Mindful connection: Baalti are the Californian duo shifting perceptions on South Asian sounds - Music - Mixmag

Mindful connection: Baalti are the Californian duo shifting perceptions on South Asian sounds

We talked sampling, Bollywood flips, and San Francisco's music scene with bass experimenters Baalti ahead of the release of their next EP ‘Better Together’

  • Words: Gemma Ross | Photos: RAPHAËL WEIKART
  • 22 June 2023

In 2021, San Francisco-based duo Baalti released their very first EP - an eponymous four-track record veering through sun-soaked house and disco, inflections of bass, and nostalgic vocal samples from old Indian records. The resulting sound has become a distinctive palette for the Californian duo, made up of Mihir Chauhan and Jaiveer Singh, but has remained a source of curiosity in the years following as their sonic has slowly, but carefully, shifted.

Rolling into 2023, Baalti are miles ahead of their game. In recent months, the pair have made a crack at the busy touring life playing numerous shows across the US, showed face with Four Tet and Overmono, put together mixes for the likes of Worldwide FM and Reprezent, and now gear up to release their sophomore EP on Seb Wildblood’s all my thoughts imprint, titled ‘Better Together’. The five-track EP fuses club sounds with a link back to that South Asian-influenced percussion and groove.

Read this next: "It's a family affair": South Asian clubbers share what the dancefloor means to them

But Baalti want to make clear that their music stays true to them. “Something that is important to us is maintaining the essence and heart of this music, and not representing it in a way that exoticises it. That matters more than ever right now, since there’s such a big spotlight on 'diasporic' music scenes and the 'global south',” says Jaiveer. “We’ve tried to think about how to represent South Asian-ness in ways that feel dimensional to us based on our experiences, and we’ve never really been drawn towards those super “on the nose” South Asian sounds.”

We chatted with Baalti ahead of the release of their next EP, ‘Better Together’, about the parallels between clubbing in California and India, sampling old tracks, and how they’re breaking away from the Western influence of club and bass music. Check it out below.

What have you guys been up to recently?

J: We’ve been busyyyy, we just put out three singles that lead up to a five-track EP that’s dropping super soon. It’s our favourite project yet, and definitely our most fully realised and coherent one so far. We’ve also been cooking up hella new music. Been on a real creative spurt the last couple of months, and now we’re sitting on about two more EPs' worth of tunes that will be fully ready to rip after this one drops. There’s also a remix bundle in the works for this EP, and it’s shaping up really well right now! We roped in some of our favourite producers to remix the songs, and they’ve come back with some proper heaters. Wish we could share more details right now but more on that soon.

M: We’re also spending a couple of months visiting our families so we squeezed in a bunch of US shows before leaving… and I’m just realising that we played five out of six consecutive weekends. It was super fun but we’re definitely enjoying a bit of rest now.

How did you both meet? And at what point did you start Baalti together?

M: We met on the first day of college in the US since we were freshman year floormates, so we’ve been friends for almost 10 years now! We did a lot of music stuff together during that time before Baalti existed like playing in jam bands and going to festivals. Baalti started a few years after we graduated, when we were discovering a lot of incredible old South Asian records and started sending sample flips back and forth, trying to put our own spin on them. Over the course of a few months we landed on a consistent sound that felt really good to us - it was like a bunch of house tunes that we had wanted to hear but didn’t really exist yet. Before we knew it we were sitting on an EP’s worth of stuff that we really wanted to share, and Jaiveer moved into my apartment for a month so we could polish and mix it down properly. I think Baalti officially became a thing when we invited a few friends over for a listening party at our apartment in SF that summer.

J: Also part of the thing was, we were hearing what other people were doing at the time with South Asian sounds in electronic music, and it just seemed like something was off. It was either very Western-catering (we’ve seen rooms of white people doing yoga to deep house with sitar), or it was just straight up cheesy and watered down, like slapping a kick drum under a tabla sample. It seemed to miss the point.

