By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Anokha: Talvin Singh Presents Soundz of the Asian Underground
Eastern Uprising: Dance Music from the Asian Underground
FOR NEARLY 20 years, second- and third-generation Indian kids living in London have been pumping a weird dance music called bhangra. It took its name from bhang (hemp), but bhangra was never dope, at least not outside the Anglo-Indian hood. That might be because telling the faux from the funk in bhangra's fun-for-fun's-sake hybrid of disco, reggae, techno, and shout-along ragamuffin was even harder than separating wheat from chaff in American alternadreck.
Well, payback time has finally come, and a mini-nation of post-bhangra beat scientists may be cashing some fat checks in the months to come. The music that honcho Talvin Singh has compiled on Anokha is to standard-issue bhangra (or, for that matter, American alternadreck) what DJ Shadow is to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Prince. A London-born, Indian-reared tabla prodigy whose résumé includes string arrangements for Björk's Debut, remixes for Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, and work with jazz-hop saxman Courtney Pine, Singh may be best known for Anokha, a weekly London club event where the top Indian DJs refract Indian classical and film music off of drum'n'bass and trip hop, among other happy perversions.
Anokha's first note to the overground represents just fine. Singh gets prurient Phil Specter-style by employing two girlie divas, teen star Amar and Björk clone Leone, to do his musical bidding. Most notable is "Jean," a classic pop prayer disguised in dreamy breakbeats, in which Amar plays Pollyanna with pathos, suggesting a Hindi "Be My Baby" as written by Spring Heel Jack. State of Bengal's "Flight IC408" loops a snake-charmer surf guitar, and the Milky Bat Kid's "Accepting Tranquility" drops art hop complex enough to make those Tortoise boys smile (or sweat) with respect. This kind of cross-cultural style-swiping suggests the start of the kind of postnational pop ethos we've all been jonesing for.
Anokha is smart, serious stuff, at times so distant from bhangra it almost comes off as a bit ashamed of its ethno-musical heritage. Which may be why the lighthearted Hindi house music on the import-only Eastern Uprising: Dance Music from the Asian Underground works so nicely as its companion/foil. As poppy, and at times deeply cheesy, as classic bhangra, these house/techno/trip-hop tracks screw together the tantric and the trancy, at times with surprisingly nifty results. Cocoon inexplicably turns the sloppiest Portishead rip-off ever into shehnai-soaked drum'n'bass, and Black Star Liner bounce Sufi singers off sampled non sequiturs; both suggest semi-arty aspirations. But corny Safri Goes to Bollywood (love that name!) and political toasters Asian Dub Foundation make the best art here by going to obscene lengths to create crafty, even kitschy good times. No, it isn't exactly the post-postcolonial Chic of our dreams. But it's getting there.