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Record Stories: Naya Beat Co-founder Ragz Shares Five Rare Global Treasures
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New reissue label Naya Beat focuses on uncovering rarities and oddities from the subcontinent and South Asian diaspora. Co-founder Ragz shares five picks from his collection.
Raghav Mani, also known under the DJ pseudonym Ragz, may be based in LA but his personal and cultural heritage is as global as his taste for music. That may be why his collection of records is so varied, and capture snapshots of musical traditions on the fringe. Very much connected with his Indian roots, Mani’s ability to be in two worlds at once has made him an important musical translator through brilliant and insightful picks for both his live and record sets.
Mani and celebrated musician-producer Filip “Turbotito” Nikolic have recently announced a new reissue and remix label Naya Beat, a joint effort curating unearthed gems from the South Asian diaspora. The label expects to drop its first release in late May titled Naya Beat Volume 1: South Asian Dance and Electronic Music 1983-1992 and they’ve playfully teased fans with two tracks that have gracefully teased a Balearic goldmine.
Mani handles much of the music exploration for the duo, and In Sheep’s Clothing talked to him about five favorite finds from his world wide explorations.
What genres started your initial obsession with music?
It was kind of everything. I grew up in a pretty multicultural smorgasbord of an environment. My parents are Indian and my dad worked with the World Health Organization and I was born in the Philippines and grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. I went to an international school in the 80s, and 90s, and so I’ve always been immersed in a very kind of culturally diverse kind of environment. And my relationship with music kind of goes back to birth. My dad is a big music head, and he was a huge record collector. It’s always been a part of my life. And the whole concept of being exposed to music and collecting was something that I was kind of aware of, at a very young age. In many ways it was spurred on by my dad, because he bought me cassettes and helped me start collecting. I also grew up listening to a lot of new wave, and a lot of early “Britpop” a la Stones Roses, Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, Verve etc.
That all kind of then started to morph into what I think is now conventionally recognized as electronic music, trip-hop, drum and bass, and of course house and techno. Before starting uni when I was 18 I’d always kind of been rooted in Western music. When I got to uni I started getting more attuned to my “Indian roots”, so to speak. I think at that age, you have this desire to figure out who you are and to really explore. I was trying to learn more about Indian music, and particularly Indian classical music. I also started to really fall in love with Jazz (the modal, spiritual stuff).
I’m a guitarist and I started to recognize and really appreciate the commonalities and mutual influences North Indian classical music and South Indian classical music have with jazz (and more generally the influences music traditions from the world over have on each other). All of that kind of set off a musical grenade in my head that fuelled this desire to understand my “musical heritage” get deep into exploring music from all over.
In previous conversations we’ve had, especially around this upcoming release on Naya Beat, the word Balearic comes up a lot. Since Balearic music is a fusion born out of a multicultural community, centered in Ibiza, do you feel it’s that international core that connects with your life story?
That’s a great question. I mean, I think Balearic is perfect for me as an individual. It has a little bit of everything. There isn’t a rule that says this can be Balearic and this can’t, other than the fact that there’s a certain vibe that makes it Balearic!
I think as far as the inspiration for Naya Beat, Filip and I both have a certain appreciation and love for that kind of vibe. Really without us kind of even knowing, the music we started to attach ourselves to and get excited about kind of just fell into that category. I don’t think we intentionally went out to define this “South Asian” Balearic sound. I just think the way we got excited and identified the music that we wanted to put in this first compilation just somehow fit that.
I will say one thing about the first compilation though; there were a couple of tracks that we fell in love with from the outset that set the direction for the type of music we would put on it. Unfortunately, some of those tracks didn’t make it due to licensing issues but others like ”Jungle Days” by Remo Fernandes (which we put out as a single last week), were hugely influential. That track exudes this crazy-good feeling of being happy, ecstatic, carefree, in the sunshine and we also thought “well this is a sound that no one has ever heard before coming out of India that we love so let’s try to cultivate that within the first compilation.” We also made it a point to include individual artists/bands vs. Bollywood or South Indian film music for this one.
You have an incredibly impressive collection, was there a turning point where you started to identify as a serious record collector?
I think relatively recently considering how many records I had just 10 years ago. I’m 41 now and I’m super OCD, and I always knew that record collecting would be the death of me because I would just get way too obsessive. I also saw what it was for the state of mind of my father and his record collection. For the longest time, I just resisted it.
My father had tons and tons of records. I mean the thing with record collecting is it does become a bit of a logistical nightmare at a certain point, and that’s kind of what it was like with my dad. It was an obsession and it was also love. There was a lot of emotion in those records because you’ve been collecting them for so long; I always found it so interesting.
Sometimes, he would have a few drinks and play something; he would get teary-eyed and emotional. One of them that I always remember because it had such a huge influence on me is this “Jugulbandi” (a duet in North Indian classical music) between Vilayat Khan & Bismillah Khan. Mind blowing. Anyway it was just also interesting to me how much of his life history was tied up in these dusty record covers and 12 inches.
