Like all musical labels, the horrid "Asian Underground" moniker was much hated by everyone lumped together under it. All it really meant was "anyone with an Indian background doing dance music in London, unless you're Cornershop, in which case you have separate indie cred and don't fall under this rubric". So Badmarsh & Shri, JOI, Nitin Sawhney, Fun-Da-Mental, and any number of acts got scooped together and called a movement.
As labels go, though, it was handy -- there was an explosion in the popularity of Indian-inflected dance music in London in the '90s. Some of that has taken hold in New York and L.A. and Chicago, but mostly in its bhangra form. All the AI bands in England are more electronica than anything else, and rather more tabla- and breakbeat-driven than bhangra's dholak-heavy style. But yes, the music, and most of the musicians who performed it, were in fact Asian. So that wasn't the problem.
No, the problem was the "underground" part. None of these artists wanted to be content with rockin' the basement beats for other people who looked and sounded just like them -- they wanted to move everyone's asses. Why confine oneself to cult status when you can swing for the fences?
And that's what the Swaraj collective is doing with this compilation album. Swaraj (the name means "freedom" and/or "self-rule" in Sanskrit, depending on whom you believe) has sponsored club nights all over Great Britain for years now. So when the head guy of Swaraj, Ash Chandola, decided to get some tracks together, he just went out and asked acts he had worked with if he could license their stuff. Hence, the album sitting before me.
Everyone who is anyone in the scene formerly called the "Asian Underground" is represented here, except for Talvin Singh, whom some might call the most important. And this CD is really good and fine and great-sounding. From the surprising opening to Coldcut's remix of Nitin Sawhney's "Homelands" all the way through Viragi's excellently titled "The Seven Heads of Propaganda", it is a solid 69 minutes of funky Asian music.
I counted 73 different "now THAT shit was DOPE" moments among the record's 13 tracks. "Homelands" is a stand-out cut, taking its holy time to layer strings, computer hi-hat percussion, beautiful vocals by Nina Miranda, a muted tabla beat, more Western percussion, a deeper tabla line, the anguished singing of the Rizwan Muazzam Qawwali Group (nephews of Nuzrat Ali Khan), something that sounds like sampled turntable scratches, a happy hardcore breakbeat -- it's just a stunning piece of music, ancient and modern at the same time, and jumps everything off in a lovely fashion.
The hits just keep on coming: Trilok Gurtu's "Shobha Rock" gets a sweet remix by T.J. Rehmi but retains its original blissy jazzy flavor. Gurtu, a percussion wizard with a global vision, is overdue for his moment in the sun, and that is a big benefit to salad-bar compilations like this. You hear someone you like, you maybe buy their disc, you hear someone else, etc. So Juttla, of whom I had never heard before this album arrived, is definitely on my check-it-out list; not only do we get "Bionic Beats", some fun straight-up vocoder house funk (doesn't sound all that Indian really, but who cares at this point), but also a cool Kraftwerkreggae Juttla mix of Wayward Soul's "Real Wild Child" -- NOT the Iggy Pop song, but a completely different "Real Wild Child" -- and a Juttla mix of Banco de Gaia's "How Much Reality Can You Take?"
This last piece, a tepid sitar-and-string-fueled stroll through Drum'n'bassland, is one of the few pieces on here by "white" artists; not that I really care, but just so you know. Another, the Dum Dum Project's "Jaani Jaan", succeeds where Banco de Gaia fails, by incorporating late-'80s synth-funk with an ironic Bollywood vocal line by Asha Puthli, who has collaborated with both Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill. Overall, though, the irony factor is low, which is a mercy. Everyone else is content to just tear it up. Badmarsh & Shri check in with "Bang", the best track off of this year's album Signs; Maad Ethics shows off its two-headed double-cultured MC stylee with "Absent Minded"; and Fun-Da-Mental kicks it again with the boys from Rizwan Muazzam Qawwali on "Pollution".
Standout tracks: well, I've already splooged all over "Homelands" and "Bionic Beats", so let me instead focus on the barnburner "Non-Violence" by T.J. Rehmi, which starts with one of the most furious percussion lines I've ever heard in my life, a tabla attack that terrified my three-year-old son so much he made me turn off the CD player. That, my friends, is MUSIC. And good old reliable Sam Zaman from State of Bengal cranks it up on "Rama Communications" something fierce.
Duds: only one, and it's only a dud by comparison. You'd think that with almost eight minutes to develop something, Viragi's "The Seven Heads of Propaganda" would actually, y'know, develop something; it's nice and it's pleasant and it has a Bonnie Raitt thing happening, but it's boring and poorly placed as a closer. But that's about it.
Really, one of the best dance compilations you're going to hear this year. Better listen, because these Asians aren't staying Underground for much longer.