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Your Space Or Mine

Samrai drops debut album Work & Roti inspired by his heritage

Having produced music since the 2010s, played his part in one of Manchester’s most-loved club nights, DJ’d at countless parties, published a new-wave print magazine and taught the next generation of creatives, in the fleeting summer of 2023, Samrai has dropped something completely new. A debut album: Work & Roti.

Inspired by the work ethic of his grandfather, the wit of his mother and, above all, the migrant experience of growing up in the United Kingdom, the project harnesses South Asian drums, Dancehall rhythms and a collaborative spirit that can be found in Balraj Samrai’s work across all of the above.

Thanks to our Your Space Or Mine series, the name of the project will be up on billboards all over the city that was so important to its creation.


Words by Greg Stanley

Pranav Saji Krishnan - @pranavsk

Born in Coventry before moving to Northampton as a child, Samrai moved to Manchester as a teenager to study. 16 years after being ‘drawn here for the music,’ he is a veteran of the city’s creative scene and culture. From 2008 to 2022, he was an integral part of Swing Ting, a dynamic club night and record label that not only showed off Manchester’s endless musical talent, but also showed off Manchester itself – the city and its inhabitants – to the international artists who would pass through to headline the events.

‘Those events were as much about the audience and how they interacted with it as they were about anything else. It was their thing,’ he says, dialling in on the sort of overcast morning that is prime time for some nostalgic reflection. Chatting to Samrai, it’s clear how much of his past informs his present – be that his upbringing as the son of first-generation Punjabi migrants, or cherished memories of those club nights.

‘I know people who met at Swing Ting events who have gone on to get married or become lifelong friends that collaborate on music themselves. When you put stuff out, or you perform live or you create a space or a piece of work, it lives in different ways. It lives in those memories.’

By building Work & Roti with collaborators that include musicians, Mancunians and his mother, Samrai celebrates his own memories of growing up, as well as the similarities and differences in experiences between him and the likes of singer Shanique Marie, vocalist Thai Chi Rosè and musicians he met whilst mentoring in India.

Not unlike his work documenting music and culture with SEEN Magazine, Samrai’s debut album can be seen as an archive of perspectives. An ongoing dialogue that, via headphones or dancehalls, the listener feels like they are very much part of.

With so many different strands of work going on – educating, producing, curating, publishing – how would you introduce yourself in your own words?

It’s funny. I’ve actually just come from a Musicians Union conference and there was this guy speaking. He was saying that in a way, musicians are freelance workers. That was one of the main takeaways from the conference.

So yeah, I’m a freelance worker a lot of the time, but I’m a musician. I’ve worked as a music producer, a DJ, I’ve worked as a promoter (Swing Ting), I’ve done mentoring and a lot of facilitation. I’ve managed a record label (also Swing Ting). I’ve been in most areas of the music industry. I’ve also lectured as well and I’m currently doing a lot of youth work.

To put it simply, though: Musician, DJ, Facilitator. That’s the easier way to introduce myself.

Bengaluru / Shot by clayartmedia

How does that multi-tasking nature influence your work as an artist?

I feel like they’re all connected and influence each other in shaping how you think about things. For example, the stuff I’ve done on this project, I learned a lot from co-curating Manchester Museum’s South Asia Gallery. I’ve also recently done some work mentoring musicians in South India and ended up directly working with some of those artists on this project.

Honing in on the youth work a little more, what do you like about working in that sector?

So through mentoring and educating, you also end up collaborating. There’s a lot of reciprocity, you learn from them, they learn from you. You are teaching each other, sharing perspectives. I think the music world can get quite individualistic sometimes, so I think it keeps you quite humble about what you’re doing.

I actually worked in primary schools for six years as well. I used to work in pupil referral units and with children with additional needs and disabilities. My work tended to be with children who have had traumatic experiences or maybe they are neurodivergent, like young people with autism or ADHD and PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance).

I love that work, even though it was quite heavy at times. Not to sound too cliche with it, but it keeps me inspired in a lot of ways. It’s satisfying seeing someone who never thought of themselves as a musician, going on to perform or making a lot of cool music of their own.

Studio Production

As a producer yourself, you can use all sorts of sonic elements to add narratives to your work – and you do so on Work & Roti using anything from phone call skits to tailored verses from featured artists – how important are those voices to the project?

Really important. I had conversations with the artists before the recording about the themes of the album. There was some planning ahead of time, a bit more conceptualising than I’d previously done with other musical projects.

Sometimes people are really open to that approach and the artists on here really dug deep, and that’s perhaps a result of the relationships that we’ve built over the years. If you’re working with a producer you don’t know as well, you might not be willing to open up in certain ways, so I’m really appreciative of that.

Balraj, Tunde & Kamila / Shot by Daniel Oyegade
SEEN Magazine
Tunde, Kamila & Balraj / by Daniel Oyegade IG@wxvei, Twitter@Danieloyegade

You’ve recently, started a magazine as well, SEEN, where once again you’re giving a platform to people’s voices and archiving stories. Do you think that process has influenced your approach to music in any way?

Yeah, I’ve never really thought about it like that before, but now you say it, the tagline for SEEN is ‘archiving sonic stories and scenes.’

