Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Asian Underground

Andy Hermann

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to the Asian Underground

Label: World Music Network
US Release Date: 2003-03-11
UK Release Date: 2003-03-17

Rough Guides makes terrific budget travel books, but still, it's easy to view their recent attempts to bring that same savvy to the world of music with a jaundiced eye. What qualifies a travel publisher, after all, to start releasing pocket-sized books on everything from techno to Elvis, much less a series of compilation CDs highlighting various types of so-called "world music"? Probably nothing, but so what? Cross-branding is everything in the 21st century, and the Rough Guide has at least as much cachet with your average Borders Books & Music shopper as any other world music label already in existence.

Fortunately, the folks at Rough Guides seem to have been wise enough to take a hands-off approach to their musical forays, instead bringing in experts and letting them assemble and annotate the compilations. In the case of The Rough Guide to the Asian Underground, that expert is DJ Ritu, a veteran of London's Asian underground scene, which is where this style of music first began to take on the trappings of a bona fide movement about a decade ago. Ritu's tastes clearly run towards the more sophisticated and downtempo end of the broad Asian underground spectrum -- you won't hear any of Fun-Da-Mental or Asian Dub Foundation's more rockin' tracks on here -- but still, she's done an admirable job of assembling an eclectic yet cohesive compilation out of a genre that's always been hard to pin down, incorporating as it does elements of nearly every major London dance music style, from breakbeats to drum 'n' bass to trip-hop to techno, not to mention a hodgepodge of traditional Indian and Pakistani sounds.

Still, this grab bag of styles is part of the fun on any Asian underground compilation, and Ritu's mix is no exception. After putting the movement in some historical context with Ananda Shankar's psychedelic-rock-meets-sitar-wankage "Streets of Calcutta", recorded way back in 1972, Ritu leads listeners through a variety of textures from some of the movement's most influential artists. The smooth downtempo shuffle of State of Bengal's "Elephant Ride" gives way to the more rough-hewn, dub-tinged "Killah Connection" from Black Star Liner, which in turn segues into some classic trip-hop beats and dubbed-out vocal loops on Joi's "Fulfillment in Dub", a previously unreleased track.

The other big names of Asian underground are all represented here, as well -- with the one obvious exception of Nitin Sawhney, who's presumably left out either because he's always tended to distance himself from this scene or because he's signed to a major label and just too expensive to license. Asian Dub Foundation turn in a typically catchy blend of b-boy rapping, drum 'n' bass beats and Indian instrumental flourishes on "Debris"; master guitarist TJ Rehmi and crew are in fine form with some jazz-meets-bhangra riffing on "Is It Legal?", another drum 'n' bass-fueled track; and the godfather of the genre, Talvin Singh, turns up under the pseudonym Mahatma T on an old track called "Jihad", a fairly simplistic blend of traditional Indian sounds and breakbeats compared to his later work, but still an interesting rarity.

All of the above tracks are good stuff, especially Bengal's slinky "Elephant Walk" and the elegance of Rehmi's "Is It Legal?"; but the highlights on Rough Guide to the Asian Underground come largely courtesy of little-known contributors. Fun-Da-Mental's "Ja Sha Taan" layers qawali chanting, distorted Bollywood vocals and thunderous percussion on the compilation's most high-energy track; ShivaNova, brainchild of classically trained pianist Pritti Paintal, contributes a nice surprise with a sunny nu jazz track appropriately titled "Sundance"; "Mixed Vision" is a lovely piece of jazzy drum 'n' bass from relative newcomer Mo Magic; and Bill "Ravi" Harris & The Prophets end the set on a funky note with "Path of the Blazing Sarong", an odd but entertaining inclusion which sounds a lot like Ravi Shankar backed up by the Funky Meters.

The remainder of the tracks Ritu selects neither dazzle nor disappoint; mostly they're just nice, sophisticated pieces with lots of instrumental segments interspersed with exotic-sounding Indian vocals, the kind of stuff highbrow club kids like to sip martinis to. Fans of Thievery Corporation will recognize the tonalities and textures on Uzma's "Yab Yum" and Orchestral World Groove's "Pyar" -- thick, dubby basslines, warm washes of synths, tablas discreetly folded into westernized percussion and breakbeats. They're both nice tracks, but like a lot of serviceable downtempo, they never rise above the level of good background music. A track from an unsigned all-female ensemble called Sister India, which DJ Ritu is part of, is more assertive but a little too sweetly melodic for its own good, as is James Asher's "Nataraj Express", which despite a driving beat and some great sitar work just sounds a little too happy/new agey for my taste.

In the end, with so many other excellent Asian underground compilations like Manteca's Indestructible Asian Beats and Talvin Singh's seminal Soundz of the Asian Underground already in circulation, it's easy to dismiss this Rough Guide take on the genre as a Johnny-come-lately that's good, but nothing special. Certainly it hardly represents the best stuff genre has produced. But that same superficial reason for being skeptical of this album's worth -- the Rough Guide name -- ultimately becomes the very reason why it's probably a worthwhile addition to the Asian underground's burgeoning profile. Especially here in America, where the genre remains largely unknown or filtered through American voices like Bill Laswell and Thievery Corporation, Rough Guides' solid reputation should be enough to lure a few new listeners to this fascinating blend of eastern and western sounds.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.