Bhangra and breakdancing. Vinyl records laced with sitars. In Britain, second-generation South Asians have used traditional Asian music as the backdrop for their interest in punk, reggae, hip-hop and ska. Vivek Bald’s Friday screening of Mutiny: Asians Storm Britain Music in Paresky Auditorium documented the relationship between South Asian music and identity, racial tension and self-expression.
Bald’s film, a self-proclaimed “labor of love,” was produced from 1996 until 2003. The filmmaker briefly described the work’s conception as inspired by the fusion of the genres of political music he had always liked – ’70s reggae, hip-hop and punk – with an interest in South Asian music that he had developed in school. Working under the artist name Siraiki, Bald did not achieve success with this endeavor until the ’90s. There were few resources available for documenting second-generation South Asian music in the United States largely because, as Bald later explained, immigration laws in the U.S. did not ease towards Asians until 1965. However, Bald found this hybrid existed in Britain and directed his research overseas.
Mutiny used musicians’ testimonials and footage from concerts and historical events to narrate the conception, rise and decline of South Asian music in Britain. The testimonials were as poignant as they are hilarious. The film began by describing Britain’s campaigns in the 1950s in its former colonies: Britain needed a labor force to take its bottom-rung jobs and found help in the form of immigrants (who represent the parents of the artists in the film). These immigrants, however, were not welcomed, and Caucasians mocked their culture and their portrayal in the media as inferior. As second-generation South Asians in a racially divided country, the musicians in the film were outcasts. “I used to get chased every day from school to home,” said one blunt musician.
Music, then, provided an outlet for South Asians through which they could express themselves. The musicians were more personally introduced in the next segment of the film, including Choque Hosein, Steve Savale, 2-Phaan, Paul Auora and one of the few women, Anjali. At home, the musicians explained, they listened to South Asian music with their families, but their taste also ranged to include pop music like Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. As Choque Hosein explained it, the musicians fell in love with pop music, but South Asian music was “still kept in the background.”
While racial tensions escalated, musical expression became more and more important. Bald, for example, honed in on 1980s Southall, Britain, a largely Indian and Pakistani district, when Neo-Nazi attacks created a massive resistance among South Asian residents. Music allowed the musicians to be angry, to teach other South Asians about easing racial tensions and also about self-understanding. “Before hip-hop, I didn’t identify with myself as a person,” said 2-Phaan, a member of the popular South Asian hip-hop group Kaliphz. South Asians as a whole became increasingly proud of their roots.
The demand for South Asian bands to perform became larger and larger among their population. At first, dance clubs only allowed South Asian groups to perform during the day, which spawned large daytime raves among loyal fans. By 1993, the first weekly Asian club opened in London. “I will never forget the atmosphere of that club,” DJ Ritu said. British mainstream finally recognized South Asian music as worthwhile by the late 1990s. Talvin Singh, a composer known for combining the bass with traditional Indian music, proved his genre’s worth by winning the Mercury Music prize in 1999.
Suddenly South Asian music was a novelty. Musicians landed magazine covers, and Caucasians gained interest in South Asian clubs and culture. Bald implied that Caucasian interest was not enough for them to understand how to appreciate South Asian music. The musicians on mainstream labels were dropped just as quickly as they had been signed.
Although the mainstream has lost interest, South Asian artists still make the effort to be heard. “If music doesn’t make space for you, make space for yourself,” has become their motto. Organizations like Asian Dub Foundation Education helps adolescents learn how to make music.
Though South Asian music in Britain has declined in the public spotlight, the genre – and the positive effects it has had in South Asians’ lives – still exists. The film ended on an uplifting and hopeful note, with one artist admitting that while he had become more aware of his heritage, he had also realized that he was English, too. Mutiny was filled with information, but left space for discussion about the themes of music and multiplicity in a world comprising many cultures.