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Having a "Conscious Party"

Sonia Phalnikar and Oliver SamsonApril 28, 2003

British sound system Asian Dub Foundation, known for their searing dub, hip-hop and jungle beats and unapologetic anti-racist politics performed in Berlin on Saturday. DW-WORLD caught up with bassist and founder Dr. Das.

Pumping with musical energy and righteous passion -- the Asian Dub Foundation

Described as somewhere between punk and hip-hop and playing a blend of reggae, dub, ska and jungle infused with tabla and sitar sounds, Asian Dub Foundation’s (ADF) music has always been difficult to peg down.

Emerging from a series of workshops on music in London in 1993, ADF, originally made up of five men of South Asian origin, seized attention with their brand of unabashed anti-racist political messages and drum and bass concoction delivered through pulsing live performances.

Protests against frequent racist attacks against Asians in Britain in the early 90s formed much of ADF’s lyrical content in the early years. While ADF struggled to find acceptance in Britain at the time as Asian artists, they rose to swift popularity particularly in France, where their second album R.A.F.I. was released in 1997.

ADF is on the road in Germany to promote their latest album Enemy of the Enemy, a steaming mix of political and social statements spanning paranoia over asylum seekers in Europe to the threat of terrorism.

Asian Dub Foundation Dr Das Porträtfoto
Asian Dub Foundation Dr. DasImage: DW

Hours before their concert in Berlin, founder member and bassist of ADF, Aniruddha Das better known as Dr. Das spoke to DW-WORLD about the band’s political views, the experience of being Asian in Britain, reconciling Indian musical traditions with western music and their success in France.

Anti-racist messages were the focus of your music in the early years. How did that come about?

That was a direct reaction to specific things that were going on in London at the time like the election of a fascist councilor in east London, the rise of the far-right BNP and how that allowed and encouraged racists to come out and attack people in broad daylight literally.

We were people making and teaching music, and so we formed a sound system with microphone and turntables. For us a sound system is literally direct communication. We were trying to do as musicians what we could do to talk about the situation and maybe encourage people to put up some kind of resistance.

Is there ever a clash between the politically and socially loaded lyrics of your music and the music in itself?

No, not all. We don’t even analyze it like that. For us it’s all expression, it’s about exposing what’s going on in our heads. So whether it’s lyrically or musically, we make no distinction. Everything that comes out in the lyrics are things we happen to be talking about as people or concerns that we have as people. When we started out we were talking about things that were more local, more specific to our experience directly. Now the issues are maybe the same, but it’s global.

We’ve already talked a lot in the first place about our experience of being "Asian" of being the children of immigrants to Britain and our experience in Britain. Because we’ve traveled so much around the world, we’ve found that all kinds of people are finding something in our music something that is of relevance to their lives. That surprised us, to get people from all kinds of musical and cultural backgrounds, that kind of made us think a bit more globally.

Has your message changed over the years?

What is "our" message anyway? You think our message is one thing, but we basically want people to be brave and question and to hopefully go out and do their own thing, whether it’s music or writing or art or whatever. We’d just like to see more and more people being creative, making their own sound systems, creating their own parties, having exhibitions in their living room, whatever.

How do you think things changed since the Sep.11 attacks and how has this affected your music? Your latest album Enemy of the Enemy is a reference to the latest U.S.-led war on terror.

I think the world is exactly the same. I think some people’s perception of it has maybe changed, but all the underlying principles of what’s going on is exactly the same. The way CNN reports about what is going on in the world is completely different to what we’re getting, so the American population is completely oblivious to why people should want to attack them.

For us, calling our latest album Enemy of the Enemy is referring to things like that. People like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were set up as the enemy of the enemy. America supported Saddam Hussein, they gave him the chemical capabilities and the so-called weapons of mass destruction. Of course they (the Americans) know there are weapons of mass destruction, they’ve got the receipts! They set up Saddam in the first place, trained him, trained his elite and the same goes for Osama. These are just two of the most obvious, underhand things that have been going on. We’re just saying things aren’t as simple as they seem, this whole war on terrorism thing is completely bullshit because who’s trained and funded and supplied the terrorists in the first place for what reasons?

