Bappi Lahiri, India's 'Disco King,' dies at 69
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Bappi Lahiri, India's 'Disco King,' dies at 69
He helped popularize the genre with some of the country’s biggest hits of all time, including “I Am a Disco Dancer.”

by Alex Traub

NEW YORK, NY.- Bappi Lahiri, an Indian film composer who combined the melodrama of Bollywood film plots with the flamboyance of disco’s electronic orchestra sound, setting off a pop craze in India that earned him the nickname “Disco King,” died Feb. 15 in Mumbai. He was 69.

The cause was obstructive sleep apnea, said his son, Bappa, who was his arranger, manager and bandmate.

Lahiri was an up-and-coming pop musician in 1979 when he traveled to the United States to play a series of gigs for Indian American audiences. While there, he toured nightclubs in San Francisco, Chicago and New York and caught the final months of American disco fever. In New York, he bought a Moog synthesizer, multiple drum machines and so much other music equipment that it filled two taxis.

On returning home, his experiments with those instruments culminated with a career-making soundtrack to a hit movie, “Disco Dancer” (1982). It was a musical in a disco style — insistent bass lines under soaring horns and strings — and a declaration of love to the genre. In one scene, a frenzied crowd and the protagonist, a superstar disco musician, spell out the word “disco” and chant it.

“Disco Dancer,” which traces the rise to stardom of a young street urchin named Jimmy and his fights with a family of thuggish plutocrats, became the first Indian movie to earn 1 billion rupees (about $230 million in today’s dollars), and its soundtrack helped fuel disco mania in India.

It also supercharged the career of its sad-eyed, bouffant-wearing star, Mithun Chakraborty, and produced two of the catchiest dance tunes in the history of Indian pop, each sung by Chakraborty on screen: “I Am a Disco Dancer” and “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja.”

Long after the movie was shown in theaters, those songs endure across India. At weddings, they’re known to inspire everyone from aging aunties to pals of the groom to boogie onto the dance floor.

Lahiri would undergird many of his disco songs with a recognizably Indian melody, and he soon realized that he had hit on a winning formula, leading to 1980s hits such as “I Am a Street Dancer,” “Super Dancer” and “Disco Station Disco.” He earned a place in the Limca Book of Records — which notes worldwide achievements by Indians — by recording the soundtracks to 37 movies in 1987 alone.

He also developed a megacelebrity’s fashion sense inspired by his boyhood reverence for Elvis. The look included tinted sunglasses worn indoors and out, velvet track suits and shiny jackets swaddling his pillowy bulk, and a mound of gold jewelry hanging from his neck.

“I remember once a man refused to accept that I am Bappi Lahiri,” he once told The Times of India, “because I was wearing a coat to protect myself from cold and he couldn’t see my gold chain.”

Bappi Lahiri was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on Nov. 27, 1952. His parents, Aparesh Lahiri and Bansur (Chakravarty) Lahiri, were singers who met while performing for public broadcaster All India Radio. As a child, Bappi showed talent playing the tabla, a traditional Indian drum, and, at the recommendation of popular singer Lata Mangeshkar, he studied with tabla master Samta Prasad.

His family moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) when he was a teenager to further Bappi’s career. There, he found a powerful ally in the family’s spiritual guru, Amiya Roy Chowdhury, who gave him a letter of introduction to Bollywood star Dev Anand.

Lahiri’s decadeslong composing career ranged beyond disco to encompass Indian classical forms such as ghazal as well. In all, he is believed to have composed about 9,000 songs that appeared in 600 or so movies. In his most productive periods, he would book four studios in a single day and use as many as 100 musicians for one song.

In addition to his son, Lahiri is survived by his wife, Chitrani (Mukherjee) Lahiri, whom he married in 1977; his mother; a daughter, Rema Bansal; and two grandsons.

Although interest in disco had faded in the United States by the time Lahiri gained fame, he became a central part of the disco phenomenon elsewhere, particularly the Soviet Union. “Disco Dancer” was among the most popular films in the USSR, and Lahiri’s songs still serve as standards in musical shows on Russian television.

During the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia, a journalist with India’s Express News Service found the country full of “Jimmy” fans.

“Everyone knows him where I come from,” a local fan, identified only as Yuri, was quoted as saying as he took out his phone. “Let me show you which of his songs is my favorite.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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