Babloo Babylon’s legend has been growing – slowly, deliberately – in the underground music space in India over the past few years. There’s been a steady output of music on his SoundCloud, the most recent of which, a single called cliche sound, came out in late October. His songs have the distinct whiff of a bygone era. Babloo splices, contorts, manipulates, arranges, structures long-forgotten samples, most of them sourced from Bollywood film music of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. But there’s a question that often rings out: “Who is Babloo Babylon?” No one really knows.
The elusive anonymous artist has played three gigs in the past year and a half, all of them in Delhi – a Listening Room session, an unMute gig at antiSOCIAL, and a Boxout Wednesdays gig. At the first gig, there was a buzz at the venue, an art gallery in the city. That Babloo Babylon is playing. That he is going to show up mere minutes before his scheduled slot, do his thing and then disappear. Rana Ghose, the promoter behind the Listening Room series of gigs, remembers how Babloo was erratic with their communication over Facebook at first. “When we finally met,” Ghose said, “he was not quite what I expected – perfectly sculpted moustache, fitted shirt, flawless smile – but his music was. For his debut live set, he just deployed an SP-404 sampler, efficiently fingered out his whole set in real time, packed up, expressed his gratitude and left, again suggesting not to reveal his name. To this day, I haven’t.”
His identity remains a closely guarded secret. Babloo Babylon from Jhumri Telaiya is no more than an alias, a second life, an alter ego, an elaborate fiction. It’s tempting to chalk this off as a gimmick, but there’s more to it. “I don’t like showing my face,” he said over a phone call. “Internally, my subconscious tells me, ‘Don’t show your face. What’s there in the face? It’s about the music, right?’”
It wasn’t an easy call to make. Babloo, available via his Facebook page, doesn’t give out his phone number since he’s worried it might point to his identity. After a lot of back and forth, he finally agrees to a conversation. But the only way to talk to him is through a phone call routed through UnMute, the agency that manages him. He’s wary of revealing any details about his personal life. When asked how old he is, his reply is categorical: “Let’s not get into all that.”
Homage to Bollywood
Babloo sounds like he’s probably somewhere in his 20s. He feels, though, like he could very well be a 70-year-old man, born in the wrong decade. He has a wonderful fascination for Bollywood and other regional music from 70 years ago. He cites the techniques and technologies propagated by the sound engineers of the time as groundbreaking. A strong fidelity to history is apparent in his works – his affinity for the past is a recurring motif, right from the kinds of sounds he uses to the generally lo-fi nature of his production, establishing a sort of throwback quality. Yet Babloo’s approach is such that the samples rarely, if ever, sound like exact replicas of the original source. He takes old sounds and treats them in a way that something new appears. For instance, he’ll take a quick burst of the flute, or a two-second beat, or maybe he’ll reverse the sample. “The moment a sound gets sampled,” he said, “it doesn’t sound the same. Or maybe the original source isn’t there in anyone’s consciousness.” It’s as much about preserving a lost history of cinema and music as it is about transposing that legacy into a modern context.
The aesthetic, carefully fashioned – from the concealed identity, the cheeky social media posts, the visual vocabulary to the music itself – is one of sincerity, not postmodern kitsch. The Bollywood-heavy sampling is steeped in reverence, as opposed to tongue-in-cheek irony. At his most animated, Babloo shuttles between eloquent passages in Hindi and English, detailing his love for past music, as well as the processes that inform his work. He uses the Roland SP-404 for sampling, as well as the Akai MPC. The MPC, in fact, is something he restored himself. The only deal he could find online was for a dead MPC. “It’s like a whole CPU inside,” he said. He then proceeded to import different parts for it, and set it up on his own. “I’m still trying to master this – this becomes my instrument to make music,” he said. “You need to know the ins and outs.” He prefers the tonality and the colour of analogue technology. Digital sounds give him, in his words, tinnitus.
The origin story of Babloo Babylon is, expectedly, is a fun one. The project began in earnest in 2015. “Hum kahin ghoom rahe the, doston ke saath film bana rahe the (We were just roaming around, working on a film with friends).” One thing led to another, and he found himself on the editing software Audacity on his friend’s laptop, cutting and splicing a few regional samples for the soundtrack of the film. While that music never made it to the film, it sparked something in him. “It was always somewhere in my subconscious,” he said. “Kahin kahin se kuch kuch aa raha tha, hamesha. I just didn’t know what it was.”
But this is only stage one of Babloo’s evolution – he has cooked up an elaborate future for his alter ego. “Right now, this is not even the birth of Babloo,” he said. “Bachpan se bada karna hai (I have to help him grow from childhood to adulthood), after which he will get married, put out romantic songs, then maybe his dog will die, so he’ll be sad. It’s a living entity, and I’m treating it like that.”
The name Babloo Babylon has its roots in the city of Jhumri Telaiya in Jharkhand. It’s become a punchline of sorts in pop culture, but Babloo actually claims to have a strong connection to it. He spent a brief period of his life there, and he recalls listening to the radio broadcasts on Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylon that would be inundated with requests from the city’s residents. The name Babloo would often be mentioned. And thus was born his pseudonym. There’s some significance attached to the use of Babylon too, but it’s something he doesn’t want to reveal for now.
The name is also a nod to the film Om-Dar-B-Dar, a cult postmodern film from 1988 by Kamal Swaroop. “I really feel inspired by that film,” he said. “The number of times I’ve watched it…I still don’t know where it’s headed. It’s so complex. The characters, they were also on this journey – it was like a secret life, a different life altogether. And it had this signature of the past.”
The notion of a secret life is something he connects with on a personal level. “I’m living two lives,” he said. “In one, I’m a regular guy. That ends at, say, seven every day. But in the second, I’m just a figure from a film, like the villain or the hero. Babloo is the secret life, it’s the spirit which resides in this body and comes out when it wants to, and feels liberated.”
Babloo has chosen to remain anonymous partly because he’s shy. But more importantly, it’s a way to preserve the sanctity of the music itself, by shunning any attention that comes his way. While Babloo is merely at the beginning of his journey, artists hiding their identity remain a time-honoured tradition. The fuss around the identity of graffiti artist Banksy remains so indelibly linked to his work itself – with one persistent theory pointing to Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja being behind the pseudonym. In India, too, a graffiti artist by the name of Daku has chosen to conceal their identity. In the world of music, there’s Daft Punk, whose members might be known to the public, but they never show their faces. Jandek has been an enigmatic musical presence as well, with his real identity subject to much speculation.
Babloo is like a “‘backstage’ guy”. “They make sure everything is alright, all the checks are done, and the show can go on,” he said. “Once you start getting a little limelight, you start to take things for granted. I don’t want to spoil the image – not socially or anything – but the image of this guy I’m raising. I don’t want to spoil him. If he gets to see that world, he might not want to make music again. What if he gets into gambling? ‘Bro, mere ko achcha lag raha hai (I am liking this).’ I don’t want him to get affected by anything around. It’s about focus and discipline.”
He believes the underground electronic space in India can develop into a powerful cultural movement eventually, giving due credit to the people building it from the ground up. He also confesses to wanting to play the occasional live gig alongside his releases. But Babloo isn’t in a rush. He’s got a clear idea of what he wants to do: writing singles, and working on concepts for an album too. But for now, his priorities are to learn the intricacies of his gear better as well as collaborating with rappers. He is looking for young artists in the country who can complement his signature sound, which is why he puts up his music for free download. “I want a 12-year-old, a 15-year-old, rapping his guts out on that song, apne gaon ke akhaade mein. At his local haunt, rapping to his friends.”