But anyway, I think what really started it off for me was one of my best buds in LA was DJing at this amazing vinyl appreciation/bonkers crazy house party series called, Quoi de Neuf which was originally a party in Paris that our other friend was involved in. Quoi de Neuf means what’s up, what’s new, in French but “Neuf” also means nine, and so the format was you had to choose nine records that went well together, and it would kind of force you to tell a story.
That kind of started to get me hooked into collecting. I started with a lot of the foundational disco classics especially that whole Philly sound. That type of disco sound just really blew my mind. I started digging heavily for those kinds of records and that kind of then led me into Italo Disco which probably is my bread and butter as a record collector! That’s what I’m continuously obsessed about and endlessly in awe of. There just never seems to be an end to the good stuff; I keep finding things. Now I sort of collect everything from Greek records, to Kwaito, to Eastern European Jazz or whatever else really.
Can you share one of the records you wanted to talk about?
So West India Company had this 12-inch, which is a cover of “Ave Maria”, and I loved everything about it. What was crazy to me about the record was that the lineup included Asha Bhosle the famous playback singer, this guy Stephen Luscombe who was in a new wave band called Blancmange, and this other guy called Pandit Dinesh who’s a legendary musician and master percussionist from the UK. That lineup just sounded so discombobulating to me. I was like, “Holy shit. It’s a new wave synth-pop guy, with India’s most famous playback singer ever, and this percussionist covering “Ave Maria”. It was mind-blowing.
Music from New Demons was one of those album finds where Discogs was so instrumental. It started with me saying, “Well if they put this out, what else is out there”. That’s how I came across the record, which is a criminally unknown and underrated album. It’s essentially the sonic aesthetic for the whole Asian underground scene years before the scene really took place.
It’s just kind of hard to describe why it’s so good. It’s really sophisticated drum programming, and electronic music locked into insane tabla and Indian percussion. On top of that Asha is just doing some insane singing. I think it represents everything that epitomizes the greatness of cultural confluence. The meeting of different sounds and different cultures done in a way that where there’s a tremendous amount of honesty. I mean, these are people that were in love with each other’s cultures, in love with each other’s aesthetics, and it just really comes through on the album.
There's been a lot of important talk recently about cultural appropriation. Can you share your perspective on that conversation?
I’m brutally honest about my feelings about this. I think it’s easy to tell when there’s appropriation, and it’s easy to tell when there’s influence. Appropriation to me means copying from a tradition and not giving credit where it’s due. It’s taking something else and doing it dishonestly and completely out of context with where the music is coming from. Cultural appreciation on the other hand, is when you have people that are either influenced by certain musical cultures and then integrate it with their own perspective and voice. It also happen when people that are from different cultures get together and create something new.
I get really worried about how easily society is becoming with throwing around the term cultural appropriation. It’s intellectually lazy and distracts from what makes society great, which is the meeting of people, perspectives, and cultures. If it wasn’t for the sharing of influences and ideas we would have nothing as a global society on this planet. Do you know what I mean? All great art comes from influences and confluences. It doesn’t come from doing things in a silo. And if that’s true anywhere, it’s true in music. There isn’t a dictionary definition of what appropriation is but to me is all about honesty. It’s just blindingly obvious in the music or the context in which the music is being played.
We need to be speaking about stuff like this openly because it’s so crucial. None of the music we have on Naya Beat would exist if it wasn’t for the meeting of cultures, people going from one place to another, and being influenced by one thing or another.
What’s the next record you want to talk about?
My wife is half Greek and we get to visit there often. And about three years ago, I realized “I’ve never actually dug for records in Greece before, which is kind of crazy. Why haven’t I done that?” It turns out Athens actually has one of the highest number of record stores per capita. They have something like 50-60 record stores, and I just kind of went on this three-day mission going to as many of them as I could find.
You find tons of records in Greece because there were a lot of pressing plants there. There’s a ton of stuff that’s generic, but during that self-guided tour I said to myself, “This is a country that has so much history. I wonder what they did in the 70s and 80s when electronic music sort of kicked off?” It was a full-on digging expedition and it made me realize why the record collecting community is so amazing.
I started on one record store and I had this long conversation with the store owner and smoked a bunch of cigarettes, and was just shooting the shit. That day he really opened my world to a whole bunch of crazy stuff that I didn’t know existed; more on the new wave and synthpop side of things, which is super extensive. But that initial conversation then led to me going into maybe 15 or 20 other record stores over the course of three days, and I just got deeper and deeper into this insane 80s electronic music in Greece. I really found it to be so vast and incredible, for a country that only has 11 million people.
And on my last day in Athens, it all culminated with probably the sweetest moment during those three days of just running around the city, where I went to this record store called Plan 59 in a somewhat dodgy part of town. The store was closed the day before, and I left a voice message for that guy, and finally he said, “I’ll open up for you”. It turned out to be that one of the coolest fucking cats I’ve ever met. And he just opened my mind to all this crazy real shit. So this record Bibi-bo by Gino Cudsi, for example, I’m not even sure the last time it sold on Discogs but I made it available for the first time ever online and uploaded to the Pleasure of Love YouTube channel which I contribute to along with my buds Dino Soccio and DJ Duckcomb.
