I know I’m going to get asked about this a lot in India, so let me explain the context to this song,” says guitarist Steve Chandra Savale of the Asian Dub Foundation (ADF). He is talking about Naxalite, a single the British punk/reggae/electronica collective released in 1996 as an “ode” to the Maoist movement in India. With the escalating conflict, the song sounds remarkably prescient today. (Like springing tigers we encircle the cities/Our home is the undergrowth/Because I am a Naxalite warrior.)
The act: The band in concert; and the ADF line-up.
“It’s not a rallying cry for the movement or a ringing endorsement,” Savale explains over the phone from London, a week before their first-ever India tour. “This was a song aimed purely at a British audience.”
The group, he says, was “revolted” at the embarrassing stereotype of Indian people in Britain. “You asked any average person what they knew about India and you’d hear ‘Gandhi. Curry. Peace and love.’ We were so offended.”
Savale and his songwriting compatriots, bassist Aniruddha Das (aka Dr Das), DJ John Pandit (aka Pandit G), programmer Sanjay Tailor (Sun-J) and 16-year-old rapper Deeder Zaman (Master D), started “investigating tendencies in Indian history” that challenged this dominant image of passive resistance. “It was a process of discovery, really. It was fascinating for us to learn about this aspect of recent India, and we had access to just one book in a university library—which turned out to be some kind of Leftist pamphlet.”
ADF formed out of a series of workshops on electronic music in east London, conducted in 1993 by Das and Pandit. Savale, known for his unique style of playing the electric guitar, was recruited a year later. (An article on the band’s website offers the following tip for aspiring players: “Don’t play chords or notes—play a feeling. Don’t play Cm7; play a volcano erupting. Don’t play some tired old Blues Riff; play the sound of the Stock Market collapsing.”)
ADF’s music was an angry, verbose reaction to growing anti-Asian sentiment and violence, and their struggle to maintain east London’s “egalitarianism”. “We’re a product of that environment,” Savale says. In 1998, the band released Free Satpal Ram, a song that drew attention to the case of Satpal Ram, a British Indian convicted of murder and allegedly beaten by the authorities on account of his race. Ram was finally released in 2002.
The band have been at the forefront of underground Asian music in the UK, their songs continually challenging reductionist assumptions of what constitutes Asian culture or attempts to pigeonhole issues into convenient categories. “We keep saying—the world is extremely complicated, you always have new grounds for the far right to take root in, and new cultural issues that emerge out of new patterns of politics,” Savale says. “You have to keep up—it’s in the nature of globalization.”
ADF has seen many changes in its 16 years (both founder members Dr Das and Master D have moved out to concentrate on teaching or community activism), but has settled to a six-man line-up since the 2008 album Punkara. Their new album, A New London Eye, is due early 2011. “I’m very, very happy with it. We’ve grown as musicians and we understand each other much better,” Savale says. “When your line-up is constantly changing, it’s like you’re always making that first album.”
In 2009, Savale hosted a six-part series for Al Jazeera called Music of Resistance, profiling musicians from around the world who spoke against injustice in their communities. “The show demonstrated that what we do has comparable parallels to other places in the world, and that music has this incredible capacity to organize a disadvantaged community.”
Savale says working in multiple media (he also conceptualized an opera in 2006 on the life of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi) is central to his work. “The format of protest is changing. It’s a tradition that grew out of the 1970s and 1980s, I’m not sure it’s wholly effective to today’s context. The space given to it has morphed and changed. And with it, so do you.”
For many of ADF’s fans, their first introduction to the band’s music came from an unlikely source—video games. Popular ADF songs Fortress Europe and Flyover have been licensed for use by big-budget racing games such as Need for Speed: Underground. It may seem strange that an intensely political band would allow its music to be licensed for use in a racing game, but Savale says it captures the changing space of protest and protest music. “I don’t want any control on how people interpret our music,” he says. “I don’t care if the navel-gazing far left hears us. What matters to me is that millions of 16 year olds who play racing games know by heart the lyrics to one of the most pro-liberal, pro-immigration songs in recent history. I think that’s brilliant. Full power to it.”
Asian Dub Foundation headline the Bacardi NH7 Weekender festival in Pune on 12 December and play in Goa, Delhi and Chennai on 15, 16 and 18 December, respectively.