The British, Invaded

Hua Hsu reviews Vivek Baldu2019s music documentary chronicling the rise of Englandu2019s u201cAsian undergroundu201d amidst racial turmoil.

By Hua Hsu Dec 21, 2003

“Don’t believe your fucking Gandhi films!”
— Asian Dub Foundation

State of Bengal’s “Flight IC408” opens, predictably, in the air. The single was originally part of Talvin Singh’s Anokha: Sounds of the Azian Underground, a compilation released in 1997 that documented a small scene of wistful, forward-thinking South Asian fusionists who applied a punky yet tradition- minded sensibility to British dance music. At the center of this feverish world was the charismatic Singh, but one of the scene’s most imaginative moments was “Flight IC408” and its simple, almost innocent, opening sample: “Your attention, please, Indian Airlines announces the departure of their Flight IC408 to Calcutta.”

The mention of flight evoked two meanings: On one hand, Anokha introduced much of the world to the Asian underground’s grafting of classical Indian with drum-n-bass and here, in CD form, was a suggestion: Step into our world, tourist. But it also seemed like an in joke, an illustration of how powerfully fleeting and transitory the identities of these sons and daughters of South Asian immigrants truly were. It’s not a cosmopolitan flight or a leisurely one; rather, “Flight IC408” fixes on the sound of diaspora and the cultural pride one deduces shuttling to and fro between two homes—it’s about the imaginary space that airplane traverses. If part of what this Asian underground sought was a new identity, then the airplane’s restless movement between London and Calcutta seems the perfect way to understand an identity constantly under construction, devised and revised on the fly.

Consider New York documentary filmmaker Vivek Bald’s Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music, a piece of that movement and an accomplice to its memory. Begun in 1997 at the height of the “Asian underground” movement, Bald’s labor of love is a rich, engaging work, equal parts social history and cheerleader. Bald shot the film on digital video and interviewed a range of British musicians of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi descent, including Singh, Tjinder Singh of Cornershop, and Asian Dub Foundation.

The instinct for Mutiny was planted the moment South Asians stormed England’s shores. Circa the 1950s, the English population was overwhelmingly white and the nation had not dealt with substantial immigration of any sort since the ninth century. That decade, immigrants from the Caribbean, West Africa, and South Asia arrived in droves, often displacing working-class locals and planting the seeds for the racial strife that would visit England shortly. The economy—in a shambles regardless of who was filling all the low-wage jobs—was tracked in freefall and someone had to take the blame. Tensions mounted throughout the late 1950s and 1960s and boiled over in 1968 when conservative politician Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “rivers of blood” speech. England—a storied nation that was suddenly and tragically late—had a race problem.

Most of the artists and activists interviewed in Mutiny recall these days with a distanced bitterness; nearly everyone mentions getting bullied or being called “Paki.” Being kids, they weren’t sure what to do. And, being brown kids, they weren’t sure about this whole “being brown” thing. It was easier to be publicly ambivalent about the Indian music or films they enjoyed in the privacy of their homes. Some found solace in memorizing British pop hits; others sought approval from their white schoolmates. But all of them felt something tragic in the plights of their parents and by the time the mid-1970s rolled around, the language had finally caught up to the aching feelings in their hearts.

The discovery of punk, reggae, and hip-hop is one of the most compelling turns in Mutiny. All of a sudden, here were ready-made revolutionary poses for their unnamed angers and Bald’s narration and footage of young South Asians digging the new styles are especially stirring. Community organizer Asad Rehman remembers the first time he heard dub: “It might not have spoken our literal language, but it spoke the language of our hearts.” Aki Nawaz, later of FunDaMental and Nation Records, recalls his days in an early 1980s post-punk band and the “seven or eight Asians” he would connect with at each gig.When rapper Mush Khan first saw Rocksteady Crew in England in 1981, he thought he was looking in a mirror—“I thought they were Asian kids,” he laughs. But, once Khan began studying the culture of hip-hop and understanding the similarities between the lives of these Rocksteady Latinos and himself, he realized they were more alike than not. Khan dedicated himself to the art of B-boying and the footage of him with his childhood crew Dizzy Footwurk is priceless.

