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Unearthing the strange sounds of Indian psych

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Indian psych-funk band Atomic Forest pictured here at Johnny’s Castle in 1978.

Indian psych-funk band Atomic Forest pictured here at Johnny’s Castle in 1978.

Courtesy of Now-Again Records

Indian psych-funk band Atomic Forest pictured here at Johnny’s Castle in 1978. (Courtesy of Now-Again Records)

One of the best things about hosting Radio M is the number of musical discoveries I get to make — especially psychedelic music from all corners of the globe. Brazilian, Thai and African psych are three of my favorites, mainly because of the juxtaposition of Western fuzz guitar with each country’s respective indigenous musical traditions. There’s seemingly no country left untouched by Western rock, beginning in the 1960s through the 1970s; that seems to have been the “golden era,” and it usually blows me away.

Not all global psych, though, takes that route. Case in point: psychedelic music from India. Indian psych sticks closely to the Western traditions but still manages to sound different.

The results are no less exhilarating. My latest find is a now-defunct band called Atomic Forest, courtesy of the fantastic L.A.-based label Now-Again. This was the only ‘70s Indian psychedelic band to record an album; other recorded Indian rock belongs more in the garage rock category. Their recently re-issued album is called Obsession; it’s a collection of the band’s songs, solo work from the band’s founder, Keith Kanga, and unreleased material that includes a song from an Indian stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar!

The story of this band is as weird as their take on some well-known rock tunes: The band was originally called 100 Ton Chicken. Kanga, apparently, grew up in a wealthy family, and when both his parents died, he lived in the family mansion with a Rolling Stone-reading grandmother who used part of the mansion as a brothel.

That turned out to be a good thing for Kanga; some of the money from the brothel was used to buy musical gear. But sadly, Kanga’s psychedelic lifestyle caught up to him: He would later succumb to heavy drug use and died as a result. Another member of the band is now a traveling minister living in the U.S. Yet another, onetime vocalist Madhukar Chandra Dhas, also lives in the U.S. He provides some great insight into the band’s history.

From the Beatles to Jethro Tull to movie themes, Atomic Forest Obsession’s music never fails in its quirkiness, coupled with some pretty good musicianship. It was — and is — a find.

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