A light scent of sandalwood lingered in the lounge. The soft, colourful lights filtered through hovering smoke as music resonated throughout the room – a mix of booming club beats and tabla, topped with melting sitar riffs. Then the voice of Ustad Sultan Khan joined the ensemble, reminding this writer of the old Indian classical songs that his mother used to listen to every morning. The sound of the sitar seemed to grow by the second, blossoming into something magnanimous, the sinuous bass lines reverberating along with the tabla’s da da dhin na and the club beats, as the Ustad’s haunting vocals diffused over it all.
This grand unification was thanks to a band called Midival Punditz, one of the first Indian ‘electronica’ bands to make it big on the international scene. The group’s founders, Tapan Raj and Gaurav Raina, are known for their cross-cultural vision, which they describe as marrying “the soulful elegance of Southasia’s extraordinarily rich traditional and classical music heritage with the exuberance and limitless potential of modern Western electronic music”. The group is also an integral part of the musical collective known as the Asian Massive, an offshoot of the Asian Underground movement, the UK-based collective that mixes contemporary metropolitan culture with traditional Southasian music. According to Raj, “It is about trying to stretch Western audiences towards Indian sounds, and to stretch Indian audiences towards modern, electronic, Western music.”
As more and more Southasian artists cropped up in the British music scene, a record label (and club) called Outcaste was founded in 1995. Featuring only Southasian artists, its music later became known as the Asian Underground. The term ‘Asian Underground’ was initially used to describe Southasian artists based in the UK, who, during the mid- to late 1990s, were merging elements of Western underground dance music with the traditional music of their homelands. These artists were generally second-generation, British-born youth, many of whose parents had experienced life as immigrants during the 1960s and 1970s, when racism in the UK was at a peak. The music of the Asian Underground became a response to the race-based atrocities faced by these youths and their families. It was the music of the displaced – a manifestation of alienation, and a trans-national discourse that found its roots in the processes of migration in the post-war British cultural milieu. The Asian Underground movement also made the statement that ‘brown’ people were as cool as anybody else.
Throughout the 20th century, local cultural forms around the world, including those of music, came under pressure from the introduction and encroachment of Western forms. According to Bruno Nettl, a music and anthropology scholar, the reactions by non-Western societies to this dynamic can be classified into three types. First, there is the desire to leave the traditional culture intact, essentially allowing the form to live on with no change whatsoever. Second, there is a call for complete Westernisation, the “simple incorporation of a society into the Western cultural system”. Nettl describes the third reaction as “moderate” compared to these first two – it is the search for modernisation, which he defines as “the adoption and adaptation of Western technology and other products of Western culture … with an insistence that the core of cultural values will not change greatly”. This vision of ‘modernisation’ is what gave birth to the unison of traditional Indian music and electronic music through Western technology.
Ravi Shankar was one of the key figures to first couple classical Hindostani music with Western sounds. During the 1960s, he collaborated with The Beatles’ bass player George Harrison, who had been studying the sitar. Their friendship made an international star of Ravi Shankar, and did much to feed the burgeoning fascination with India in the West. (Albeit that all was not well in the subsequent ‘fusion’ of these cultures. Recalling one trip to San Francisco, Ravi Shankar later wrote in his autobiography: “I felt offended and shocked to see India being regarded so superficially and its great culture being exploited. Yoga, Tantra, mantra, kundalini, ganja, hashish, Kama Sutra? They all became part of a cocktail everyone seemed to be lapping up!”)
Following the Shankar/Harrison work, many artists, especially from the American jazz community, followed in the footsteps of this musical collaboration. Guitarist John McLaughlin incorporated various Hindostani classical sounds in his electric-jazz-rock fusion group the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and later worked with L Shankar and Zakir Hussain in the acoustic ensemble Shakti. In the UK, India-born and -trained Ashwin Batish combined popular rock rhythms with sitar melodies for a 1986 album, Sitar Power. For his follow-up to this album, Sitar Power #2, Batish blended tabla and sitar with synthesiser and guitars. Then, in the early 1990s, bands such as Cornershop and Asian Dub Foundation began churning out politically charged songs that confronted the racism prevalent in the UK at the time.