Here then was the second generation growing up militant, proud, and unwilling to put up with what their parents had to endure. It was a motley assortment of artists as diverse as the community that birthed them. In 1993, Asian Dub Foundation—by far the most outwardly radical group portrayed here—formed around a series of community music workshops. That year, Cornershop—founded by brothers Tjinder and Avtar Singh—debuted with two bizarrely fetching EPs of Indian-influenced British indie rock. In 1995, the record label and club Outcaste became one of England’s first Asian-only endeavors. “We felt that music could be a stepping -tone forward to slightly less racism,” explains DJ Ritu. “Wouldn’t it be cool to be down with the Asian? Wouldn’t it be cool to be down with the brown?” Also in 1995, riot grrrls the Voodoo Queens made noise with their “Supermodel-Superficial” single and Khan and his rap crew Kaliphz debuted with a violently clever, colored-and-proud motto: “We’re not pacifists, we’re Paki-fists.”

But the apex of Bald’s story comes with Singh and Anokha, the London club that he founded to showcase his strange brew of drum ’n’ bass and classical Indian music. Singh himself makes an interesting study: he was born in England and started playing the tabla at the age of five. As with most kids of his generation, he was also fascinated with punk, electro, and hip-hop. He relocated to India at the age of 16 to pursue a classical education and returned to England in the mid-1980s, where his wide, progressive grasp of music earned him the respect of collaborators like Bjork, Future Sound of London, and supposedly, Sun Ra.

For Singh, the use of tabla and Indian percussion in drum ’n’ bass was natural and he became the posterboy for an entire movement. Anokha was the watershed moment but it wa not until his proper solo debut, OK, was released in 1998 that the true impact of the Asian underground was felt.

In 1999, OK trumped a crowded field of populist rockers and won England’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. It is at this point that Bald’s story turns sour. Anokha had ceased to be a secret long before, but OK’s success spurred a shopping spree that found most of the top Asian acts getting major label record deals. A couple years later, when the labels realized they had no idea how to handle these stridently pro-identity artists, most of the artists were dropped back to square one.

Mutiny ends here, with a positive postscript about how activist-minded groups like Asian Dub Foundation have insured that their message outlives the shelf life of their records. It’s an interesting place for Bald to end since the narrative of the negligent, hyper-corporate label is a crowd-pleaser in this country or any. But, as some interviewees explain, the movement didn’t really have the momentum to sustain that level of attention. And creatively, fusion is merely an extended stay away from being the new normal. Few of the Anokha artists, Singh included, have released albums as compelling as their late 1990s singles.

There’s one glaring problem with Mutiny, and it’s not completely Bald’s fault: by now, much of Bald’s material has become outdated. Bald’s film has been many years in the making and he finished Mutiny on the eve of today’s sudden pop music infatuation with South Asian—or, in many cases, exotically “Oriental”—sounds. Unfortunately, Mutiny predates but doesn’t predict Jay-Z riffing off Panjabi MC, Timbaland’s tabla samples, or dancehall’s celebrated (and suddenly ubiquitous) diwali riddim.

Mutiny is a film about people doing all the “wrong” things and finding useful bits of sonic resistance in their larger cultural alienation. American hip-hop seems to have answered a question implicit to this dynamic: What happens when it becomes a novelty in someone else’s supposed resistance? Artists like Timbaland and Missy Elliott (“Get Your Freak On”), Jay-Z (“Beware of the Boys”), and DJ Quik (producer of Truth Hurts’ “Addictive”) have helped make it chic to nick South Asian motifs and mine Bollywood soundtracks, and it’s impossible to tell whether it’s a genuinely good or bad thing.

Of course the kind of South Asian ethic Bald portrays is radically different from what’s transpired over the past year or so. (“We’re engaged in semiotic guerrilla warfare,” Pandit G of Asian Dub Foundation offers, before chuckling at the lumbering, academic, and anti-exciting sound of his description.) But there are politics, implicit and explicit, to Panjabi MC, just as there are politics to Asian Dub Foundation or FunDaMental. Appropriation—or cagey self-promotion?—moves in a blink, moves faster than Bald. As huge as Talvin Singh ever got, his success was more a product of providential timing than today’s hyper-aware faddishness.

Watching Mutiny carefully, one notices a constant refrain: as children we were pariahs but as adults we are cool. One producer wonders aloud what he thinks about non-Asian club-goers greeting each other Namaste in weird, private homage to their host Asian DJs. The argument that this matters—this question of acceptance, of who accepts who—often doubles as a criticism (i.e., where are the politics if Timbaland is merely sampling something because it sounds “weird” or “cool”? And on whose terms?). But if, as DJ Ritu suggests, it was all about proving that brown is as desirable a color as any, then Mutiny is a study in how to overturn a thousand years of history and integrate a culture, one dancing fool at a time.