The group Public Enemy in America, who you’ve often been compared to , is known as the CNN for the blacks. Do you see yourself as a kind of CNN for the Asians?

Not really. We do like the idea of alternative news broadcasts. There is a role for artists and musicians to bring up issues and subject matter or things that the media does not wish to deal with or feel that they’re not allowed to deal with. Then you’ve got the whole Internet thing, you can point people to all sources of information. So in one respect people are beginning to ignore the media all together. I know I am, this is the only time I don’t ignore the media, when I’m being interviewed by them!

We don’t mind being compared to the Public Enemy – they’re completely wicked, I just heard them again recently with a track called "Son of a Bush". They’re awesome, they started 20-25 years ago and they’re just up there doing some amazing innovative music, sonically just completely outrageous, they’ve live guitar bass and drums, turntables whatever.

How do you explain the present Asian boom in Europe? Everything "Asian" is dubbed "cool".

Ask your mates in the media. It’s a media thing. The same goes for us, I was making music for ten years before ADF, five years of that in developing what became ADF, you know the mixing of Indian sounds and all of that with whatever else we were listening to. We were just getting on with it all the time.

All this about Asians being "cool" – that is so insulting, how can you call a whole group of people, a whole culture cool or uncool? I don’t relate to that at all. As for the "Asian underground" thing, I think Talvin Singh originally used that term for his first album or compilation and then it came to be associated with anybody who happened to be of Asian origin creating music in Britain. Whereas in terms of diversity, the stuff that everybody was doing was completely different. They just all happen to be Asian.

I think the only thing we have in common, which I’m very proud of, is Asian musicians all embrace technology as well as having a foundation of very rich and old musical traditions to draw upon. We got straight in there with the technology, the samplers, the sequences, drum machines whatever and had no problem with that whatsoever mixing rap with all the classical instruments, the acoustic stuff.

Have you ever performed in India? Would you like to?

No, not yet. But we would now. In the first half of our existence as ADF, it wasn’t relevant to us because ADF is pretty much about the experience of Asian people in Britain primarily and other parts of the diaspora. But now I think we’re ready now because I think we’ve said pretty much what we wanted to say about our experience in Britain and our parents.

Our music after all always has references to India, but in a different way – through technology. A lot of the sounds that you hear, the strings and the percussion, particularly the early stuff, was from our parent’s record collection. I just went back to all the vinyls from my dad’s collection that I used to listen to when I was little and just got loads of sounds from there. Now the album for the first time has been released in India, it’s the first official release that we’ve had.

How do you explain your amazing success in France?

In the mid-90s, Britain was all about Brit pop and this retro thing and we were different in every respect – we were using technology, we had different colored skin, things we were talking about ... In France, they just didn’t have a problem with that, they didn't have the baggage of us being Asian, we were just another British band.

Above all the audiences were well up for hearing new music, whereas in Britain at the time they would fold their arms and would not move till someone in the media told them that is cool to move to. That’s how it works. Some of the shops would tell us that they wouldn’t stock our stuff because they said Asian people don’t shop here, white people wouldn’t be interested in this at all. But that was in the early days. Now people realize that we’re just playing British music and that anybody can get into it and get something out of it regardless of their cultural origin.

How has the response been in Germany this time?

This is the first tour in Germany in two or three years as opposed to coming to the festivals and I notice that there’s a change in the vibe, there is a much happier vibe, more party kind of attitude which is good.

I’ve been trying to say to people for years that you’re just zooming into one aspect of what we do, the fact that we’re talking about certain things and totally ignoring the rest of it and in the meantime we’re up there on the stage having a party. We don’t see a contradiction between talking about things and having a good time -–Conscious Party (live album by ADF) .