ceiling of sorts — techno is not a genre associated with India, and every time he performs at a venue, he tries to push the envelope just a little bit more. “Electronic music doesn’t have a language and is without the trappings of other genres. Techno is machine-driven, it’s minimalist so there’s little room to manipulate and twist the sound around. I’m always looking for ways to make the leap from the dance floor and excite somebody who is listening to my music on their headphones,” says Vagale.
Vagale’s tracks are played not just by him, but by scores of DJs all around the world. His most popular tracks, She Said and Terrakoz, released in 2012 and 2013 respectively, have burned up dance floors in Ibiza (Hawtin played She Said 35 times in 2012; legendary British techno DJ Carl Cox played Terrakoz on BBC Radio One and licensed it for his Space Ibiza CD), then Berlin and continues its victory lap to New York, where he is now based. “It’s a crazy move to go out there and play your music to new audiences but I’m not getting any younger. New York offers you access to other parts of the world that is nearly impossible from India,” he says.
In between tours, Vagale runs a global record label, MakTub Music, with Uruguayan producer Nicolas Silvano, which promotes fresh talent from across the world. He is also the co-owner of UnMute Agency, which manages underground talent in India.
One of Vagale’s most exciting projects, and his “retirement plan”, is the I Love Music (ILM) Academy, an electronic music school in Gurgaon. Founded by his brother Nakul in 2009, the school offers a multitude of courses and state-of-the-art equipment in its studios. “We have about 300 students in a year who sign up for different modules. There are more young people interested in electronic music in India than ever before. Every year, we have to convince some parents that this is a legitimate school and nobody is doing drugs here,” he says.
The story appeared in print with the headline All Roads Lead to the Dance Floor