The Making of MELA

At the tree where MELA was born. Chinmaya Dunster and Ben Fordham

The Making of MELA’s ‘Beyond Tradition’

Eighteen months, sixteen musicians, six countries. An interview with Chinmaya Dunster

What fired the whole thing up? Chinmaya Dunster repeats my question and leans back in his Devon garden chair.  Behind him rears an ancient rock wall hung with subtle and multiple greens in the autumn sunlight.  I’m here to find out the story behind the birth of MELA’s Beyond Tradition, his new dynamite release.

It’s big because Chinmaya is a consummate musician, an environmentalist, a world traveller, a meditator and an engaging personality. He takes a deep breath and I ready my mike and my pen.

“It all began with a not-by-chance meeting in our local Seiner school in February 2019. I was there to take my ten year old for her first day of school.  We’d just come back from living abroad for many years, New Zealand and India mostly.  This guy with a young son in tow comes up to me and says, ‘Excuse me; are you the new musician we heard about?  I’ve checked out your work on line.  I love it!  I’m a producer and DJ – Ben Fordham.  And I’m just back from a first trip to India.’ 

We clicked immediately, two lovers of music, two lovers of India, two proud fathers. That very first meeting Ben offered to re-mix a couple of tracks right away.”

Remix? I ask

“I knew I had the multi-track recordings for one of the songs on my ‘Mystic Poets of India’ album, made in 2013 with an old friend, Indian classical vocalist and composer Sandeep Srivastav. I dug into my computer’s memory and found ‘Ranjha Ranjha’, a Sufi-inspired East-West fusion song. Anyway, within a couple of days Ben had done a re-mix and now, eightenn months later, in it’s final form it’s “Ranjha Ranjha (Kudle Sunrise mix)” – on the album.

But another synchronicity had to happen, almost a disaster, before MELA could emerge as a full-blown project”.

I interrupt. Can I ask why the name MELA first?

Chinmaya shifts his chair forward to take in a bit more sun. “Well Ben comes from a generation of producers and DJs schooled in Psytrance and Chillout.  It’s music for festivals and celebrations and dance.  Kumbha Mela?  Does that ring a bell with you?”

Indeed.  Who has not heard of the oldest and biggest of the world’s festivals  – India’s two-week celebration of religious diversity drawing tens of millions together?

“So, put together Ben’s experience with the club dance scene and my music, – so much of it made to celebrate life on this planet, – led me to a simple, crystalline word – MELA. It makes me feel happy and light on my feet.  It reminds me of some of the best times I’ve spent in rural India – at a simple village festival or fair, where people from far-flung districts meet and eat and dance and exchange their goods and eligible progeny.  And would you believe it…. I scoured the web for a band by that name!  Not one!  It seemed like a gift.”

A mela in Kashmir, India

So back to the story, I suggest.
“It’s May last year. Here I am in the land of my birth after 31 years. I’m feeling embraced.  I’m feeling extravagant.  There are old musician friends here from around the world.  And there’s a prime concert venue near my home called Ashburton Arts.  It’s time for a party, time for a gig, time to put a dream band together.”

Here Chinmaya’s already big energy overflows.  A glass of water on the table beside him falls into the grass.  Without missing a beat of his story, he picks it up, refills it and continues. 

“So I scheduled a concert. However, as every performing artist knows you have to pay just as much heed to the boring, practical things as the thrilling, intuitive things. We had this guy lined up for the sound and the lighting.  He was a frail old hippy who said he’d been on the mix for the Rolling Stones live in the seventies.  He could provide the gear cheap and he’d mix it too on the night. And what happens?  At the 11th hour the poor guy is rushed off to hospital! We were frantic.  How do you find all the gear needed in rural Devon? How do you find someone with the skills to use it? And we had a single day.  Long story short, Ben was drafted in to mix his first-ever live gig. And with keyboards, two guitars, drums, sarod, fiddle and vocalists it was quite a challenge!”

Chinmaya stands and refills my glass from the jug that glints rainbows into the air.  He continues his story walking slowly back and forth, sometime out of microphone range. 

“The time is midnight after the gig.  It was a sell-out with people standing in the foyer and the bar and the courtyard in front.  Ben was on fire as we stood outside the shuttered-down hall, burning to get his hands on the original multi-track recordings of all the up-tempo pieces we’d just played. 

I had to tell him ‘Nah, I don’t have any of that stuff, half of it was done on reel-to-reel back in the 90’s. We’ll record it all again.’”

So it was agreed: Chinmaya would re-record his sarod and guitar on all the tracks Ben wanted, and commission old connections as instrumentalists and vocalists to perform the melodies and solos required (a trip that took him virtually to Jordan, Iran, New Zealand and India); while Ben would weave them together with his psytrance/chillout background and new-found appreciation for all things Indian.

Chinmaya continues: “It became our routine after bringing the kids to school for Ben and I to meet with over takeaway coffees under a maple tree in the nearby village.  Everything was up for discussion. For a start, I had been closeted away over thirty years, studying Hindustani classical music, dancing to live and world-based music at the Osho Commune in Pune, and working on my career as a New Age recording artist. I had literally no idea of what had been happening in the club/dance scene from the ‘90s on. I loved what Ben was doing with the structures, blending elements from two completely different tracks into one for instance, but it took me a while to get what he was doing with the sound.”

