Chalk meets cheese in the new album Jaago. It features its creator Suryakant Sawhney aka Lifafa’s old-fashioned crooning in his trademark baritone, which sounds like a relic from a bygone black-and-white era. Enveloping it are layers of bizarro-electronic soundscapes, composed of synths, which Sawhney makes from just about anything. “A second of Mozart, a second of traffic, or just someone playing flute outside,” said the 31-year-old, when prodded about the ingredients he messes with in his one-man laboratory in Delhi.

The finesse with which these two seemingly conflicting musical sensibilities are made to complement each other is what makes the January 1 release so interesting. All eight songs in Jaago – a self-released album running a little over half an hour – have been sung, written, composed and produced by Sawhney.

Jaago (2019).

Six years ago, when Sawhney unveiled his solo project Lifafa with the self-titled debut album, the work was marked by his early tinkerings with electronic music. At the time, his band Peter Cat Recording Co., founded in 2009, was comfortably positioned as one of the most successful acts in the Indian independent music scene. With a unique melange of jazz, funk, blues, rock and lo-fi aesthetics, the band stood out as a sonic outlier in Delhi, where the music scene was dominated by electronic dance music nights and underground metal.

“We got quickly independent since we were producing ourselves, making the album in our homes, and never needing money to get others to produce us in a studio,” said Sawhney. “We weren’t bound by funding and investing. People eventually saw our sincerity.”

But “making music that was so niche that only a certain class of people could understand, felt strange”. This realisation was what led to Sawhney’s full-fledged attempt at making Hindi songs of radio-friendly length with Jaago. “The idea wasn’t entirely to make music in Hindi and make money,” Sawhney said. “But I wanted to make something for India.”

If the intricate layering of synths and samples in Jaago unravel slowly to make sense after repeating listenings, then understanding the album’s place in the context of Sawhney’s musical career is important to truly appreciate it.

Suryakant Sawhney aka Lifafa. Photo courtesy: Lifafa/Facebook.
Suryakant Sawhney aka Lifafa. Photo courtesy: Lifafa/Facebook.

Sawhney grew up listening to his mother’s bhajans along with the songs of Mohammed Rafi and Mukesh. His artistic influences included filmmaker-actor Guru Dutt, and singers Hemant Kumar, Sam Cooke and Menelik Wossenatchew. What also fascinated him were the fuzzy acoustics of a pre-stereophonic sound era, Indian pop culture and animation, which he studied in San Francisco.

All these influences came together in the works of Peter Cat Recording Co., which he formed with drummer Karan Singh, who comes from a heavy metal background, and two others. The band is now made up of Sawhney, Singh and multi-instrumentalist Kartik Pillai, who has his own electronic project.

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Love Demons, Peter Cat Recording Co.

But gradually, boredom set in. Having chanced upon electronic music, Sawhney began to create random sounds on his computer as one would thoughtlessly throw colour on a canvas and stand back back to see the effect. Lifafa happened practically overnight. In fact, before Sawhney began to create his debut electronic album, he had “literally heard just five or six electronic artists”.

One was visionary British artist Burial and the other was his fellow countryman, singer-composer-producer James Blake, who, Sawhney says, were inspirations for making “good-sounding lo-fi [low fidelity] music”. That means a deliberately dirty and glitchy sound, but one that is crafted with dexterity – exactly the thing Peter Cat Recording Co. was doing, but not with just a computer.

Sawhney chose the name Lifafa, primarily because “though it was an Indian word, it could easily be said by someone who’s not”. The name also refers to the phenomenon of enveloping in electronic music or the way a sound rises and decays over time, which forms the basis of envelope generators in synthesisers.

The result was a fascinating experiment, and easily Sawhney’s most audacious work as a solo artist. Everything Sawhney was hearing at the point went into it. White noise, field recordings, people’s voices and music of whichever genre or time were chopped up, blended and made indistinguishable.

In 2014, a four-song EP, In Hi Ko, followed. It was a blip on the radar, and felt like throwaways from Peter Cat Recording Co.’s jamming sessions, regurgitated by a malfunctioning robot. And then, Lifafa vanished for five years.

“I spent a couple of years in Berlin doing shows in a club environment,” said Sawhney. “That compelled me to make music for a club.” This explains Jaago’s quasi-Bollywood sound for people who wouldn’t normally tune in to Bollywood music.

As progressive as Lifafa’s debut album was, it was ultimately directionless and chaotic, something that Jaago, though not as left-field, avoids. And Sawhney’s skill, to perform his current set as Lifafa live, is a snack for the senses. “The idea to make a different kind of music that began with Lifafa found closure with Jaago,” he said.

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Lifafa's Boiler Room session in Delhi, 2017.

Artistic challenges

With Lifafa, a constant aim for Sawhney is to find a sonic identity that stays unique, despite drawing so much from global culture. Sawhney cites the example of deejays in India’s small towns who, he feels, are making the most interesting electronic music in the country.

“Because they are free from the latest trends of the music industry, they don’t care about fitting into a larger scene and don’t have the pressure of having a certain sound,” said Sawhney. “A guy from Haryana hears auto-tuned hip-hop somewhere and he just adapts it to make his own thing. He does it because it sounds good.”

“Without actively exoticising Indian pop culture, I try to find a way to coalesce it all without making my Indian influences seem rare or cheesy,” said Sawhney. This makes him different from, say, early Asian Underground artists, whose music had their subcontinental influences underlined in bold because the idea was to make the diaspora proud of their heritage.

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Nikamma, Lifafa.

Writing lyrics and singing in Hindi wasn’t easy for him. When Sawhney had to recreate the Peter Cat Recording Co. song Pariquel in Hindi as Jaanam for Dibakar Banerjee’s 2015 film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! he felt discouraged initially. It took him six years to give Lifafa a recognisable personality.

“Thinking, writing and singing in Hindi was a challenge I gave myself,” said Sawhney. “That’s why I named it Lifafa, because the brain has to think in Hindi to make music in Hindi and not just translate English to Hindi.” One of the results was a rare Hindi song from Peter Cat Recording Co., Kya Farak Padega, released on Independence Day in 2018.

The song does not feature in the band’s latest compilation album, Portrait of a Time: 2010-2016, which is out on the French record label Panache. The nine-song album comprises remastered versions of handpicked classics from the band’s back catalogue with the aim of introducing the band to European listeners. Their older albums have been pulled off from streaming platforms, but Sawhney assures that they will be re-issued on Panache.

“We [Peter Cat Recording Co.] have also completed a new record that will be out soon,” he added. And what’s next for Lifafa? “Expect more music, more videos, more provocative s**t.”