You guys connected through a mutual love of finding old Indian sounds - has that process helped you both to connect more with your South Asian heritage?

J: Yeah for sure, but that’s also a tough question to answer. We both actually grew up in India, so we never felt a need to ostensibly “connect” with our heritage, we were both just in it. It’s like fish don’t need to “connect” with water. But we’ve been in the US for almost a decade now, so we’re just about starting to feel like immigrants and confronting questions about cultural identity in new ways, starting to question why we’re living away from home and what home means to us, and what we carry forward with us when we’re not at home. And since starting Baalti, we’ve been forced to think about these questions way more - like what do we want to represent, and what’s the essence of the culture we’re highlighting? We could probably pretty quickly slap together UK funky edits of Chhaiya Chhaiya or some other nostalgic banger, but does that feel authentic and true to us? Or is that just watering down and Westernising that music? And when people hit you up in your DMs saying they feel culturally represented and personally addressed by the music, you just can’t half-ass it, you end up thinking about these things way more.

Read this next: How clubbing is helping young British South Asians explore their creativity and identity

M: To add to that, because of Baalti, we’ve also discovered a lot of South Asian music from eras and cultures that we probably wouldn’t have heard otherwise. As we follow those threads and think about the questions Jaiveer mentioned, we try to be pretty intentional in how we tell stories through our sampling and production. It feels more important now since people are resonating with the way our connection to our heritage shows up in our art. We didn’t set out to be representatives of the diaspora, but we wanna show up mindfully while making bangers that feel true to us.

J: Totally, all we’re trying to do is express ourselves through the music, and our personal cultural identities are parts of that so they naturally make their way into the music.

You have an impressive technique for sampling old tracks – how do you go about choosing which samples to use? And what is the process like in regaining a modern sound?

J: When listening for samples we usually just ask ourselves: “Does it slap?”. To us, things with masala, flavour, spice - that’s what slaps and that’s what we’re drawn to, things that capture the essence of the music. The visual representation would be a bowl of chow mein or rogan josh with a glistening layer of oil on top and peppers floating in it. To me that slaps. In these older South Asian records, that usually manifests as deep hypnotic grooves, dusty percussion, and spiky resonances. Either that, or just straight up sincere emotion, expressed simply - like with our tracks 'Staying in Touch', or 'Buttons'.

M: One of the reasons it’s been easy for us to select samples together is that we’ve had a shared definition of what “masala” means from the very beginning. As for modern sounds, those are more a byproduct of us creating music that channels our inspirations and influences, a lot of which revolves around bass music and UK underground music right now. We just make sure that they complement and play nicely with the bits from the samples that we consider to be flavourful. Nothing should overpower the masala.

J: Also, when it comes to sample selection, something that is important to us is maintaining the essence and heart of this music and not representing it in a way that exoticises it. That matters more than ever right now since there’s such a big spotlight on “diasporic” music scenes and the “global south”.

M: Yeah - living in the US, we’ve seen a lot of tablas and sitars tossed onto beats and called “tribal house” or something. Those sounds can often feel like they’re playing into stereotypes or like they’re executed carelessly or indifferently. In reaction to that, we’ve tried to think about how to represent South Asian-ness in ways that feel dimensional to us based on our experiences, and we’ve never really been drawn towards those super “on the nose” South Asian sounds.

J: We’re not really into rinsing nostalgia by making d 'n' b flips of Bollywood tunes or whatever either. That’s cool, and can be a genuine way for people to connect with the culture if they’re not from here, or reconnect with it if they’re part of the diaspora - we totally see that and respect it. But if you’re from the region then you’ve probably already heard wedding DJs in India do that stuff for decades, so it’s probably not very interesting or new to you and it isn’t pushing the sound much. There are a lot of producers now like Ahadadream and Malfnktion (his newer stuff especially), who are digging deeper and taking this music to the next level entirely, using modern tools and frameworks of dance music while retaining the essence of the South Asian-ness. Tthat essence can be way more subtle, like the groove and “feel” of percussion, or the very specific EQing and mixing done on old South Asian records. It can be hard to pinpoint it exactly and zone in on that “masala”, especially if you’re looking at this music from the outside.