Chinmaya and Sandeep Srivastav in concert in Delhi

Chinmaya is seated again but now on the edge of his chair, anxious that I understand what he is about to explain.  “That summer ‘Jai jai Surnayak’ – which is now the album’s final track – was the first Ben presented to me in anything like finished shape. I wondered what Sandeep, who’d both composed and sung the piece, would think about his voice being drowned in a background of heavy reverb, synth sounds and electronical tweakings. And yet, at the same time, it was as if my ears were opening afresh to something new.  The sounds weren’t interfering with the integrity of the Indian vocalists performances as I’d first thought. They were kicking it up into some juicy ground that I hadn’t really known existed!

“It wasn’t just me of course. Ben was having to make some adjustments to his ears too. He was chucking everything at it and hashing it all about, but I kept asking him to keep the melody lines out front.  He was raving about their enthralling unpredictability and knew they were at the heart of the project, but he was unconsciously hiding them away behind a sound that was default in his psytrance scene. It was tough going at times. He was presenting me with mix after mix. I’d rave about what he was doing but then have to point out misunderstandings about the timing of his beats against a melody, or the way he’d disturbed the integrity of a poetic vocal line by cutting it short.”

Chinmaya sinks back into his chair again as we watch a blackbird give an alarm call and flutter off at the approach of the family cat. I’m aware there is still a lot more to come.  He is re-gathering his forces.

 “So our kids progressed from Class Four to Class Five and the leaves of the maple changed from summer greens to winter’s bronze. Early in 2020 it became clear that with nearly ten tracks on the go, a full-length album was being born. What to call it. What to call ourselves?  What kind of album was it? Psytrance, Dub? Chillout, World?”

Chinmaya, his arms spread wide, looks probingly at me. I fail to provide a new word and look back at him blankly. He closes his eyes. “None of it fit.”

After a pause he starts again.  “Richard Sutcliffe is the organiser of England’s long-running Whirl-Y-Gig festival.  Contact with him triggered an urgent appraisal of these questions.  He offered us a spot to perform the material live at the August 2020 festival. He needed a name to put in the publicity; he needed photos, promotional material; a short video of what the festival-goers could expect would be good too…..

So we settle on the MELA name and I started on the visuals, trying to marry the traditional world of India with a contemporary techno vibe. I found a wonderful Lebanese graphic designer, Nathalie Mansour.  She worked my elements into their final, stunning form, while later in the summer Ben’s partner Kaycee put and end to our long discussions by providing the album title. So by March 2020 we’d been at it a year and I presented the first four MELA tracks for their public premier at a small dance event in Totnes.”

I interrupt him here.  I remember that night: amazing! I dance a lot, but this was different . . . . It was just before lockdown, right?

Chinmaya is in full flow and just nods receipt of my praise. “Right.  Like all events, Whirl-Y-Gig was cancelled and the village in which Ben and I continued to meet illegally under the maple tree was pretty much deserted. In April we brought in psytrance producer Colin Bennun to trial the Mastering process on one track.  We watched him take control of Ben’s computer and tweak and mix remotely in real time from his studio in Bristol. I’d never heard of technology like that! Even more exciting was the moment in May when I stumbled on this incredible black and white footage of Indian tribal peoples dancing and found it fit perfectly with our track ‘Wedding In Kotree’ (Track 6 on the album). It became the first MELA video.

 “By August the musical side of the project felt finished.  Well almost.  Because Ben suddenly found himself in possession of some new, state of the art software and had to run everything through again. Plus we needed Colin to complete the Mastering process.  For me there was nothing more to do except start worrying about some big questions.”

Chinmaya now tells these off using the joints of the fingers of one hand. A technique used for counting beat cycles in Hindustani classical music, he explains. “I mean, were there going to be any parties or clubs at which to play MELA’s music?

And was social media the only way left for artists to connect with people? Were we going to have to spend our time providing a constant media feed to hold a virtual audience’s attention? Plus was there any sense in releasing a whole album in these days of streaming?”

And I guess you were asking yourselves how much more to invest in this project? I interject.

“For sure! At least Ben could get some responses from his old club/festival circuit friends. With this revolutionary change in my music all my old connections to labels and reviewers were irrelevant.”

A long silence descends as if from the sun’s withdrawal into dusk. We stand up.  “These times are both threatening and exciting,” Chinmaya says. “For musicians the loss of live performances is an absolute disaster. At the same time there are opportunities now to get your music a worldwide audience that could never have happened when I started out in the pre-internet days.

I’m grateful that you’ve shared this extraordinary story with me, I say.  It demonstrates that creativity travels through chaos to arrive at order and acceptance.  You trust your ears and your heart I perceive – it sounds as if you have a winner here. Now we will see what existence has in store . . .

As darkness falls Chinmaya walks me to my car and waves me on my way.

Footnote 

Today, in December 2020, MELA’s ‘Beyond Tradition’ is out as a pre-release (for free download for industry professionals/DJs/influencers). Let us see if any ‘buzz’ takes off around it!

Rashid Maxwell
Author of The Only Life
Everything is Something Else
The Point of Vanishing
A Master for Life