It’s difficult to avoid the words “Asian Underground” when reviewing something like this, although Mohammed Akber Ali and Shrikanth Sriram (a.k.a. Badmarsh & Shri) are reputedly derisive about the term. Not without reason. There was a time in the UK in the late ’90s when it seemed like everybody, in clubs and production rooms, was jumping onto the bandwagon: adding bhangra and Indian folk music into the mix, sampling sitar notes over a drum ‘n’ bass beat.
While the hype around that superficial scene is, thankfully, fading, good British-Asian pop and electronica is thriving in the UK and elsewhere, though it’s really too diverse to be thought of as a scene — think of Asian Dub Foundation, Thievery Corporation, Talvin Singh. Generally, Asian-influenced dance music, no longer holding the attention of those who simply tack on the flava of the day, is now being left to musicians who are just as rooted in traditional Asian sounds as they are in drum ‘n’ bass, techno, dub and/or hip-hop. The “Asian Underground” is better for it, and if any one release illustrates this, it’s Badmarsh & Shri’s Signs.
They make an interesting duo. Born and raised in Bombay, multi-instrumentalist Shri (the name is also a respectful term of address, approximately the equivalent of “mister”) is classically trained (he reportedly began on the tablas at age the age of two, before mastering the flute and bass). Increasingly interested in Western music, he moved to London in 1994, hooking up with now label-mate Nitin Sawhney, who produced Shri’s (solo) debut, the seminal Drum the Bass.
Notice the opposites: Badmarsh (Hindi for rascal, trickster, roguish individual) was born in Yemen, and raised in Hackney, East London. He grew up on black dance music, working at reggae studio Easy Street, before securing a DJ spot at the rave club Labyrinth — meanwhile becoming increasingly interested in Eastern music.
On Signs, the pair’s second album, Badmarsh & Shri barely glance at the map, and instead forge their own route, driven by their combined vast array of influences — including reggae, breakbeat, drum ‘n’ bass, funk, hip-hop, techno, jazz, Asian, folk and classical. With the help of guests, such as ragga MC UK Apache (the “Original Nuttah”), the lovely Kathryn Williams, and the Bombay String Orchestra, they have created a compelling, intoxicating album, brilliantly enjoyable from start to finish.
In fact, Signs is so easy to like that some might dismiss it as unchallenging, but I think they’d be wrong to. Admittedly, it’s familiar in parts: the album contains snatches of earlier Thievery Corporation; the energetic “Bang”, with its epic strings over breakbeat, reminds me strongly of something off an old Ninja Tunes compilation (Amon Tobin, if I’m not mistaken); and “Swarm” sounds like “The Matrix” set in India, like the Prodigy might sound if they took their image less seriously and learned to play the sitar. For me this doesn’t pose a problem. While the album might not be avant garde, it’s never boring or facile, and its comfortableness doesn’t come at the price of unexpected — even astonishing — moments. They may use existing ingredients, but the end result is something new. And just listen to the raw, exploratory edginess of the percussive “Tribal”, if you’re not convinced.
The first (title) track (a cover of a Tenor Saw song) is addictive: a slightly dark/eerie rendition, with a rolling trip-hop beat beneath double bass, violin and tablas — plus UK Apache’s sweet voice. Then there’s the menacing techno-punk of “Swarm”, followed by “Get Up”: an interesting take on the James Brown classic, a bilingual Jamaica-meets-Bombay rocker, with all the funk of the original. In tracks four to seven things get chilled, lush and lovely — all ambient keyboards, hanging flute notes, symphonic strings and mellow beats. Listen to Kathryn Williams’ floating voice in “Day by Day” give way to the gorgeously melancholic flute interlude, “Soaring Beyond”. Then to the exquisitely dreamy “Sajanna”, vaguely reminiscent of early Massive Attack.
The pace steps up in the raw, almost frenzied “Tribal” and the cinematic, pounding “Bang”, before relaxing again into the gentle instrumental beauty of “The Last Mile” (violin, acoustic guitar, double bass, piano over a trip-hop beat), and ending with “Appa”, at the center of which is Shri’s father on the sitar.
Badmarsh & Shri have a knack for moving around and combining moods and genres in a way that sounds completely natural, unforced. Signs is suggestive of a wide, sweeping vision of music, and is energetic, hauntingly beautiful and emotive. You should give it a listen.