Post-World War II, European countries faced shortages of unskilled labour. While the UK initially drew upon Irish workers, it later moved its focus almost entirely onto former colonies in Southasia, the Caribbean, East Africa and the Mediterranean. As the new migrants took up these low-wage jobs, however, many British found themselves displaced or with significantly limited job options. The ramifications of this in the context of a dilapidated British economy manifested themselves in racism and rising tensions between migrants and the native population.
Migrants from the Caribbean found solace in musical forms they had brought with them – reggae, ska and dub. During the 1970s, groups such as Jah Shaka made roots reggae popular among the Caribbean working class through songs that addressed the injustice, poverty and racism faced by Jamaican youth. Artists such as Bob Marley made this music and message even more popular, and brought it to a world stage. In the mid-1970s, highly political punk acts such as The Clash incorporated and featured reggae music on their own albums, cementing reggae’s counter-cultural image and importance. Soon, music from the Caribbean, along with punk and, during the 1980s, hip-hop, had become part of the mainstream British music scene.
The success of Caribbean music in the UK eventually led to new possibilities for second-generation Southasian youth to express their dissatisfaction and disapproval of their country through music. Asian Dub Foundation, which combined elements of electronic, reggae and hip-hop, for instance, claims to have used its music “to raise consciousness about racism and police brutality, as well as to campaign against the unjust imprisonment of Satpal Ram, who was finally freed after fifteen years of imprisonment largely due to Asian Dub Foundation’s efforts.” Ram was a British Southasian who was arrested for murder following a racially charged fight in England in 1986. Later, allegations arose (which eventually led to his 2002 acquittal) that the all-white jury had not been able to process crucial evidence due to the fact that no Bengali-speaking interpreter had been provided at the trial. Many say that Asian Dub Foundation’s work on the issue kept Ram’s case alive. The group’s current work, though less political, has been just as community-based, including spreading awareness about HIV and AIDS.
Some of these artists used their music as a form of criticism – of racism, of political and economic oppression. But for many of the early Asian Underground musicians, the most important issue was displacement, and their music became a way to explore and discuss their fractured existence in a foreign land. One of the Asian Underground’s pioneers, Nitin Sawhney, delved so regularly into aspects of the immigrant experience that he came to be seen as an activist. Karsh Kale, a pioneer of the movement in the US, explains what was being attempted this way: “We’re displaced from where we come from, so we make up stories, and that’s what the music is about. It’s about making a soundtrack for our existence here.”
The apex of the Asian Underground movement came in the form of a British-born musician of Southasian descent named Talvin Singh. Singh’s unique brand of drum-and-bass and classical Indian music came to prove such a draw that, in 1995, he was able to found a club in London, named Anokha, devoted solely to this new form of music. While Singh had started playing the tabla at the age of five, his musical interests, like that of many of his friends, also lay in those genres that formed the core of mainstream British music at the time – punk, electronic and hip-hop.
At 16, Singh went to India to pursue his education in classical music. After his return to the UK in the mid-1980s, he began collaborating with such avant-garde musicians as Bjork and The Future Sound of London. It was at this time that he began making drum-and-bass music – the mainstay of British dance halls – but using tabla and other Indian percussion instruments to do so. Regardless of past collaborative ‘fusion’ attempts between Western and Indian musical forms, this had never been done before.
Talvin Singh’s album OK, released in 1998, became such a hit in Britain that the sound in it could no longer be considered ‘underground’. As with the reggae, ska and other forms of the 1970s, this music, with its feet planted firmly in two widely disparate traditions, was no longer confined to a single culture. And the world of music is the richer for it.
~ Rahul Giri is a journalism student based in Bangalore.