Published May 01, 2000Asian Dub Foundation's Dr. Aniruddha Das is waiting for his order at a curry take-out in Norwich, England. The bass player's stomach must be rumbling a low frequency, because he's suddenly got the urge to pull a couple of British pop legends out of their cultural closets.
"Of course Cliff Richard's Indian. Same with Freddie Mercury. Never mind their sexuality ? these people never came out on their origins, man! Cliff Richards had Indian parents and at school he used to be called paki.' He's done interviews about how he had to fight at school because of this. Everyone in our community knows this, but the general perception of it in Britain is that he's white. It's just like Beethoven. One of his parents was of North African origin, but generally, that kind of thing tends to get overlooked."
The issue of historical cover-ups and ethnic erasure is something of an obsession for Asian Dub Foundation. On their third and latest album, Community Music, it's central to songs like "Real Great Britain," "Memory War" and "Truth Hides." But the stories behind these titles are not premised upon the usual rhetoric of conspiracy theory or paranoid politics. Like all of ADF's work, they're the musical observations of five activists deeply involved in a variety of grassroots projects: community monitors on police brutality and racial attacks; an international campaign for the release of wrongly-accused prisoner Satpal Ram; and workshops on music and technology for local youths. Ultimately, whether on or offstage, this UK sound system collective are an intense bunch, and as they emphasise in "Real Great Britain," they're vigorously determined to assert their cultural and musical presence in a "shoe-gazing nation forever looking backward."
"It's almost like ADF's original raison d'etre," explains Das, "to talk about ourselves being Asians or South Asians, what our parents have been through and bits of hidden history like [Indian anti-colonial dissident/rebel] Uddam Singh and [Bengali peasant uprising] the Naxalites. It's also about expressing the kinds of things we've generally been denied in this country, but also in the bands we had been in previous to ADF."
Das is impenetrable on what exactly those "kinds of things" are: politics, music, identity? Perhaps a combination of all three, or even none at all. It's the gut-level urge to resist, through rage as well as rhythm, within the confines of these and other dimensions that thrive at the heart of Asian Dub Foundation.
The genesis of ADF took place in 1988, when Das, a bassist and classically-trained harmonium player, was looking to form "an experimental dub noise band" with South Asian musical influences. He put an ad in the paper and guitarist Steve "Chandrasonic" Savale was the only one who replied. The pair began jamming and performing at raves with Orbital and Mixmaster Morris, and while touring with the former in Holland, met Sanjay Tailor (aka Sun-J), a "mixologist" and dancer renowned for his "radical movements."
But Das grew tired of the apathetic attitudes within the acid house scene, finding its ideals of ecstasy and escapism "too directionless, even though musically it all was still extremely cutting edge." His frustrations took him to Community Music, an organisation that, Chandrasonic explains, "incorporated a participatory approach for getting young people involved with music, through things like taking samplers into a housing estate and getting youths to experience the technology, rather than teaching them how to do it."
One of the first students in Das's class was teen MC Deedar Zaman, who introduced his teacher to the revolutionary rhythms of break-beats and jungle. In 1993, along with activist/DJ John Pandit (aka Pandit G), the trio re-formed ADF and began performing sound system-styled gigs at anti-racist demonstrations, including protests against the ultra-conservative British National Party. Chandrasonic, who had been recording in a more anonymous and ambient vein with Higher Intelligence Agency, rejoined shortly after and by 1995 the band was complete, with Sun-J on board as ADF's live midi-man.
Since then, the band has become notorious for a number of things: a brash mix of radical politics and underground music; an energetic stage show that UK critics praise as "the best live act in Britain"; and a reputation for being among the leaders of the "Asian underground." It's the last one that irks the band the most. Despite their tremendous emphasis on South Asian pride, they're unwilling to pursue any alliances simply along the lines of shared ethnicity, rather than parallel forms of expression.
"We've played [Talvin Singh's club night] Anokha," says Chandrasonic, "but we play elsewhere too. We've never really felt much a part of that scene. We're definitely more a grassroots, punky kind of group and not really big on being very musician-like. I think that we've got more in common with Audio Active and Atari Teenage Riot than Talvin Singh."
Nevertheless, like Singh, ADF certainly have a lot going on in their tracks: reggae bass lines, punky guitar strains, junglist riddims, samples of South Asian folk music and dub treatments. But their mix comes with a different sensibility, one that isn't so interested in exploring experimental East-West dynamics, nor a purely aesthetic appreciation of classical Indian music traditions. ADF's soundscape is much more aggressively built on breaking down boundaries ? musically and socially.
On the track "Rebel Warrior," Deedar muses on the band's furious style as a "strange alliance/the sound of the flute and the siren in unison." The approach is like a collage of everyday sounds exploding with repressed energy.
As demonstrated on Facts and Fictions (1995) and Rafi's Revenge (1998), ADF's concept of common unity is multi-dimensional. It comes out of their strange alliances of dub and punk, drum & bass and rap, melody and dissonance, spirituality and violence. Undeniably, these pairings are forcibly born out of the band's uniquely arranged marriage of music and politics.
"There's nothing we hate more than music that's politically-oriented and boring," says Chandrasonic. "People don't get this part ? that sound has its own politics and aesthetics." It's in a ground-attack warning sung by piercing guitars ("Assassin"); a series of bullet-like drum rolls ("Officer XX); or a cross-cultural celebration of Punjabi bhangra percussion and Rasta-styled rootsy march of horns ("New Way New Life"). On Community Music, these tones pulsate with even more dynamism through a series of sound clashes between the band's distinctive brand of distorted harmonies and the heroic voices of various warriors from their "outernational" community.