So much digging is speaking to people and exchanging knowledge and of course loving music. I wouldn’t be the record collector I didn’t love building relationships with people, creating communities, and having friendships.
Do you know what the lyrics are saying on this particular track?
Well it’s from a kids album (with a dope picture and songbook book!) and is a sci-fi themed story about going into space. This one track is a crazy cosmic disco tune with the refrain “discovery” when I think they lift off into space. Everything on the album is written in Greek and if you can’t read the language there’s no way you’d know, right? That’s why you need someone to open your mind to something, and once they do it just unleashes a whole universe of music. Over the last three years, I don’t think I’ve collected more aggressively than music from Greece; because it’s just so deep, and such a revelation for me.
Another thing that he told me about was a more known record by this guy named Loukas Thanos. He is a well-regarded artist-musician in Greece, and was commissioned to do a soundtrack for a movie that was kind of meant to be the Greek equivalent of Tron or something. Apparently the film never got made, the soundtrack was already completed. There’s tons of electro breaks, insane production, it’s just a banging album. One of my favorite “early” Greek revelations.
And again, it came through having a great conversation with this guy. The copy he had at the time didn’t even have a cover. So I would have had very little to go on.
Whenever you go to a new city, do you think of record collecting as a way of inserting yourself into a culture?
100%, and I didn’t mention this before but whenever I travel, I always make it a point to go digging. With my job I got to go to quite a few places pre-pandemic. The conversations you have with the people you meet when you go digging, are the best kinds because you get to the heart of what culture is in the country. People are generally pretty excited when you express interest about learning about their culture. You learn about not just music, but you learn about the politics behind the music and about societal changes that were taking place in the country when that music was released. So to me traveling and digging are probably my two favorite things. I love immersing myself in other countries and cultures and those are the two of the best ways to do that!
It’s great that you’re so excited about the community aspect of collecting. I’m sure you’ve had some connections.
Absolutely, a friend of mine named Massimo is in this band, Nu Guinea and he’s an insane digger. I met him before Nu Guinea blew up because there was this seven-inch that I wanted which he was instrumental in rediscovering. Massimo and I became Discogs pen-pals, and trade tips about records all the time.
He had this whole perspective on Italo that was completely different than anything I knew. Being from Napoli and being into the Nu Guinea kind of sound, there were so many napoletana records he turned me on that I didn’t even know anything about until I spoke to him.
This one is not a napoletana record but is quirky, random and amazing Italo at its best and very few people know about it. It’s a 12” called “I’m a Robot” by David Zed. David Zed was an American actor that moved to Italy in the late 70s and was on a couple of Italian TV shows where he was dressed as a robot. Go figure. And this track, I think it came from one of the TV shows, is just the most delicious cosmic jam about a robot that’s having some sort of existential crisis.
There was a lot of demand for American musicians to sing and become the face of a number of Italo acts at the time which is also one of those super interesting and random musical factoids.
I’m excited to hear what else you have to share. What’s next?
Okay so this one is a bit of a holy grail. The famous 10 Raga to a Disco Beat by Charanjit Singh.
And what’s super sick about this one is it has completely different cover art to what people are familiar with. It’s crazy special to me not only because it’s a great and already rare record, but this version with this alternate cover is insanely rare. I’m the only person I know of with a copy.
This cover has a very standard HMV cover from India at the time that they would usually use when they put out North Indian Classical music. And it just goes to show you that they just had no idea how to market the record. They marketed it as classical music not realizing it was proto acid house grail in the making (then again how would they have known). Whatever the reason this version has this generic cover and it kind of went unnoticed and so I was able to pick it up for essentially the price of nothing.
What was it like flicking through records and finding that one?
I was pretty stoked. But I also felt like I was going to get, like, jumped. I just thought the guy was going to all of a sudden realize what he was doing. So initially I was nervous and stressed out, but then after the transaction was over I was totally exhilarated. It’s near mint condition and its insane to find this record in that condition. I mean, this moment for me was totally huge.
It really felt like a moment of discovery, especially when it’s a feeling of discovery that you feel like you and maybe a handful of other people have had and with one particular piece of music. That to me will always be like the greatest feeling I have when I go dig. It’s just finding something that no one or not many people know about.
Those 5 records were all incredible. Can you share how digging affected your relationship with music?
Well, I think it solidified my appreciation for music. Because I collect so much music from so many different places in the world, I’m always just stunned and so happy that there seems to be this endless source of creativity. And for me I see this especially in the 80s. At some point, I’m like, when am I going to stop finding stuff? It’s kind of endless.
I think the other thing is it’s cultivated an appreciation for something physical. To me, there is such a crucial part of the musical experience that’s not just knowing the music, but how the music goes along with the physical package; be it the artwork, liner notes design of the labels or whatever else. Just all of these interesting details, nuances and things that go into making and releasing a record. It’s something that I’m now fully aware of with Filip and my first Naya Beat release coming out. There’s just so much love and passion that has to go into something for it to be done right and done well. And I think I appreciate that now, more than ever.
For more information about Naya Beat you can listen to their first two song releases from Volume 1 of Naya Beat set to release late May on their Bandcamp (listed below) and follow them on socials for the latest updates.
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