Good vibrations, man

Believe it or not, the funny-looking bloke in the pink trousers is pop's hottest property. Earlier this month, he beat Blur and the Manic Street Preachers to music's Mercury Prize. Now he's hanging out with Bowie and re-mixing Madonna. Not bad for a 29-year-old who thinks it's 1964

Talvin Singh - recent winner of the Mercury music prize for his album OK - is wearing bright Barbie pink: bright-Barbie-pink shirt, bright- Barbie-pink trousers. Few men, I have found, can successfully carry off bright Barbie pink, but Talvin looks quite lovely in it. Not a total pansy at all. Still, he thinks he may change for our photographer.

"I, like, woke this morning thinking pink, man, but now I'm not thinking pink - d'you get my vibe?"

"Nope," I reply truthfully, having long operated on the principle that if you bother to get dressed in the morning in the first place (which is never a certainty in my case) then that's pretty much it for the rest of the day. Talvin, however, is not dissuaded:

"I'm thinking more black now, man..." he adds thoughtfully.


"Black can be a beautiful vibe."

"Can it?"

"Totally, man..."

The great thing about Talvin Singh, I think, is that he is possibly more Dylan from The Magic Roundabout than Dylan ever was.

A few choice examples. Talvin on anger: "I suppose I don't get angry unless I get angry, man, but then when I do get angry, I try to turn it into a beautiful vibe"; Talvin on Hyde Park where (after he's changed into a polo neck that's totally black, man), we go to take the pictures. "This place has got a really good vibe, man. I used to hang out here with a girl who was really cool"; Talvin on the eclipse, which he avoided: "I made sure I was not exposed to it, man. It was a pretty inauspicious occasion. The sun's pretty arrogant - everyone loves the sun - and when it gets, like, shadowed, it must go through a lot of pain..."

He makes me feel fantastically boring and square and grammatical and un-cosmic. Although, that said, I've been on a few things in my time. Just yesterday, I was on something that gave me the most amazing, stop- start journeying sensation. Big, it was, and red. I should take buses more often. Certainly, I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience and, with a pass, it need not work out prohibitively expensive.

I do very much like Talvin's music, though. I wasn't, frankly, much looking forward to listening to OK. Asian music has never done much for me. Mostly I find it hard to distinguish it from, say, the sound of 17 cats having a fight down the bottom of the garden, or a woman enduring a shockingly difficult labour, or even, 17 cats having a fight down the bottom of the garden while a woman is enduring a shockingly difficult labour - all that high-pitched ehh-wah-ee-wah-eeeeee-ing. However, Talvin's music is rather different. It's instrumental, and a fusion of Indian classical and Western dance and tabla drumming. He describes his sound as "reinventing the vibe of the NRI". Beg your pudding? "Non-Resident Indian."

Whatever, it is very much his own sound, and it has made him very, very hot. He beat Blur and Manic Street Preachers to the Mercury prize. He has remixed a single for Madonna. "She's fucking awesome, man." Bowie is a regular visitor to his Brixton recording studio. "He's fucking awesome, man." Andrew Lloyd Webber recently summoned him for a drink. What was he like? "He wants to do an opera. He's kind of a nice guy." Possibly, he'd prefer to be "fucking awesome, man", but therein lies a tragedy, I guess.

We meet at the Kensington Royal Garden Hotel. His manager, Amy, is there when I arrive, as is Steve, his press person from Island records. Talvin has a house in the East End - "at a secret address, man" - but is staying here at the moment because he has a lot to do in central London. Talvin, however, has just popped out to the shops. "Ah, here he comes," exclaims Amy. "Oops, there he goes," I exclaim, as he walks right past the glass revolving doors. Amy has to dash out to retrieve him. Finally, he dreamily revolves in. He has great, sticky-up hair. "I haven't combed it in a long time, man. But I'm thinking of combing it soon. I've heard it's good for the brain cells. Stimulates them, man." He is brilliantly immodest. Do you think of yourself as good-looking, Talvin? "Yeah, I do." Always? "I'm reminded of it often, yeah." He smiles. He has a very slow, rather beautiful smile.

He is carrying a Gap bag and a Jigsaw bag. I love other people's shopping almost as much as my own. With mounting excitement, I absolutely insist on being allowed a peek. He has purchased boxer shorts. I am disappointed. I scold him. You receive pounds 20,000 prize money and all you can do is buy pants? Get a grip, man! He says he's got a big tax bill to pay. Tax bills, I sigh. Tell me about them. And accountants! "You gotta get one called Patel, man," he says. "They're the best." Fetchingly, this may be the only sensible thing he says all morning. Plus the only comprehensible thing, come to that. Congratulations on winning the prize, Talvin! "Nobody asks where a tomato comes from. A tomato is a tomato." He is very deep. Obviously.

