Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Asian Underground
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.