Tuesday, January 10, 2012

From the Outside in

About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Maximum Rock and Roll, talking about what it was like being an Indian kid in the hardcore and punk scene in Southern California. In that article, I discussed how most Desi kids gravitated towards hip hop and bhangra. I eventually came to appreciate both styles, but they have never been as close to me. I was always on the outside looking in, both within the punk and metal communities, and within my own immigrant community. However, over the years I discovered many musicians who inspired me and left a profound impression. These Desi artists took chances, did their own thing, and dared to stand on the outside. This post is a tribute to them. 

Have you ever watched the video for Hey Jude? Dig that during the big chorus there is a turbaned Sikh in the crowd singing the "na na na naaa." The true "fifth Beatle?" The Rock and Roll Panj Pyare? Well, it was pretty cool to see when I was a kid. It said "you belong here too." 

When I was in high school, my older sister's friend told me that I should go and buy a record by a band called the Southern Death Cult. I did, and I loved it. I knew about Ian Astbury of the Cult, but when I bought the record I was struck by another name: Aki Nawaz. I knew he was one of us. And he was playing in a Goth band of all things. I loved goth, but what the hell kind of Indian kid with a stubbly beard and dark skin tries to dress up as a lithe, alabaster skinned Rice-ian Vampire? But it was OK, Aki was in the Southern Death Cult, so I wasn't completely on the outs. 

I found Aki again years later, and he was still doing it his way. This time around, it was with the experimental hip-hop/rock/fusion group Fun-da-Mental. Now, it seemed, Aki was scaring people, embodying the outsider as threat, the digital jihadi straddling a line between radical and fundamentalist. Though I don't always agree with Aki, his very presence gives Desi kids permission to set the world to rights, or just as well tell it to fuck off.

I've always been a bit of an Anglophile (if that isn't obvious) and I fell in love with Britpop. It was intelligent (Oasis notwithstanding), stylish, and often embraced the margin. So how happy was I when my friends came to me to help them understand Brimful of Asha?  Tajinder Singh, in his round faced glory, fronting a rather smart band that used Indian elements in the music, but not like some orientalist obsessed Kula Shaker garbage. I often wondered if Singh's parents were like mine:

"Vhy don't you study the Medicine?"
"I want to play Rock and Roll."
"Vell, at least you can play the Bhangra."

Talvin Singh didn't play bhangra either, though he could play tabla with the best of them. Talvin came at just the right time. I was attending raves, getting way too high, and indulging deeply into drum and bass. DnB was grittier, it expressed a street-level spirituality, while trance was just ear candy. Then came Singh, who took drum and bass and mounted it on a rocket ship blasting off from the Deccan Plateau. The Asian Underground wasn't big in the states, but I used to imagine that if I was in London at the time, I would have finally been on the inside for a change. 

There are others, many others. Nitin Sawhney, for example, remains one of the most unique artists I know, Desi or otherwise. The Asian Dub Foundation not only created a once in-an-immigrant generation sound, but they used the money they made as musicians to teach kids music. 

And now there is a new generation. I was fortunate enough to meet an incredibly talented cat called Mandeep Sethi, an emcee with an agile tongue and a deep soul. I know I said I didn't ever really get into hip-hop, but Sethi is doing things his way, he isn't out there talking about blingin' his whip with his thug bitches or however it goes. My latest favorite band is the Kominas, a band that emerged from the taqwacore scene and seems to be the fulfillment of what I and a couple other lonely brown kids thought might be possible almost 20 years ago. 

Here's to you. Keep on rockin' in the brown world . . .

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