It's often said that the best records are made following great emotional upheaval. If that's true, San Francisco–based producer and DJ Janaka Selekta just made the album of his life.
Selekta's meditative full-length debut, Pushing Air, is a melancholy work with rich textures incorporating traditional Indian instrumentation and a slowed dub aesthetic. It's also the ultimate result of more than two years of heartbreak, introspection, and healing following the collapse of two important relationships. The year 2006 marked the end of both his four-year marriage and of Dhamaal Soundsystem, the Asian-fusion musical collective he co-founded.
For Selekta, those broken bonds produced some of the most difficult times he'd been through. But he was able to channel the experience into a record that moves, as he describes it, "from death to life."
"The album itself is about [going from] escapism and wanting forgiveness, to being awake and having no sense of direction, to rebirth," he says. "It was about packaging all that had happened and finally saying, 'Alright, I'm done with this.' I don't think I could write this album again."
Selekta moved to San Francisco in 1997 after being heavily immersed in British rave culture for most of the '90s. He says the tastemaking 1997 compilation Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground was a key influence on his decision to begin DJing, promoting parties, and co-founding Dhamaal Sound System in 1999 with local producer and DJ Maneesh the Twister. Many of the Dhamaal events, held at such venues as 111 Minna and Club Six, emphasized a strong mishmash of genres. They attracted an array of Asian-influenced artists to the fold, including Karsh Kale, Cheb i Sabbah, Asian Dub Foundation, and Badmarsh.
However, Selekta says Dhammal "became too successful for our own good," and personal friction between the founders became too great. When the end came for both the collective and his marriage, Selekta decided to make other big changes. He left for London, staying with musician State of Bengal for two months and laying the groundwork for a two-year personal journey.
The 37-year-old Sri Lankan native spent much of 2008 traveling, writing, and collaborating with other musicians in New York, Sri Lanka, England (where he grew up), and India, taking stock of what he'd been through and expressing what he was feeling through music.
Recorded in Chicago with producer Radiohiro, Pushing Air is the musical embodiment of that excursion. The disc, which is already receiving airplay in India and England, unfolds chronologically, taking the listener through the same wave of tumultuous emotions and eventual discovery Selekta experienced. The album opens with "End of the Sun," which he says represents the finding the beauty in the collapse of a relationship. The song's soothing organ and elegant strings set up an ornate atmosphere before giving way to a midtempo, tabla-based beat progression. Tracks like "Awake" — featuring Chicago vocalist JC Stokes — "Bring the Curtain Down," and "Anklets" layer melancholy vocals with haunting melodies and the slow punch of deep dub bass tones. "The Escapist" blends sweeping strings from traditional Indian instruments bansuri and sarangi with crisp drum 'n' bass breaks. The album ends with the spiritually uplifting "Nomadic," which layers Hema Ram's evocative vocals over a percolating beat.
Selekta continues to follow a nomadic lifestyle. He discarded his day job in IT a year ago, and has decided to put geographical and musical discovery higher on his list of priorities. He plans on making future records on the road, with a focus on drawing inspiration from his travels. "I'm trying to create an environment where I have some kind of say over where the hell I'm going," he says.