After all these years, Coco Varma is still rocking dance floors with his ethnocyberfunk beats
The premiere of Worlds Collide at the 2016 edition of the Sydney Sacred Music Festival was nothing short of awesome. Supported by Riverside Theatres Parramatta and Parramatta City Council, the spectacular gig showcasing multicultural collaboration in music, transformed the roof of the Wentworth Street Carpark into a veritable wonderland.
The evening was a delight of live multimedia performances from the world of contemporary music. An Arts NSW initiative, Worlds Collide was put together by Festival Director Richard Petkovic, with members comprising of diverse cultures and faiths. Dubbed the new sound of multicultural Australia, the ensemble aims to re-define the sacred in the everyday, and express it through music.
On the night, electronic producer, composer and artist Coco Varma unleashed his ‘ethnocyberfunk’ beats – sending tremors through the beams and columns of the eight-storey structure.
Born in Delhi, Coco Varma is known as the Godfather of Indian Electronica, a title bestowed by TimeOut magazine. Having migrated to the UK, he was exposed to the early British dance scene, “which at that time was much more than a fleeting passion for me”, he tells Indian Link.
With a strong inclination to make music, “an introduction to classical Indian music by my family inspired me to combine the two art forms into a futuristic sound,” Varma says.
He fondly recounts growing up on Reggae records, inspiring him to explore other genres. “I grew up with Jamaicans, listening to Reggae and loads of Studio One,” he says.
Coco Varma started out at StreetSounds Records working on the first ever hip hop album made outside the USA, a record by Faze One called Heroes released in 1987. He later went on to release several 12-inch records under the name The Altered State (TAS), on the label Profile Records, home of American hip hop artist Run DMC.
Leaning on his East London roots of Rave, Bass and Dubstep, Varma formed Earthtribe Sound System, an outfit that debuted in the ‘90s before the ‘Asian Underground scene’ had erupted.
With creative forces Coco Varma and Sanjeev Rupal at the helm, Earthtribe’s ethnocyberfunk – a universal language, blending global grooves from India, Africa and South America – wreaked havoc in the UK underground dance scene. Their line-up was completed with Duke (SanjayVarma) on percussion and MC Daddy-E (Sam Scott).
Earthtribe’s sound of eccentric doses of funk, dub, tabla and sublime Indian vocals caught the attention of Billboard magazine, who dubbed Varma the ‘Asian Prodigy’.
“That was a long time ago, that was in the last century,” jokes Varma, reminiscing about his tribe days.
“Ethnocyberfunk has definitely progressed. Although it has regressed in the UK, it has progressed in the rest of the world,” he says. “I think India has gotten into it in the last decade-and-a-half. The eastern sound, particularly of the sitar and tabla has mingled in a lot of global music and TV content. We are more accepted by the west than we were 25 years ago.”
Earthtribe, aimed at traversing musical and racial barriers, produced a kind of music the dance intelligentsia soon bracketed as ‘Indo-Pakistani-British art-disco’ (a sound incorporating eastern instruments, sonic experiments and electronic dance beats, similar to the likes of artists such as Talvin Singh).
The group gradually grew a cult following, having graced dance decks at over 500 clubs, and playing gigs including Tribal Gathering, WOMAD, The Big Chill and Ministry Of Sound.
In the formative years of Earthtribe, a dauntless Varma challenged established genres of music.
“We found an audience elsewhere; it wasn’t the Indians, but actually the westerners who made this sound famous. In the UK, in the early ‘90s we played in clubs, and would have big crowds show up for famous British DJs who were playing alongside us, then all of a sudden we would switch and drop our Asian beats,” Varma details. “People just didn’t know what hit them – they went crazy! Around that time, more people started showing up, because it was turning out to be cool. Having your Indian name started becoming cool, kurta and pyjamas came into vogue – even wearing a bindi became fashionable.”
Despite his success with Earthtribe, Varma did not rest on his laurels. In late 1997, he initiated Sitarfunk club night where he could test out his studio creations and tweak them to a whole new level. Opening at The End (a nightclub in the West End of London), Sitarfunk churned out radical mayhem, throwing down Asian beats and erotic middle-eastern hip-shakers. Establishing itself as a household name in the British-Asian underground dance scene, their success culminated in their first compilation album release in 1998 under the the same name.
“I predicted over 15 years ago people sampling music in the future and it is happening today. Singers are using processors to fix their voices up,” Varma opines. “I really hope someone can shake it up and open people’s minds to look elsewhere.”
Varma says the music scene has vastly changed since his early days.
“Today it’s different from when I started. There were no computers. If you wanted to make a record you had to go to a recording studio, you had to spend thousands of pounds. Who would spend that money now? Today, every kid having a computer, by age 15, is an amazing musician.”
The maestro’s advice for budding artists is to make sure you have a backup plan.
“I don’t say, ‘Don’t do it’, but have a back up as it’s not as fancy as it looks to be. Even if you do make it in the business, be humble!”
Down under, Varma has sold out the Sydney Opera House, played at Bellingen Global Carnival, Cockatoo Island Festival and collaborated with Hermitude, The Bird, Resin Dogs and more.
“I find Australians accept the east more. They love the eastern sound and when I play some of my old stuff they go crazy.”\
People see him as someone who isn’t afraid to defy genres and perform the best dance music no matter the decade.
“To me, there is only good or bad music, you’ve either got to like it or you don’t,” Varma says. “I do not believe in styles and fashions. Everybody is out there staking claims on a better style of music, but the fact is no one is coming up with something new.”
On his future plans, Varma gives a sneak peek of what may be in the offing. “Having been in the business for over thirty years, I’m now working on my own album and also with some Australian artists like Foreigndub who are big in the Dub scene.”
And for SF fans, “I might do something for Sitarfunk,” he says. “I have plans for putting a compilation album together, as there are people in the UK who still dig that music. Hopefully it will be out next year.”