In 2014, Debayan Sen found a mysterious album inside of a trunk in his mother’s attic, in Kolkata, India. The red-orange record sleeve featured a picture of his mom as a young woman along with her name—Rupa—in big, bold lettering. That was the day Debayan learned about his mother’s past life as a singer.
Suddenly reminded of this discovery last year, Debayan decided to Google the record. The results surprised his family: Rupa’s first and only album, 1982’s Disco Jazz, was selling for hundreds of dollars via sites like Discogs. “The day I found the record my mom said, ‘Throw it away. It is just pointless,’” Debayan remembers. “I said, ‘What the hell, you made this, why would you throw this away?’”
Since then, Disco Jazz has been reissued by Numero Group, the well-established archival label. “Aaj Shanibar,” one of its four tracks, has also started to spread through the strange rabbithole that is YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. The most popular upload of the song now boasts more than 1.5 million views, likely thanks to factors including its eight-minute runtime and its high-energy, ever-shifting instrumentals. It’s another example of what happens when, with the benefit of time and technology, “lost” songs reach a new generation of listeners halfway around the world.
How exactly did this overlooked album surface, nearly 40 years after its original Indian pressing? It helps that the songs could turn up in Balearic disco sets, Indian weddings, or even vibey “studying” playlists. But tracing Disco Jazz’s path to re-emergence shows how roundabout and happenstance the modern rediscovery process for old music can be.
The journey started the old-fashioned way, with a bit of crate-digging. In 2005, Florian Pittner, a Hamburg-based record-seller who runs the Discogs page Hindustani Vinyl, was traveling in Kolkata when he came across Disco Jazz. Pittner recognized the name of the album’s producer and co-arranger, Aashish Khan, and decided to buy several copies. He sold a few on eBay and, in 2010, listed another copy on Discogs. In May 2012, Swedish DJ Albion Venables was searching for disco music when he came across Pittner’s Discogs listing. He took a chance on it, largely based on the album artwork and Hindustani Vinyl’s reputation. “When I heard how Rupa sang, in a really heartfelt way and with this divine voice, I knew the universe would relate to it,” he says.
Venables started playing “Aaj Shanibar” in his sets, one of which was posted in a Facebook group for listeners trying to identify obscure songs based on snippets of audio. That was where Fran Korzatkowski, a music fan based in Albany, New York, first heard “Aaj Shanibar” and became obsessed. After much digging, Korzatkowski identified the track based on its use in Miss Lovely, a 2012 Indian art-house movie. Disco Jazz was selling for about $400 on eBay at the time, so he took the recording from Venables’ mix, adjusted the bass levels a little, and became the first person to upload “Aaj Shanibar” to YouTube, in April 2016.
Months later, Dan Snaith—best known for his roving house project Caribou—was stuck in a YouTube wormhole, skipping through hundreds of songs, when “Aaj Shanibar” stopped him in his tracks. He immediately integrated the song into his live DJ sets and radio broadcasts on NTS and Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM. “Juxtaposed against contemporary club music, it’s like a breath of fresh air at the right point in a club night,” Snaith says. “‘Aaj Shanibar’ has the propulsiveness of a great disco track but also an otherworldly, spacey feeling—it floats along allowing people to get lost in the arrangement, the melody and Rupa’s voice. It’s one of those records that gets asked about every time you play it.”
In mid-2017 and then again in early 2018, Korzatkowski started to see a spike in the song’s YouTube views and comments. By the end of 2017, German label Ovular had released a bootleg pressing of Disco Jazz, and people were posting about “Aaj Shanibar” on multipleReddit forums. The word-of-mouth chatter and DJ sets (not just by Snaith and Venables) almost certainly helped the song spread on YouTube, but there are other factors that likely boosted its chances from there. Longer videos can be favored by YouTube because they offer extra space for ads; at the same time, “Aaj Shanibar” is immediately punchy, encouraging audience retention. But Massimo Airoldi, a professor and digital researcher at Emlyon Business School, suspects something else is at play as well: YouTube has been found to suggest music based on situational qualities, like whether a song would fit on playlists of “study music” or “shower music” (whatever that means). “The atmosphere of the song resonates well with these sort of relaxed forms of listening to music,” he says.
This new mode of categorizing songs online focuses heavily on mood and contemporary listening contexts—factors that remove the music from its original environment and intention. Originally created as its key players shifted between languages, continents, and cultures, Disco Jazz has, quite fittingly, hurdled through time and space.
Rupa Sen (née Biswas) practicing with Pranesh and Aashish Khan during the recording of Disco Jazz. (Provided photo)
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Bollywood films like Disco Dancer and Qurbanimade the glamorous look and sound of disco wildly popular on the Indian subcontinent. The same year Disco Jazz was released—1982—Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” made its way, via partial interpolation, into the high-grossing Indian comedy Namak Halaal. Much of the pop music released in South Asia at the time had some combination of disco’s pulsing synths, cascading keys, and opulent strings mixed with tabla drums and sitar.
What sets Disco Jazz apart from other Indian disco is how it breaks with conventions. These songs feel more spacious than Bollywood music of the era—they take their time unwinding and pass through unexpected influences. While the tangy lute sound of Indian sarod drives some tracks, extended Western funk guitar solos overtake others. There are even touches of what would now be considered Balearic beat music, with its expansive and hypnotic musical interludes. And the lyrics are in a mixture of Hindi and Bengali, a rarity among Bollywood songs of the era, which were largely sung in Hindi only.
The record’s myriad influences can be attributed in part to Aashish Khan, the musician whose name caught Florian Pittner’s eye. Khan is a known figure in Indian classical music. His father was the renowned sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. His grandfather, Allauddin Khan, taught South Asian household names like sitar player Ravi Shankar and Pannalal Ghosh, who helped popularize the flute in Indian classical music. Aashish began learning sarod from his grandfather at the age of 5 and by the time he was 13, the two were performing publicly together.
In his late 20s, Khan moved to California to help his father run a music school. He ended up working on songs with George Harrison (including some for the 1968 cult film Wonderwall), forming the Indian-American fusion band Shanti, and moving to Calgary, Alberta to found another music school with his brother, Pranesh. In Calgary, the Khans found a tight-knit community of musicians, some of whom were interested in learning about traditional Indian instruments. Aashish and his friend Don Pope started composing the music that became Disco Jazz, while Aashish and his wife wrote the lyrics.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Rupa Biswas was a recent graduate of Calcutta University and a singer at All India Radio, the national public broadcast station. She flew to Calgary in 1981 to visit her older brother and while there, she put on a three-hour performance at the University of Calgary. The show impressed Khan, who was a friend of Rupa’s brother. He asked her to perform on a TV program he ran, then recruited her to record the vocals for Disco Jazz.
Once the album was complete, Khan went to India to arrange for its release. He chose Megaphone Company, but he says the record label didn’t promote Disco Jazz nearly enough. Rupa recalls it selling only a few thousand copies.
“When the record came out, I went to the stores and stood in front of the cassettes and hoped that someone would recognize me,” she says, with her son acting as her translator. “Unfortunately, nothing happened. I got very irritated and bought my own cassettes and gave them to my family. After that, I decided not to dwell. I completed my Master’s in music, worked for a local newspaper, and performed shows for a few years.”
Now Rupa is receiving proceeds from the Numero Group reissue and corresponding with fans around the world. She’s practicing every day to get her voice in shape and feeling optimistic about her future as a singer. “It’s almost impossible for me to explain why this is happening,” she says. “I think of it as a blessing from God that after so many years, I’m finally getting recognition.”
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