Sound Samples

By John Hytnyk, 10 July 2001

First in a series of specials unpicking facets of Rear/View’s different areas of coverage, John Hytnyk digs into Music with a review of The South Asian Sound of Britain.

Your interest in South Asian sound and culture extends beyond a late night curry. Your designer taste extends to more than a sari wall-hanging. And your multiculti cred amounts to more than an occasional visit to some nightclub with a Bollywood film as atmospheric backdrop... Your patronage of Asian cultures is not just some superficial ethnic thing, is it? You need to know a little more, and fill in that gnawing feeling that tells you the South Asianisation of Britain did not just start with George Harrison’s sitar pluncking at the feet of the wizened Maharishi. Depth you want. Well, look into this folks: first Asian MP in Britain, Dadabhai Noaroji, elected 1892. And better yet, Mr Shapurji Saklatvala was the first communist elected to the British parliament. He was, ‘Indian’ – but this is not a ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ sketch. Asians have been participating in parliamentary politics in Britain for more than a century.

We’ve moved on past the new Asian kool. But the very idea of knowing the variety of South Asian music begs a big question. What is South Asian about it? There is a huge distance between the Qawwals and the Bauls, between Mumbai and Brum, between UK Apache and Zee TV. What makes it plausible that this diverse repertoire be gathered together and classed Asian? It would seem clumsy to imagine that what we have is a post-hoc grafting of social and political character onto particular rhythms, yet we continually identify musics as having cultural provenance, and from this association of sound and culture go on to worry about appropriation, exoticisation, misrepresentation, and so on. A vexed questioner might even ask if in mixed or hybrid styles there can be any sort of misrepresentation? And if everything is mixed, surely there is no pure anyway. Except for those who live in the weird world of commerce, it’s probably clear to all that no-one actually ‘owns’ music – neither individually or as a cultural group. Why then so much fuss if not for economics?

Much ink spilled. The proprietary status of sound. But there is a world of distance between some borrowings or mixings and others, and three stories follow to illustrate the point: they have to do first with Madonna and Cornershop, then with West London’s Fundamental and a certain Paul Simon, and finally with the East End’s own Asian Dub Foundation (ADF):

#1. If you’ve got money you can make it with Asian flava. Back in 1998, the materialist girl knocked Cornershop off the top of the charts with her mix of decontextualised Hinduism floating in ethereal new age mush, seasoned with embarrassingly clunky bharatanatyam dance imitations. Sanskrit lyric passages – Shanti-Ashtangi – led to interviews where Mother Madge professed her great interest in ‘religions’ like Kabbala, Buddhism and Tibet (the smorgasbord of the East doesn’t require genre coherence here). Kitted out in a new stylee, Madonna took on the old imperial frock (tea estates back in the day, music the message now) and got herself up like a space-age version of the colonial memsahib, lording it over the plantation workers (bell hooks first named Madonna a plantation overseer, appropriating gay exotica that time round). Well-resourced and grasping opportunism enables international interests to exploit options when local producers don’t get a look in. Madonna capitalised on the popularity of the new Asian dance music because she (or rather her corporate organisational existence) had the resources to get to market, press, TV everywhere.

#2. If you wrote it you can keep it for yourself. Reinvented world music impresario Paul Simon’s follow up album after Graceland was called The Rhythm of the Saints. It used recordings of a town square performance by the percussion ensemble Olodum, which were taken back to New York where Simon “improvised music and words over them and added other layers of music” (this interview statement was quoted in Timothy Taylor’s 1997 book Global Pop). Timothy Taylor complained that: “it is Simon who profits – his position in a powerful economic centre – the United States, a major corporation – means that he cannot escape his centrality, despite his assertion that he works ‘outside the mainstream.’” Compare this to the moment when the South Asian inflected hip-hop outfit Fun-da- mental recorded a version of Mr Simon’s song ‘The Sound of Silence’ – you know the tune – for inclusion on the album Erotic Terrorism. Their request to clear the sample was refused. Asked for permission once again, Simon was offered the publishing rights for the new version, which included an additional backing vocal but, as Aki Nawaz told me in an interview, Mr. World Music again said ‘no.’ The track was renamed ‘Deathening Silence’, the sample removed.

#3. Or you could use ‘Asian’ media modalities for some other project. ADF trade visibility and pop acclaim for the chance to put public campaigns across to those who might not otherwise know that Satpal Ram remains in prison at the time of writing, unjustly sent down for defending himself from racist attack in a restaurant. The track ‘Free Satpal Ram’ declared support for the man:

Self defence is no offence... An innocent man forced to carry the canFree Satpal Ram

Satpal Ram remains in prison still after 13 years, even though the tariff was ten – since he was defending himself, he has refused to admit any wrongdoing or guilt, and so is refused parole. Issues of ‘culture’ seem quite lame in the face of this reality – where is Saklatvala now?(If you want to send a message of support, the campaign address is : Free Satpal Ram Campaign (London) P.O. Box 30091 London SE1 1WP tel: 07947595367. Email: Discussion on the ADF website: [] )

It’s not what you take, it’s who you take it from, what you give in return, and what you do with it.

John Hutnyk teaches on the Visual Anthropology Programme at Goldsmiths College and his latest book is called Critique of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry (Pluto Press, 2000) (see Mute19).

Best buys:

Remix. Nation Records are to release a remixed version of ADF’s first album:The album might have been overlooked by those who though the ‘Asian Underground’ started when it first popped its head over the parapets at Talvin Singh’s Anokha club. This shows the efforts of the first years of ADF ‘conscious militant science’. Lyrics are not the be all and end all to music – but it would be a good thing not to get the message wrong: when Deedar sang ‘We ain’t ethnic, exotic or eclectic ... the only e we use is electric’ (on ‘Jericho’) he meant to counter that tendency that would read this music as merely ‘Asian’. There was more: ‘this militant vibe ain’t what you expected, with your liberal minds you patronise our culture, scanning the surface like vultures, with your tourist mentality, we’re still the natives, you’re multicultural. we’re antiracist’ An open question as to the merit of reworking all this again, but listen up anyway. – Frontline 1993-1997, Rarities and Remixes Nation Records 2001 NRCCD2006

Rewind. Ten years ago, Bally Sagoo produced an album of the late great Qawwali maestro Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. It was called Magic Touch and for many was the most popular record of the year. You’ve heard of both these guys of course, and the album includes the great ‘Kinna Sohna’ and a huge favourite ‘Jhoole Jhoole Lal’ (‘Musst Musst’ to you?). Nusrat was a fantastic voice, a very big bloke and immensely prolific. There may be others, but – as a sample in the album says, ‘its gonna be very popular’. If you don’t have it, get it. Magic Touch // Oriental Star // 1991 CDSR030

Relevance. And then compare the Sagoo mix with the excellent new release by Fun-da-mental. The Last Gospel is a haunting version of ‘Dum Dum Ali Ali’, which Nusrat had offered up on Magic Touch, but reworked in the inimitable FDM manner. The vocals are by nephews of Nusrat, Rizwan and Muazzam. Check out the advances and enhanced format, rhythms, production values – you be the judge. And if you need two decks to switch between each track, so be it. This is not to say you must go out and buy new technology just to listen to these tunes. I’m sensitive to the way the market drives difference. But you really do need these tracks – if only to be up to date with the history of Qawwali in the UK. The Last Gospel // Nation Records // NRCD2007

Revelation. Clinton. In case you missed it, Clinton is the dance offshoot of the justly famous long time songsters Cornershop. Sub(disco)continental rhythms. Disco is the Half Way to Discontent // Virgin 1999 // CDHUT56 8 48191 2 5