We go up to his hotel room. It is dark. The curtains are closed. "Shall I open them?" I offer brightly. "Nah." He confesses to Steve that he may have fallen asleep during a long-distance call last night, and so may have left the receiver off until morning. "Talvin!" wails Steve. "Talvin!" wails Amy. "Sorry, man," says Talvin. We order room service. I say I love hotels and room service. He says he prefers to be at home. He is currently, it would seem, un-doing it up. "I've just got rid of the land line, man." The telephone, you mean? "Yeah man. Got rid of it. It's the baddest shit."

I am not sure why this East End, Anglo-Asian 29-year-old thinks - linguistically, at least - that it's 1964, man. As far as I can work out (which isn't easy) he was born and brought up in Leytonstone, east London. His Indian father, Raghbir, arrived here from Kenya at 15, fleeing Idi Amin's regime. The family had left a business in Africa. "So they basically ended up in this country with nothing, though they had money in India, so had a roof over their tops." His father worked on a building-site by day and studied electronics by night. "He worked really hard, man." His mother, Kaljeet, who is from Calcutta, helped to make ends meet by running up clothes on her sewing-machine. "She'd make us these really mad pants."

He grew up fascinated by Indian culture, particularly the music. Your first memory, Talvin? "It was a birthday party. There were a lot of musicians there and I was sitting next to them, checking the vibe and feeling part of it. I think I was four."

I wonder what he was like at school. "I was dynamic, man. If I liked history, I'd be in the top class for history.

If I lost interest in history, I'd be in the bottom class for it."

Did you get in trouble? "All the time, man." For? "Just random shit."

Oh, that. At first, he wanted to be either a musician or a vet. "I was really intense about that, man. I had lots of pets. I helped the RSPCA and everything." But? "I just lost interest, and gave away my terrapins." His concentration span seems quite limited. He says he may not do another album. Instead, he is currently writing a film. "It's about an artist who doesn't realise his potential."

His parents, yes, were ambitious for him. They'd have liked him to be a doctor. I say Indian and Jewish parents are similar in this respect. You could even take Goodness Gracious Me! substitute Jews, and the jokes would still make sense. He says he doesn't like Goodness Gracious Me! "I think some of the jokes are a bit cliched." What do you like on telly, then? "I like the Discovery Channel, man." What do you like on the Discovery Channel, man? "Just anything beautiful. I like coral reefs, man."

His parents did not encourage his musical ambitions - especially when it became clear he wasn't going to go down the Indian classical route - but: "My dad was cool. He sat me down and said, "I don't care what you want to do. You can be a doctor, a musician, accountant, boxer - but whatever it is, go and do it now. I don't want you to come back to me in 15 years saying I stopped you doing what you wanted to do." I say he sounds like a wise man, man. "Yeah."

At 15 he went off to India, to study tabla under the leading master, Pandit Laxman Singh. Pandit Laxman Singh was not expecting him, no, and initially Talvin was turned away. Remembering this episode results, in fact, in the most spectacular burst of coherence. "I spent two weeks going every day to his house. His people wouldn't let me meet him. I was just another guy in jeans with long hair to them. Then one day his people said, OK, he'll see you. So I went into the music room and did a nine-beat drum solo, which is unusual, man, and he said: `Come back tomorrow.' The next day it was, like, raining really serious. When the weather is this bad in India, you don't have to phone or anything; you just know everything's off. But I got a bike and cycled to his house. I was at the gate, drenched, when he walked out in the most beautiful robe. He took that robe and dried me off with it. I was like a son to him from then on, man."

He studied with Pandit Laxman Singh for two years before returning to this country and, running Anokha, a seminal club night at The Blue Note in Hoxton which spawned a compilation album, Soundz of the Asian Underground. OK, his first and possibly last solo album, was recorded in London, New York, Madras and Mumbai. I ask him how he celebrated winning the Mercury thing. "I just got really chilled. But I could have done without the champagne." Too much of it? "Cheap champagne is like the worst thing." It was cheap champagne? "No; expensive."

I decide to switch topics. What about your personal life, Talvin? Do you fall in love easily? "I'm very expressive and just deal with what is happening and free up my vibes to a person and then, when the vibe's not happening, I move on." Are you in love now, Talvin? "I'm always in love, man." You've got a girlfriend, then? "Yup, and since I met her 18 months ago, she's been the most brilliant guidance." Children? Want them? "I've sorted out the first step. About eight months ago, my life was going to be my music, but now my music is going to be my life."

Anyway, time to go. I kiss him goodbye with some fondness - he is quite beguiling in his frustratingly spacey way - then say: "You know what, you remind me of Dylan from The Magic Roundabout. Are you, perhaps, Dylan in a cunning, non-rabbity, Barbie-pink, Anglo-Asian disguise?" "No, man," he says. "Why?"

I don't get a bus home. I get a taxi. You can only have so much excitement in one day.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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