M: Sonically, that can manifest as us highlighting artefacts in the samples that someone else might cut out. Although it’s easier to use clean samples, we don’t really stray away from really noisy or low-quality recordings. It’s pretty common for us to take a really dusty sample and EQ out some “mud”, only to immediately notice that the power and flavour is gone, so we end up keeping that stuff in.

J: It’s not even about the samples and instrumentation sometimes - we might hear a song with no traditional samples and it might still feel familiar in more subtle (and powerful) ways. Like in 'Staying in Touch', the main stuttery lead isn’t an Indian instrument, it’s just regular keyboards that we’ve chopped up and resequenced in a way that makes it feel more familiar. Even on 'Wedding Season', the main percussion is a timbale, which is more Latin than South Asian. It’s just the feel and groove with which we’re sequencing it that makes it feel like we’re at a shaadi or ganapati visarjan or something.

That question of “what do we wanna represent?” gets even more critical to answer when a lot of your audience is Western, and there might be tension between what sells to that audience, and what we think is true to our culture. Success in this scene is also gatekept by Eurocentric media, which makes that relationship a lot more complex. How do I grow as a producer, while making sounds that are truly authentic to me, but also appealing enough to get approval from the West? It’s tricky, and there’s definitely some heavy post-colonial undertones there.

Read this next: A deep dive into South Asian electronic music

There’s also this weird thing where music made by the diaspora often gets more attention than music made by people who still live in the native regions, and that’s because the places where the diaspora live often have a lot more resources and influence in the dance music world, so if you’re making “diasporic sounds” (like us in SF), there are way more chances of you being noticed than if you were doing it in India. I wonder how our music would have been received and who would have picked it up if we released it while living in India instead of SF…

Are there any parallels between the electronic scenes in San Francisco and Delhi/Bombay?

J: They both have a lot of really talented DJs and producers that haven’t blown up yet, they both have a lot of heart and really sick music communities, and they’re both not as “sexy” a place to play in as say Berlin or London (yet!). So yeah, when you put those things together, the scenes do look quite similar, they’re both buzzing and alive and seem to be on the cusp of a big cultural turning point. The barriers to entry are not super high in both places, people want to give new DJs a chance, and more and more people are interested in trying them. Sometimes when we go to parties in SF it honestly feels like everyone’s a DJ! It’s great though, and getting early support from your community as a DJ is so important. Right now we’re doing this Impact mix, which is so huge for us, but I would say that the first ever radio thing we did at Fault Radio was just as huge, because without that kind of early support, we wouldn’t have had the confidence to keep doing it.

M: One of my favourite similarities is that they have audiences that are down for really fast music. I’ve seen packed rooms vibing to 140 - 160 BPM at 11:PM in both cities which feels pretty unique. Another thing that I think they have in common is a lack of an obvious sonic identity - there isn’t a clear Bombay sound or an SF sound yet when it comes to electronic music. I think that’s really cool and indicative of the diversity of sound in the emerging talent in both cities and probably makes a lot more space for exploration.

Your next EP, ‘Better Together’, is out this month! What was the inspiration behind the record?

M: While we were making it, we were just trying to channel a lot of new and intense feelings we had - like going on tour for the first time, living with our BFFs, being in serious relationships, discovering really sick subcultures and communities through music. It ended up being a very personal and sincere record, probably as a byproduct of all of those things.

J: Sonically, we’re still inspired by South Asian sounds and instrumentation, but with this record, it goes into clubbier and leaner territories that feel more alive to us right now. If the last EP was us trying to figure out what we want to represent, this one is us being comfortable in our skin, and finding stronger ways to pay homage to the past and our cultures while still moving forward. In our heads, we don’t really think of it as a “South Asian dance record". It’s more that we’re making dance music, and the pool of sounds we’re inspired by happen to be South Asian rather than Western, or from somewhere else. To us, it’s just dance music, but made more relevant to us.

