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Punjabi Pop Grows Up

[whitespace] Asian Dub Foundation
Beyond Exotic: Asian Dub Foundation has been called England's 'foremost political pop group.'

Catching up with Britain's accelerating Asian indies

By Jeff Chang

WHEN TJINDER SINGH'S indie twiddlers Cornershop took all the top critics' prizes from L.A. to London last year, an incredulous American press suddenly found itself scrambling to explain Punjabi pop and Bollywood. Now Madonna (conveniently brunette again) has gone "Oriental," appearing on the MTV Music Awards in a silk sari, warbling an embarrassingly off-key paean to Shanti. Asian indies, it appears, are in.

Credit for this phenomenon partially belongs to British immigrants' son Talvin Singh, who inspired critics to gush about the "Asian underground" when he released his Anokha (Quango/Island) compilation early last year. That record, a brilliant melange of textures--optimistic ambience, breathless drum 'n' bass, shimmering tablas, whirring sitars and soaring vocals--was Singh's attempt to document the scene at his popular residency at London's Blue Note club.

In some respects, Anokha was also a two-finger British-style retort to the crossover bhangra-pop of British-Asian producer/mixer Bally Sagoo and the Bollywood beats that claimed just as many adherents on the upper end of the generation gap as on the hipper. Yet State of Bengal's whimsically buoyant contribution to Anokha, "Flight IC408," made Talvin Singh's alternative transnational beat-trafficking creations sound uniquely adventurous. The Milky Bar Kid's "Accepting Trankuility" was brimful of hopeful promise.

Talvin Singh, however, has already disavowed the "king of the underground" moniker and has turned in a new album that is reportedly a return to his formal training in classical Indian musics. The new Untouchable Outcaste Beats, Volume 1 (Outcaste/Tommy Boy) may suggest why Singh fled his own scene. Once marketed as "world music," the dance-floor collision of tablas, hip-hop, dub and jungle has recently become an exploitable formula.

The Outcaste label, formed in 1995, rose to prominence on well-crafted singles by Brit Asians. The most clever, like Shri's "Meditation," Badmarsh's "Jungle Sitars" and Nitin Sawney's "Streets," recontextualize traditional chants and textures within compelling beatscapes.

But a postmodern take has its perils. Untouchable Outcaste Beats rounds out its compilation with sides by non-Asians that just happen to feature sitars. Some of these, like the Dave Pike Set's 1969 track "Mathar" and the Bay Area group Better Daze's "Stay Right Here," are fine tracks. But what are they doing on this album? There are no liner notes to suggest any unity of vision. It would probably be unfair to charge this hard-working indie with an opportunistic attempt to cash in on all things Asian--we have Madonna and Kula Shaker for that.

MUSIC JOURNALIST Malik Meer, writing recently in The Face, archly slashes brownface minstrelsy: "Would four brown faces chanting Hindu/Islamic mantras ever achieve the same levels of success? Hmmm." But he also sighs, "Hopefully, the day will dawn when people will talk of tabla grooves and funky sitars instead of Asian DJs themselves being oh so lovable and ethnic." Hey, Malik, that day has arrived.

For better or worse, the Asian underground will now have to begin to confront the same kind of identity politics that American hip-hoppers and black junglists have been struggling through for years. By contrast, rock and hip-hop-influenced manifesto bearers like Fun^da^mental and Asian Dub Foundation offer certainty, even while fired by contradiction.

As constructed in the British sense, "black" has less to do with the legacy of slavery (a more American reading) than with the legacy of colonialism. During the 1970s, progressive activists argued for a broad definition that could encompass former colonial subjects of the Caribbean, Africa and Asia that had immigrated and were now living under Third World conditions in impoverished British neighborhoods.

By the '90s, however, this fragile coalition had been fragmented by growing class gaps, the influence of nationalisms and changing immigration patterns. In a few Thatcher-era race riots, Jamaicans and Africans burned and looted stores owned by Indians and Pakistanis.