"Colour Line" gives it up for Ambalavaner Sivanandan, the 75-year-old British anti-racist activist, and founder of the acclaimed Race & Class journal, as he breaks down the science behind the World Bank, IMF, GATT and other forces in the new global economy. Over militant progressions of Carnatic and Asiatic dub sounds, he simplifies their relations in regards to race, class and hegemony through an equation where "the colour line/is the power line/is the poverty line." On "Committed To Life," ex-Black Panther and current political fugitive Assata Shakur abandons leftist language and gives a monologue for the soul on the philosophy of struggle. In an amiable voice, she redefines resistance at its essence ? as the critical means of maintaining one's dignity as a human being.
The band then revives the rebellious, punk-like side of Sufism and its qawaali traditions on "Taa Deem," through a remix of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's vocal ecstasies with abrasive guitars and break-beat arrangements. But in one of the lighter moments of the album, the dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah takes a break from these (as well as his own) defiant discourses and chills out on "Riddim I Like" with a playful, DJ-styled commentary on the funk-tion of the track's electro-boogie breaks and reggae skanks.
The inseparability of musical and political insights are similarly achieved throughout the whole of Community Music, placing the album at the height of ADF's platform for "sonic militancy," "audio terrorism" and "conscious clubbing." And despite their intellectual content, the tracks definitely flow with a natural sense of musicality. As Das explains, every idea is still treated as a sound.
"We're aware of all the components existing in the music, but it's never a deliberate thing to put this or that sound in it. If a sound enters a piece of music and if it works sonically, then it remains."
That's not to say that ADF privilege music over politics. Rather, it's in the layers of sound and tonality that music and politics intersect; the subconscious regions where ADF's tracks are organically dosed with a vitality that precedes any of other impulse, be it imaginative or ideological.
"Every sound and every instrument that's being played has got to be screaming out and expressing the theme of the song," explains Das. "So even if it's the title of the song, like Free Satpal Ram,' every instrument, even without the lyrics, is expressing the sentiments of the song. The bass line is distorted, the shenai is duelling with the guitar, the percussion is rough and it's all saying that We want this man out, we think enough is enough!'"
"Free Satpal Ram" (on Rafi's Revenge) displays ADF at their most explosive, raging against the machine with an intensity matched only by Public Enemy's "Fight The Power." The track was written to publicise the case of Ram ? a man who was attacked by a gang of six whites, and who was jailed in 1986 after wounding one of them with a knife. The wounded man died after refusing to accept treatment at the hospital. Ram is still in prison, four years past his ten-year term, while the other five of his attackers remain free. The track has thus far proven to be a most effective tool in the fight to secure his release.
"When the record was out and getting a lot of press," Chandrasonic recalls, "Satpal himself actually said that it protected him from getting roughed up in prison. That was very powerful. Everyone who came to the gigs was signing petitions and sending letters to him in prison. We're talking about white indie rock kids taking this on! It was on the national news and the papers, but the organisations and the lawyers advocating his case were very slow to respond to the publicity. The pop music side of it was actually working faster than the people working underground."
Unlike most rock star/politicians, ADF actually live next door to the characters of their social commentaries ? be it on the streets of East London, or in the imaginary homelands of their different diasporas. But as with the Asian underground, their ties to "the people" aren't merely a racial or ethnic one; nor are they just another ideological form of class solidarity. ADF's social commitments come simply from a shared sense of community ? or more accurately, what their tracks metaphorically imagine as "a community of sound."
In many ways, the band resemble an urban form of the fakir, the griot, the bhakti poet and other such folk musicians, singing their social commentary, responding to the struggles of their audience, but also pointing them towards alternative insights and promises. The band celebrates those traditions on "New Way, New Life," with praise for musicians like Nusrat and Punjabi folk singer Gurdas Maan, whose voices, though less political, often served as a source of inspiration for their parents while struggling as immigrants in the West. The track also takes pride in the success of Cornershop and other Asian artists "ruling" the dance floor.
The thrust of ADF's sentiment remains rooted in an assertion of resistance, rather than cultural chauvinism. The attitude is echoed on the instrumental tracks "Scaling New Heights" and "A Tribute To John Stephens" (the founder of Community Music) ? particularly in the latter, which riffs on Deedar's single utterance of "encourage the massive to be their own creator." Creativity, especially in its most tense, but still communicative, forms is the band's ultimate message on resistance ? if there's a single one at all. It's arguably more fundamental to human existence than Public Enemy, Black Star, Dead Presidents and other "conscious" rappers would insist in their propagandist rhymes for black nationalism. As Das explains, the creative impulse has little to do with their cultural location as Asians; rather, it's the reason why dub is the foundation for an ideal community of sound, where citizens interact and communicate like musicians, pulling and pushing each other within the mix.
"Part of the attraction in Jamaican music," he explains, "is that the roles of the instruments are reversed. It's a different approach to bass from you get in sort of white pop music, where it's totally subservient and backing up chords. In dub, the bass is a melodic instrument; the guitars and the keyboards are playing the rhythm, and it's all interlocked with the drums. There's a lot of call-and-response, leaving spaces, knowing when not to play, playing in unison, but it's about listening really, and valuing other people's ideas."
"Of course there's tension, but you get the most wicked, hardcore music out of it! And that's the philosophy of community music. Everyone has an input and nothing is discarded. If a bass line I've got isn't working, then that's fine. That's there for another day."