Passages to India
Talvin Singh and Asian Dub Foundation
By Josh Kun
NOVEMBER 9, 1998: Four cuts into Talvin Singh's first full-fledged solo album, OK (Island), and we're on top of Mount Kailash in the middle of a tantric sex lesson, being promised "the true story of ecstasy" in a bad Indian accent. But just when you think you're gonna get the goods on the position that keeps you holy for 10,000 years -- and just when you think that Singh has completely lost his cultural footing -- global pop's savviest tabla blaster pulls a funny on Indian cinephiles and henna-happy subcontinent exoticizers alike (yes, Gwen and Madonna, that means you). "We call this position . . . NAAASTY!"
The pre-fab aural incense fades and Singh unleashes his own version of Eastern spiritual Eros in under a minute: a messy maelstrom of angular metallic beats that bounce off one another like angry, digitized ping-pong balls. It might as well be the sound of bindis flying off Urban Outfitter foreheads.
Being this critically live and direct is new for Singh. In the bhangra-to-jungle history of England's ever-mutating "Asian Underground" club scene, he's been a sort of ideological middle man. Not a polished Bollywood popster or bhangra crossover missionary like Bally Sagoo. And not offering the kind of post-colonial polemicism nurtured by labels like Outcaste and Nation and performed with the most anti-imperialist fire and brimstone by Asian Dub Foundation (whose second album of riddim-and-dub time bombs -- Rafi's Revenge, on London -- hit racks next to OK this week). Singh works the angles on globalizing Asia: he can do tabla drops and string arrangements with everybody from Björk to Sun Ra one minute and then the next open Anokha, an East London Asian-themed club complete with an ISDN link to Bombay and a Calcutta Cyber Café chill-out room.
The club's compilation spawn, Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground (for which Singh was the top-billed curator), quickly became the template for how the world would think about the Anglo-Asian sound clash: State of Bengal purloining an India Airlines flight announcement for a trip across razor-sharp tabla loops and diamond-backed jungle beats; the Milky Bar Kid plugging in the 1200s for an electro-funk session; Amar taking trip-hop back to its raga roots.
In OK's press material, Singh says he chose the title because it's "the most common word in the world," and because (and this is still Singh-speak), like music, it knows no boundaries. The opening seconds of OK's first track, "Traveler," begins with the perfect Singh mantra: "The world is sound."
But OK is more of an England-to-India, sarangi-and-sequencer diaspora travelogue than a global love-in (that is, if the world is sound, then the world sounds a lot like second-generation British Asians living in London). And a good thing, too. OK is like little else Singh or his fellow new jacks have come up with before.
For one thing, it won't leave club kids with a permanent smile. This is Singh the imaginary film composer, Singh the conceptualist, Singh the arranger, Singh the beat programmer, Singh the multi-instrumentalist. Traces of lush SD Burman scores wash up next to bpm speed blasts; dramatic readings about lotus leaves and crescent moons trail after Okinawan choral singers.
Remixers, start your DATs. The first track lasts 11 minutes and is all undulating sitar, breezy flute, and sweeping strings.
As a classically trained tabla player who now rocks an unclassical set of custom-rigged electric tablas (complete with effects pedals and Mac-software plug-ins), Singh has long railed against producers and DJs of the ethno-techno persuasion who drop sitar and tabla samples into a mix as if they were snacking on samosas at an-all-you-can-eat buffet. OK is Singh's 10-track response: tabla compositions and electro-ragas for the digital age. On "Light," his tablas coax a lone piano line into percussive ambiance; on "Butterfly," his tabla fills bubble among nimble sitar plucks, gentle breakbeat rolls, and choppy flute exhales; and on "Vikram the Vampire" -- imagine Philly Joe Jones's "Blues for Dracula" on warp speed in a Bombay jungle club -- programmed beats zing past one another in a "Wild East" shootout that leaves only the tabla's snap-and-plunge standing.
Singh has been characterizing the album as "marine," and that's just how it sounds: wide, fluid, adrift. It's the opposite feeling you get listening to Asian Dub Foundation's Rafi's Revenge, which takes Singh's globalist aspirations and grinds them into local urban responses to anti-Asian racism, police brutality, and immigrant backlashes. ADF's musical ties to India and Bangladesh certainly leave their mark, but Rafi's Revenge is no sitar-and-tabla fest. They get more of their rush from Black Britain -- militant dub, hardstepping drum 'n' bass -- than from, say, sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan (who plays on OK) or the late qawwali king Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (though their incineration of his "Taa Deem" was the highlight of last year's Star Rise tribute).