Stories and archiving are definitely a part of the music. I actually did a project that was supported by MIF Sounds (Manchester International Festival) that was capturing the effects of Covid and it was very archival, focussing on capturing that moment in time. It was a project called ‘Someone Died Today’ and it was dealing with the loss of my Grandad. It was the first time I had done something so personal and it featured my Grandma’s voice on there.

I remember speaking to my friend Raheel Khan who features on the album, and they said they think it’s really powerful because it makes you wonder if your Grandma’s voice has ever been recorded before. So you’ve captured that for time, you’ve archived it.

So I guess in my work there’s a sense of wanting to capture things whilst you still can, oral histories and stuff like that. People have mentioned how nice it was to hear my mum on the new project.

The input from your mum is where the name of the project comes from and informs so much of the theme. So what came first, the name or the theme?

So the themes were first. I had written a load of them down; the idea of the migrant experience, pain and healing, connecting with nature and earth, and growing a bit more into adulthood – I’ve become an uncle a few times in recent years, so I was thinking about how I’m connecting into a different way of being.

Then sonically, I’ve tried to connect with my own Punjabi heritage and used South Asian percussion to do that, as well as Jamaican Dancehall rhythms which have played a big part in how I’ve connected with artists and friends over the years. But also, I used to work in this record shop that used to sell Detroit Techno and Chicago House – so that’s always going to be in there, too.

I had all of the above written down well before the name, which came quite late. It was a phone conversation with my mum, she mentioned that line about my grandad – ‘all I can remember about Papa is going to work and eating roti. Work and roti every day, and that’s all he did.’

It just kind of felt like it clicks.

What are some of the lessons about life that you’ve taken from your parents and put into this project?

That it’s bitter-sweet, in a way. I’m not trying to say it’s amazing that someone only had time to eat and work, because it’s actually quite sad. And I feel like that shows that coming to the UK, or anywhere, in search of a better life, it’s not always the case. Maybe you set up the next generation, but it’s also that kind of capitalistic, industrial story, isn’t it? You work and you work to the bone.

When I speak to a lot of people – and it is a lot of people who’ve got migrant experiences but not necessarily always, I think a lot of working-class people feel this as well – there’s a sense that people are just getting quite tired out and not having time to rest.

Something we learned from the pandemic and the ongoing effects of it is that resting and taking a bit of time is actually really powerful and it can actually be radical. Just to breathe a bit and stop. Often I think mindfulness can be co-opted by middle and upper-class people, but actually, it’s routed in lots of cultures.

So there are some of the lessons in there. It’s cautionary. But it’s not all heavy, I also have a connection with food and loved eating roti and chapati when I was younger, so for me, it was quite fun to give it this name. The idea of Tom Ravenscroft saying it aloud on BBC radio and stuff cracks me up.

Circulart 1 Nov 41 / Sergio-Gonzales

Billboards sporting the name of the project are going to be all over Manchester now as well. You’ve lived in the city for a long-time now, so what’s your relationship like with Manchester today?

I moved here to study when I was 19, so I’ve been here for almost 16 years. It’s shaped a lot of things.

I’ve met a lot of support networks here and made friendships and it’s where I met my partner. It’s definitely a huge influence on my work. I think musically, I was drawn up here. A lot of people think of Hacienda and Madchester and all that stuff, but that wasn’t so much the draw for me.

For me, it was the Hip Hop and Dance music. Broken Beat was up here and I knew about Zed Bias, Piccadilly Records and a lot of people are drawn up here for the same reasons so at that time it had a really great energy. I came to visit on one of those University Open Days and got chatting with people about all sorts of stuff and have stayed in touch with them even now.

The city has so many great musicians. I think they don’t always get paid their dues and that’s what we wanted to do with SEEN. It wasn’t just looking at Manchester but in the first issue that we did, we were wanting to try and celebrate, people like DJ Paulette, HMD, and Chunky’s Piano in the City Party. There are so many artists who are either based here or grew up here. Children of Zeus, IAMDDB, Lovescene. Interplanetary Criminal, had a number-one hit last year.

I feel like people always want to say that there’s a resurgence happening but I think it’s always been bubbling ever since I’ve been here. It definitely feels like home. And a lot of people on the project are either from here, based here or even just played here and stayed a while for a week or two whilst there on tour. So I love it and I definitely want to shout it out.

Brighter Sound's DISRUPT project

As for the billboard campaign, what are people going to be looking out for around the city?

I’ve got to shout out Amrit who worked on the design for this project. I feel he really brought it to life. We’ve got the same background and heritage in a way, culturally, his family are Sikh and Punjabi as well and from a similar part of North India. So he got what it was about on a deep level and was really invested in the project.

It was funny, I had a certain budget or whatever, but he’s been learning to DJ so I gave him some DJ lessons to offset some of the work. And he actually played a DJ set the same night as I hosted an event to promote the project – it was part of Daytimers who are great – and his set went down really well, so I felt double proud on the night. My thing went down really well and I think his thing probably went down even better.

What was the thinking behind the final design?

I remember Elijah (Yellow Squares) saying about how you don’t need to just show the album artwork. And Amrit said ‘maybe we can use one of the quotes,’ so we went with the one with the title in. The nice thing is, people walking by might just be intrigued by it in its own right.

It continues the story. Projects can be so fleeting at times, can’t they? So it’s nice to have another way for people to connect with it.

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