Dancing Queens: Uncovering 'The Hits of ABBA in Hindi'

How two Indian sisters in 1981 made a joyful ABBA covers album for an Indian audience.

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Mar 19 2017, 4:40pm

I don't know what it is that makes me fall mystically in love with a three-minute collection of noises then feel compelled to listen to it numerous times over, every day, for months, until the neighbors threaten to sue. But Salma and Sabina's Hindi cover of ABBA's "Dancing Queen" will not let me go. It doesn't matter that the crappy YouTube upload makes it sound like it's playing in another room, or that this version is inferior to the original on a whole host of technical levels. Those voices, sweet and pained… the extra vibrato wobbles at the beginning… the sheer naivety of it all—this lo-fi Indian interpretation got me good, more than the original song's slickness ever did.

The song is from a 1981 album on the British Multitone label, called Salma And Sabina Agha Sing the Hits of ABBA in Hindi, and it didn't take long to find the other seven tracks on YouTube. There is little other info out there, so I stalked those responsible, in India and Germany, to ask them what the hell this album was and where it came from. First I called Peter Moss, an English musician, producer, and arranger based in Frankfurt, where he runs a music production company. Moss has been working in the industry since the 60s, notably launching Billy Ocean's career in 1974—listen to an early track he cut for the future "Caribbean Queen" singer, in a band they formed with producer Ben Findon called Scorched Earth. Released in 1974, "On The Run" went nowhere, but today sounds massive.

Moss was 32 in 1981, when he got a call from Pran Gohil, a former scout for PolyGram Records who had set up the UK's first Asian label, Multitone. Gohil was at the forefront of modern bhangra, mixing western synth-pop with Punjabi folk music to great effect. He was keen to pounce on trends, to exploit and twist them for the Indian market. "They'd done a poll in India, finding out the most popular western acts in India, and the most popular at that time was Boney M," says Moss, referencing the ridiculous (yet often amazing) German-produced, Jamaican-fronted disco band. "So Pran decided he wanted to do Boney M in Hindi. And that's how it all started, we did an album. It's called Boney M In Hindi." Naturally.

Gohil hired Amit Khanna, a poet and filmmaker from Delhi, to write original Hindi lyrics for the Boney M album, discarding the existing English ones. "It made sense," says Moss. "One song, 'Belfast,' was about the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time. But the average Indian sitting in the average Indian village in the middle of nowhere wouldn't have had a clue where Northern Ireland was, let alone Belfast. So the lyric Amit wrote for the song was nothing to do with Belfast at all."

"At the time, most Indian lyric writers came from a tradition of Hindi and Urdu poetry," explains Amit Khanna, now living in Mumbai. "They were not very modern and contemporary. I was very young and modern." (He was 30.) Gohil flew two popular Hindi film singers—Mahendra Kapoor and Musarrat Nazir—to a London studio, while Moss did the arrangements and brought in the musicians. He had an electric sitar built, which he played himself, and hired an Indian tabla player, who "turned up at the studio with his wife and kids. And his wife set out two rugs, and he sat on one while his family sat on the other and she started to cook. We did 'Rivers Of Babylon' and he just went into a flurry with this authentic Indian tabla, it was absolutely amazing. And in the meantime his wife was cooking chapatis on a primus stove in the middle of the studio and we were praying the sprinklers weren't gonna go off."

Gohil then asked Moss to do the same again with ABBA. For the vocals, Khanna suggested a couple of young sisters from a family he knew in Shenley, a leafy village 12 miles north of London. Salma and Sabina Agha spent their early years living between Mumbai and London, traveling with their businessman father, Liaqat Gul Tajik, who had bases in numerous countries. A noted importer of antiques, stones and fur, he was so esteemed that Iranian authorities bestowed upon him the title Agha, a knighthood of sorts, and the family adopted it as their surname. Their mother Zarina was a classical singer who descended from the Raj Kapoor dynasty—Bollywood royalty.

By 1981, the family had settled in Shenley, and their house, says Salma, speaking from Mumbai, was the Queen's hunting lodge before their father bought it. "It had 37 bedrooms, two lakes, riding grounds, and two swimming pools, indoor and outdoor. It was a lovely place. My father just wanted everything for the kids. He kept a cow there, because he thought children should have fresh milk." The teen Agha sisters did not have to find work flipping burgers.