"Dub is the teacher," ADF chant on the racial-unity stomp of "Dub Mentality," "Jungle is the preacher." Punk shouter, ragga chatter, and rap rhymer Master D even declares himself "iron like a Lion from Zion" on "Naxalite," the album's surf-jungle opener, which is named for a late-'60s uprising of landless West Bengali peasants.
Call it Black Asian noise for the new Babylon. Squealing guitars, jagged battle-rammed breakbeats, dub and bass meltdowns -- all to blow Oasis and the British National Party down in the same breath. You want nostalgic Englishness? Miss the days of Thatcher? Never minded Brit-pop's race problem? Don't come knocking on ADF's door. "Check out our history," Master D boasts, "so rich and revolutionary."
ADF, who perform this Sunday at Axis, hooked up as part of Community Music, an educational center in London, and they have always seen themselves as more of a trans-generational pedagogical sound system than a band (their ages range from late teens to mid 30s). Rafi's Revenge is the recorded extension of their technology workshops with disenfranchised Asian kids, a punky jungle history-and-consciousness lesson for the "digital underclass." "Assassin" introduces a new generation to Udam Singh, who knocked off a murderous Punjab ex-governor in 1939. "Free Saptal Ram" (here in its Primal Scream remix form) champions the release of a Birmingham Asian still imprisoned for defending himself against racist attackers.
But ADF know that it can't be all politricks all the time. On "Buzzin'," they sneak in a jump-up energy blast, four minutes of pure jungle-rock perfection with its flute-laced Duane Eddy guitar twang and -- how's this for a drum 'n' bass novelty -- a word-tripping chorus that you actually want to hear again.
ADF guitarist and programmer Chandrasonic once told me he thought ADF were "the real Brit-pop," a post-punk black and Asian ghetto mini-movement that reflected the racial and political realities of contemporary England, not Beatlesque daydreams of UK whiteness. Singh probably wouldn't admit it so quickly, but he's part of that too: the Asian Underground is Brit-pop borne from the imperial margins and come home to roost in the empire's concrete jungles. "Cut and a splice and a regeneration/Militant mix and equalization," Master D rants, "Pushing back borders of your musical civilization." Just because the world is sound doesn't mean it isn't also a battlefield.
Notes from the Asian Underground
The latest from this Asian and Afro-Caribbean justice squad wastes no time plopping its agenda on the table. Instead of liner notes, they reprint the full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over grainy photos of political torture and savaged bodies. Fun'da'mental stick with the same formula they concocted way back on Seize the Time: qawwali mysticism erupting into industrial terror, hip-hop nationalism clawing its way through distorted, feedback clouds of North Indian classical music. Their pan-Islamic neo-Black Power tracts haven't really changed much, but putting Bombay film dialogue next to Malcolm X speeches over Indian drums and g-funk keyboard whines still makes for some of the best-sounding political resistance around.
Shri & Badmarsh
Since opening its doors in 1994 as London's first all-Asian label devoted to new breakbeat technologies, Outcaste has been responsible for some of the Asian Underground's most forward-thinking creations. Untouchable is a succinct introduction to Outcaste artistry, touching down on everything from Nitin Sawhney's lulling jazz drones to Niraj Chag's chunky jungle ragas. Sprinkled in between is a greatest hits of Asian-tinged club tracks that digs up a 1969 sitar street strut from the Dave Pike Set and finds Ananda Shankar holding it down on a gem of decadent mid-'70s Calcutta lounge rock. Both tracks get reworked on the bi-national beat meditations of Dancing Drums, a collaboration between two of Outcaste's biggest guns, Bombay electric-bassist Shri and East London junglist Badmarsh. A dance-floor tabla addict's dream.
Apparently the only way for domestic beat miners to get a handle on Bollywood film music is to run it through the hipster mill as some kitschy Indian version of blaxploitation flicks. On this vexing, groove-soaked filmi-funky new comp of unreleased '70s Bollywood action scores by composers listed only as "Kalyani, Anandji," the already rich original tracks are given silly new names ("Fists of Curry," "Swami Safari"), "translated" by the Automator with new textures and mixes, and provided with new beats from the DJ Shadow stockpile. The New York CD-release party promises contortionists and hookah pipes. You be the judge.
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