Fast-chat lyrics intended for cultural impact, superimposed over heavy, indo-dub bass lines and synthesized dancehall stylings: these go a little way in explaining the unique and addictive sound of UK Asian group Asian Dub Foundation. Having helped define their music is lead guitarist Steve Chandra Savale, stage-named ‘Chandrasonic’ after when he used to tune his guitar to one note and play it with a knife. Before ADF headlined the main stage of Larmer Tree Festival 2011 on the Saturday, Rhythm Circus’ Graham Ashton got to sit down with him for a chat. In response to playing a festival very much dominated by country, blues and folk acts he said:
“We pride ourselves actually on being able to play pretty much everywhere, certainly in the early days we were able to play everywhere. I remember one week where we had a centre spread in Kerrang! (magazine) and we were on the front page of a folk magazine, in the same week. Now that’s something I’m very proud of, that we can have that span.”
With their diverse mix of genres and playing styles, politically embedded lyrics and rap/punk sensibilities their music was perhaps more appreciated by, and more accessible to the younger festival goers, even though like so many performances at the festival nostalgia was a key factor in what they bring to the table.
“I think we got quite an unusual sound. There was a lot of music in the 90’s that kind of mixed up Indian, Asian elements into new contemporary forms of music, drum and bass or what have you, but we were the only ones who had a forceful punk rock element, with the bhangra music, with the Indian rhythms, the reggae and stuff. And we kind of hark back to the idea that music should be about something, not necessarily political, but if you feel strongly about something you should express it, which is…not common in today’s music. In fact it wasn’t common when we started. We’re not about marketing, put it that way, we’re not trying to market ourselves to you.”
The band’s single ‘Fortress Europe’ from their 2003 album Enemy of the Enemy was featured in the game ‘Need For Speed: Underground’, something Chandrasonic feels is the band’s most successful achievement in spreading not only their music but the extremely radical, pro-immigration, pro-asylum seeker message of the track.
“It’s actually anti-immigration control; it’s a no-borders song. Very specific, about very specific things, and the fact that twenty, thirty million people have heard that song, and if they’ve got into it and looked at the video which has all the lyrics, out there that’s fantastic. I’m not into preaching to the converted. I would like ADF’s music and message to be heard by people who haven’t heard a musical message like that before.”
He explained the band received some criticism for allowing such a hard hitting song to be placed in the game, but the fact that many gamers have then gone on to find the song on youtube (which has racked up over a million hits) has created some startlingly polarized reactions:
“The debate that (Fortress Europe) sparks actually shows you the racism and prejudice that’s still out there. People who’ve just got into this song from the video game, gone and looked at who we are, what the song’s about and either been really behind it, interested in it or absolutely horrified. And if you look at the YouTube comments you’ll see some of the ugliest, nastiest, racist things written anywhere, and you’ll see people go against it, fighting it, all in this YouTube debate.”
The band started out teaching music at youth clubs all around the world, going into housing estates with samplers and the like (some of the band were even recruited through these outreaches), which Chandrasonic says was quite new and different back then but now quite commonplace. Now though it’s not something they do so much anymore, as similar programmes are the norm around local communities, especially in the UK.
“Music is very domesticated in Britain, music’s very much part of the national fabric I suppose.” Said Chandra. When asked about new projects he’s part of he added: “One thing that I’ve been involved is Fair Tunes, which is more about certain projects in certain places, like they’ve got radio starter and music workshops in Columbia and Western Sahara.”
Despite the name ‘Asian Dub Foundation’, Chandrasonic was quite vocal about getting past the notion of ‘Asian representation’. Whilst the band initially sought to break negative stereotypes of Indian culture, combining drum and bass with more western styles of music, they now tend to refuse gigs specifically targeting Asian audiences with Asian acts.
“In a way it’s almost swapped around now. You got BBC Asia, you got all these events; Asian this Asian that. You got councils saying ‘Oh yeah we need an Asian project’ and tick the box on things like that. I mean call me naïve but I actually believe in what Obama said, I don’t think he’s putting it into practice but the idea of a post-racial society is something we should be moving towards, and I’m starting to think that cutting yourself off and demanding representation for a group of people who are not homogenous, who are really diverse, you cant…What is Asian representation? Who are you representing? Some poor kid in Bradford, or some rich accountant in Wembley?”
Having presented an excellent six-part documentary Music of Resistance, which focused on musicians around the world fighting oppression and communicating politics through their songs, Savale, a fan of American dramas like The Wire, aims to become a scriptwriter at some point in his career. And on the subject of predicting the future he also revealed himself as Twittadamus, a twitter page devoted solely to prophesising clever and deep thinking ideas of events to come, such as:
“Super-injunctions will take the form of flying muzzles triggered remotely by listening devices that detect language offensive to the rich”
Similar to the concept behind the last ADF album ‘A History of Now’, he intends for many others to join in the Twittadamus concept, so check it out, follow and spread it around. And to find out more about Asian Dub Foundation check out their website.
Words > Graham Ashton