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Friday, July 18, 2008

India's pioneering DJ Pearl goes global

Staff writer

Since the worldwide dance-music explosion hit its peak in the late 1990s, the market for clubbing has been saturated. From Tokyo to New York to Ibiza, the "superclubs" are established, the fan base for the music is pretty much stagnant and everyone is looking for the next place that will experience a summer of love. And DJ Pearl has discovered a subcontinent.

News photo
Wired for sound: DJ Pearl, one of India's few female DJs, comes to Tokyo this weekend.

A native of India, Pearl has been on the front lines for more than a decade of house music's assault on her home country. "When I started (as a DJ), I had to play everything, because there is such a diverse audience in India," she tells The Japan Times. "But I wanted to concentrate on house. There was a very small audience because it is such a niche music, but that has grown immensely."

The growth is largely thanks to Pearl and her husband, MTV India VJ Nikhil Chinapa. Since 2003, their company, Submerge, has sought to bring electronic dance music to India through parties featuring first their favorite records from around the world, and later their favorite international DJs.

Describing her musical style, Pearl says, "I started playing vocal house, but I've now moved into a slightly edgier sound. I now lean more toward progressive and minimal techno. You have to be able to play across the board in India; you play in every corner of the country and you don't know what people are going to like in different cities."

Now with world-renowned DJs playing their Submerge Sessions parties, and with critical acclaim for Pearl's events from dance-music organizations such as Britain's Defected Records, the time has come for Submerge to spread its wings globally.

"The intention when I first started playing was to bring house music and some respect for the (DJing) profession to India, but the scene has changed immensely over the last few years," she says. "Now it is time for me to take my music worldwide."

Following some low-key gigs in Dubai, her set in Tokyo on Sunday, July 20 (July 21 is a national holiday) will be one of the first Pearl has played away from her home country, with Ibiza and Britain to follow.

Living in a country whose economic growth is second only to China's, Pearl has the luxury of a crowd blessed with both leisure and cash to spend.

This comes with its drawbacks. For one, India is as Draconian with its laws on clubs as Japan, where dancing with a drink in your hand after midnight is technically forbidden (though rarely enforced.)

"Every state (in India) has its own culture and every state has its own licensing laws," explains Pearl. "The official closing time in Bombay is 1:30 a.m.; in Delhi as well. In Bangalore, the former clubbing capital of India, the clubs used to be open all night, but now they are forced to close at 11:30 p.m. There was even a phase where there was a no-dancing rule in Bangalore; you were just expected to stand and listen to the music. I don't think they implemented that very strictly.

"The whole problem started in Bombay with dance bars (often associated with prostitution), which the moral police got up in arms about demanding that they be shut down; there was a lot more stuff than just dancing going on in those places," she continues. "But the dance bars responded by claiming that if they had to shut down, then so did the nightclubs. The authorities couldn't really differentiate between the two, so then the laws became really strict. Calcutta is the only place that officially has no trouble with clubbing all night."

But that will inevitably change. The British club scene started in fields around London in the late 1980s, and when it went indoors it was met with the notorious 1988 "World in Action" TV documentary, in which the acid-house scene was described as a "sinister and evil cult that encourages people to take drugs." Britain now has world-famous clubs such as London's Ministry of Sound and Fabric, and dance music even landed shows on BBC Radio, such as "Essential Mix."

The same is likely to happen in India — a fact not lost on Defected, which has teamed up with Submerge to produce a CD and co-organize events. Defected's head honcho, Simon Dunmore, has also played several times at Pearl's yearend festival, Sunburn, in Goa — now very different from its drug-addled heyday, when trance was the only music on the scene.

"What started as around 14 people dancing to music a few years ago has grown exponentially: About 15,000 people come to Sunburn," says Pearl proudly. "It takes place in the last week in December, and whichever DJ friends of ours are in India at that time, we (invite them) to play. It turned into a little rave where everyone can play their own music and do what they want."

Dunmore wrote on his Web site of the festival: "Beach parties when they go off always have a magical vibe, and this is exactly the kind of party that has been missing from Ibiza for a few years now."

He added of DJ Pearl and the Submerge crew in India: "It was not all about the international DJs in attendance: The Indian DJs and acts that performed more than held their own, especially DJ Pearl."

Since last year's party, Pearl has released a DJ mix in collaboration with Defected, "Submerge in the House," which has been successful in India. With original productions on the way and a potential fan base of around 1 billion people, the chances are the mix will be the first of many.

DJ Pearl plays July 20 at Warehouse 702 in Azabu-Juban, Tokyo with DJs Enuoh, Caizoc Rec, Alex Einz and DiSKOBiSKiT. 10 p.m. till late; ¥3,500 on the door; all proceeds go to the Japanese Red Cross. www.warehouse702.com; www.djpearl.com

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