Pioneering Asian crew Fun^da^mental embodied these new social paradoxes on it 1993 debut, Seize the Time (Beggars Banquet/Nation). Avowedly "black," they drew just as heavily from the nationalism of the Nation of Islam as the anticolonialism of the Black Panthers, even as one of the members called himself Propa-Gandhi.

Over driving Indian percussion that shifts into proto-jungle, the spoken-word "Bullet Solution?" deplored indiscriminate eye-for-an-eye violence against whites even as it ruled out nonviolence.

The group's new album, Erotic Terrorism (Beggars Banquet/Nation), is more explicitly humanist--reprinting the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the CD jacket, the document that serves as the international rallying point for the protection of political prisoners and for decolonization. But you can dance to it--kind of.

The churning big beats of "Demonised Soul" and "Furious" evoke a social program-minded Prodigy or a black nationalist Nine Inch Nails. "Repent" sets Nation of Islam sermons to a beat that recalls the power of the Bomb Squad. But "Ja Sha Taan" is the marvel--a mesmerizing quawalli set to militant riddims.

FUN^DA^MENTAL'S Propa-Gandhi formed Nation Records and in 1996 signed Asian Dub Foundation to his indie. Now called England's "foremost political pop group" by no less than Melody Maker, ADF began humbly in the streets. In 1993, Dr. Das and Chandrasonic were teachers in London's East End in a music-education program called Community Music, setting up music technology workshops for disadvantaged Asian youths.

Out of the workshops emerged a precocious teen who called himself Master D, a DJ named Pandit G and a theory-minded tech wizard named Sun-J. ADF was born. Its 1995 debut, Facts and Fictions, forefronted Master D's declamatory vocals with lyrics that defied liberal reductionism (a la Madonna).

On "Jericho," they rapped, "You're multicultural, but we're anti-racist. We ain't ethnic, exotic or eclectic." The group's music, a tentative mix of brisk jump-up beats, dub bass and techno noodling, was considerably less captivating. But the group toured constantly behind its second release, Rafi (Real Areas for Investigation) (French import only), and developed a truly crowd-gripping presence.

Entering into an inspired period, Asian Dub Foundation cut the ear-shattering single "Free Satpal Ram" on a Damaged Goods split single with Atari Teenage Riot--pushing Britain's counterpart to Mumia Abu-Jamal into the spotlight.

In 1986, Satpal Ram had been imprisoned for life after defending himself and stabbing racist attackers. As an Asian, he suffered beatings at the hands of prison constabularies. But one night, Ram heard the song, and the radio announcer championing his cause, on his Walkman radio. He soon found letters of support pouring in as well. Then Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie took up ADF's own banner, calling it "the best rock & roll band in years," and suddenly corporate A&R types were circling. Now the buzz on ADF is ferocious--two recent warm-up shows in L.A. and New York were reportedly moshing room only.

Rafi's Revenge, a fully remixed and recut version of Rafi due here on ffrr Records in November, is the right-starting joint that justifies the hype. "Black White" finds the group taking the big pop-hero step: envisioning a progressive interracial utopia beyond fragmenting identities and fascist tendencies.

On the whirlwind spin of "Naxalite," the punky b-boy reggae of "Charge" and the Clash-attack of "Assassin," ADF leaps from prickly guitar figures to blinding beats and back to fluid dub tones with the precision of Amerikkka's Most Wanted-era Ice Cube or Entertainment-era Gang of Four.

No longer the whole show, Master D's ragga chats stamp the affair with an authority and authenticity that Rage Against the Machine's Zack De La Rocha may never have. "Buzzin," his showcase, burns forward on a rising crescendo and a hyperspeed shuffle. Here, finally, is the sound of the Asian underground's bright future: "Abandon all your first impressions/Come and take part in this conscious session/Look to the past to get inspiration/Move yourselves forward with dub acceleration."

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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