There are many things to love about Britain: long summer evenings at the pub, a culture that adores books, newspapers full of good writing and the Yorkshire Dales, just for starters.
Another admirable feature is the extent to which contemporary Britain is drenched with South Asian culture. Three generations of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigration has not only seen ‘a curry’ knock off fish and chips as the national food but in every sphere of society (media, politics, business and the arts) there has developed a strong hybrid Brit-Asian sub-culture.
When I lived in Oxford in the late ‘90s, the music scene was vibrating with sounds from South Asia. Nitin Sawhney, Asian Dub Foundation, Apache Indian, Fun-Da-Mental and of course, Cornershop were winning the awards and getting massive playtime in the clubs and on the radio. Between 1998 and 2001, Asian-British acts (often, more than one) were shortlisted for Britain’s top music award, The Mercury Prize. In 1999 it was won to great acclaim (and some surprise) by a Punjabi Brit tabla player named Talvin Singh, for his album Ok.
Singh was born in an east London suburb and at age 15 went to India to study tabla. He returned within a year with a style that his classically trained guru felt was too ‘westernised’. He soon found himself playing with a diverse range of artists, including Madonna, Massive Attack and Sun Ra. In 1995 he established the Anokha club night at the London night club, The Blue Note, which quickly turned into the premier venue for Asian Brit bands interested in a sound that mixed western electronica and Hindustani instrumentation. Two years later he was signed to produce a compilation of the acts that played regularly at the club: Anoka: soundz of the Asian Underground.
The album was one of the first of its kind and was instrumental in bringing the whole ‘chill out’ or ‘lounge’ sound into the mainstream. It also forever associated Singh with a new sub-genre, Asian Underground.
The album is a fine collection of DJ-inspired music as well as an important historical artefact that documents an exciting period in contemporary British popular culture when the Empire truly struck back. Stand-out tracks include Flight IC408 by State of Bengal, Mumbai Theme Tune by a then-unknown (outside of India) A.R Rahman, and Singh’s own 21st Tabula which showcases his mastery of the tabla.
1. Jaan by Talvin Singh (featuring Amar)
2. Flight IC408 by State of Bengal
3. Kizmet by Lelonek
4. 21st Tabula by Talvin Singh and Sangat
5. Shang High Shang High by Future Soundz of India
6. Chittagong Chill by State of Bengal
7. Mumbai Theme Tune by A.R. Rahman
8. Distant God by Talvin Singh (featuring Leone)
9. Heavy Intro by Amar
10. Equation by Equal 1
11. Spiritual Master Key by Osmani Soundz
12. K-Ascendent by Kingsuk Biswas