‘Better Together’ lands on Seb Wildblood’s all my thoughts imprint – are there any other labels you have in sight that you’d love to release with in the future?

M: Seb has been such a legend to work with and we’re still deep in the midst of releasing 'Better Together' and tying up the remixes, so we haven’t really thought too much about other labels for future stuff yet. Lately though, we’ve been loving releases from Scuffed, Pretty Weird, Rhythm Section, Kindergarten and 3024 to name a few.

Read this next: Get to know Seb Wildblood, the producer serving up hazy house nostalgia

You’ve been playing a lot of shows in the US and India, do you have any plans to head to Europe soon?

J: We’ve got a couple of UK shows in the fall, and hopefully we can plan something for Europe next spring. There's definitely lots of rooms we wanna play in.

What are you both listening to on repeat right now?

M: Love the new Toumba EP and the new King Gizzard album, and I’ve also been listening to a bunch of good bossa nova playlists lately.

J: Some older Joy Orbison, some dub records (mostly King Tubby), Sun Ra. And also 'Gorge' music, which is something a friend showed us. It’s a made-up genre of mountaineering music with lots of toms.

What’s next for Baalti?

J: The immediate next thing is putting together this remix package for 'Better Together'. Then finish mixdowns for all the new tunes we’ve made since this EP, and figure out how/when/why we wanna release them. That’s gonna be a whole project, but we're really excited about it because the music absolutely slaps, and it draws from very specific aesthetics and sounds so it almost feels like a concept album.

We’ve also been planning an ethnomusicology-type documentary. There’s some really cool electronic music happening in India right now and it’s not coming from the clubs, so I don’t think there are a lot of people talking about it. We’ll probably share more about that at some point, but it’s been influencing the stuff we’ve made after 'Better Together' a lot. The dream would be to take three months off and go over to India with a crew to shoot this documentary.

M: I’m also keen on developing the next iteration of our live set, which is always a fun process. We’ve been DJing a good amount outside of playing live shows, so we’ve also been brainstorming what a hybrid live/DJ setup could look like as well.

Can you tell us about your Impact mix?

J: This one’s all about global club. It’s connecting a bunch of sounds that feel really inspiring to us currently, focusing heavily on South Asian and Middle Eastern club music, and finding through-lines between them. It’s super rhythmically charged, percussion-heavy, a little hectic, and a bit of a journey that hopefully takes you some place new while connecting the dots between old sounds and new ones. There’s a bunch of our unreleased songs in there, lots of songs from our new EP, some cheeky last-minute edits, and lots of heaters from producers we dig. Actually really proud of this mix.


Baalti - ??
Pseudopolis - High for Life [Redstone Press]
Moktar - All Like That [Steel City Dance Discs]
Moktar - Lemon [Steel City Dance Discs]
Baalti - Spilling [all my thoughts]
Nikki Nair & DJ ADHD x Ilayaraja - Whaa/Raja (Baalti Edit)
Muskila - QAAR A [Sur Sur]
Ilayaraja - Amman Kovil (Siu Mata Edit)
DJ Plead - RB C [Nervous Horizon]
Baalti - ??
Tigerstyle - Pukka Tingz [Kismet Records]
Anunaku - Teleported [3024]
Baalti - Kirpa [all my thoughts]
Baalti - Staying in Touch [all my thoughts]
Baalti - Buttons [all my thoughts]
Toma Kami - Ritmo Actual [Man Band]
Sobolik - Airplane Mode [Kindergarten Records]
Baalti - ??
Baalti - ??
DJ Smiley Bobby - Hard Drum Sound System (150 bpm mix) [Nyege Nyege Tapes]
?? - ??

'Better Together' by Baalti is out on June 28 via all my thoughts. Pre-order it here.

Gemma Ross is Mixmag's Assistant Editor, follow her on Twitter

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