Salma and Sabina had been trained in classical music, so had some experience when Amit Khanna asked them to sing on the ABBA album. They were excited. "I loved their songs!" says Salma. Khanna's new lyrics, meanwhile, were written with them in mind. "The Hindi lyrics are more meaningful than the original ABBA lyrics," he says. "There's more poetry in the Hindi versions." Again, there's no resemblance to the original English lyrics. Khanna's "Dancing Queen" for example, is nothing to do with dancing queens. "No," he says. "It's about falling in love. It says 'Love is sweet and it's intoxicating.'"

This is what hit me—Hindi charm aside, this rag-tag bunch had turned ABBA into a 60s girl group. There's a palpable yearning in some of the vocals, especially on "Mamma Mia" retitled "Toba Toba" (roughly: "Oh My God").

This makes sense too—ABBA's Benny and Björn were Phil Spector fans, and the songwriters' intention from the start was to put their own Scandinavian spin on Spector's sound. The Hindi album more implicitly brings that to mind—ABBA's original "Dancing Queen" lyrics reference a girl who's "young and sweet, only 17," which is exactly what Salma and Sabina sound like. The adolescent angst in their vocals suit ABBA's sentiment, and the whole affair is grainier, whinier, crunchier (in part, granted, because the production isn't half as polished).

"Ours was meant to sound like it was the girl next door singing," says Salma, although Moss says that was more of an organic development. "It wasn't that we were going for a girl group thing," he says. "I've gotta be honest—the girls were amateurs. They really hadn't done a lot of singing before and I just tried to capture what they did automatically. They did it quite naturally, quite naively in a way, but very nice. It was a breath of fresh air."

There is, though, an absence of sitar and tabla on the Hindi ABBA album. Vocals aside, it sounds like a cheap western knock-off. Moss had good ideas for it, he says, but finances were less forthcoming this time so the Indian extravagances were gone; the vocals were deemed enough. And then, when it was done, the whole thing fizzled out. "This is partly where the whole project fell down," says Moss. "In India at that time, they copied everything. So Pran, and he was Indian, he had this fear about it, and he was so cagey about letting anybody hear anything in case they ripped it off, and that worked against the situation."

Moss and Gohil had recently had some of their music brazenly copied in India, says Moss—literally taken and duplicated and released by another company—and it riled Gohil. "He was so mad, he said 'They've pinched it! These Indians!' I said, 'You're Indian.' And he said 'Yeah, but they pinched it!'" ("Pinched" is British slang for stolen.) Moss has no idea what sort of release the ABBA album got in India; in any case there was no UK fanfare, and everybody moved on.

The Agha family left Britain for Mumbai. Sabina did not pursue a career in showbusiness: "She got married and her husband was not very happy with her being a singer, so he never encouraged her," says Salma. Salma, however, became a Bollywood star, that year headlining the controversial romantic hit drama Nikaah, which explored Sharia divorce. She went on to win a Best Female Playback Award at the Filmfare awards (the Indian equivalent of the Oscars) for the song "Dil Ke Armaan," and throughout the 80s continued to act in films.

In 1999, she married Pakistani squash coach Rehmat Khan, who in his previous marriage had fathered Bat For Lashes' Natasha Khan. Salma has since remarried, and lives with her kids in Mumbai, where she's been known to pick up stray dogs on the streets at 2 AM: "If I see a little puppy or cat wandering around under a car wheel or something on a scary rainy night, I bring them home and give them shelter, I have a big house. I give them out for adoption, but if nobody takes them then I'll have them. I can't stop myself." How many dogs does she have? "I think 10 right now." No cow though.

The ABBA album did enjoy a brief moment of glory when, in the early 90s, Britain's Radio 1 DJ John Peel discovered it, playing some of the songs on his late-night show, opining: "Wasn't it the poet Keats who once said, 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever?' I think he may have had Salma and Sabina in mind." But then it disappeared again. Salma hasn't seen Peter Moss since 1981, but asked me for his phone number, in view of making more music together. Meanwhile, there will always be Hindi ABBA. John Peel had a point: listen to their "Chiquitita." If you don't find it pretty as hell, well, I don't know what to do with you.

Alex Godfrey is a writer living in London. He has a MaCaulay Culkin doll. He's on Twitter.