Community Music

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What the Asian Dub Foundation brings home in its community music is the reinterpretation of memory through the tangled threads of disparate British cultures.

Asian Dub Foundation

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Tuesday, September 5 2000, 11:33 AM

My daughter and I have an arrangement on music. I get the CD, listen, maybe review it, and then hand the album over to her. My music collection stays very slim; hers keeps expanding. With an album like Community Music I realize what a raw deal I've got. Handing over this one is going to be difficult. It's so good that I'm condemned to grub out another copy for my own shelf.

Not just the music is good. Asian Dub Foundation is as much a political education as it is an excellent performance ensemble. The band had its beginnings in 1993 in London's East End, in demonstrations against the National Party. It is closely identified with the anti-racism movement through the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, and the Community Music House organization. With monies from their international success, ADF has spun off their own music and technology education program for young people in London's neighborhoods. Recently ADF has become involved in sponsoring activist work on AIDS and gay sexuality in British Asian communities. In short, as a group and as individuals, they remain deeply rooted in local causes and movements. When they sing "you've got to get into the collective mode" they live it too. ADF works to incorporate the benefits of community involvement in their music, its composition, and stylistics.

That style is driving, syncretic, rebellious, loud, talk-back and intensely political. ADF's music is cosmopolitan multiculti London with a vengeance, incorporating Caribbean dub, jungle beats, skull-thump rap, Indian ragas, sitar-guitar crossovers, tablas, and a panoply of electronica techniques. More often than not this raging stew arrives together with a fast-paced verbal delivery that bowls nearly as fast as Shoaib Akhtar, the Rawalpindi Express. It is a music that resists facile categorizations and, while allied, is clearly different from the electronic instrumentalism of the Asian Underground movement of the '90s. They have left Talvin Singh behind, still shaking his bootie in the disco long after closing hour.

Lengthy and intense lyrics delivered in the syntax of Indian immigrants characterize most of their songs. Starting with the first power track, 'Real Great Britain', ADF lays its politics down for open view. They make clear immediately that they oppose capitalism entirely, and see Blair and Thatcher as an English middle-class happily married couple. ADF's understanding of community in Britain is far different from the halcyon political phantasms of the English past that emerge from the Mac-sprawl of the Home Counties. In these songs, urban community is the protective shell that enables immigrant cultures to survive their relocation in the face of social hostility. The intergenerational antagonisms evident in much fresh-edge music are muted here: rather, as 'New Way, New Life' phrases this communal history, parents "working inna de factories / sometimes sweeping de floor / unsung heroines and heroes / yes they open the door". Community is an open and inclusive civil concept here.

As the lyrics of 'Memory War' emphasize, any community relies on retention and possession of its memories. "Who controls the past controls the present." Without collective memory, community cannot exist; without knowledge of its culture, an immigrant community no longer exists. ADF exists within a second- and third-generation paradigm of ethnicity: memory becomes a central political value, and music transmits both memory and politics. Or, as Paul Gilroy argues in The Black Atlantic by explicitly adopting Benjamin's argument in 'The Storyteller' that social memory creates the chain of ethnic tradition. By extension, to work as artists within an ethnic community is to privilege memory. That paradigm of ethnic art as memory recovery or preservation remains insufficient of itself, even very quickly a form of stultification. "Fire for the messengers of this false nostalgia," in the words of 'Memory War'. The pious invocation of ancestors or hollow reiteration of rigid folkloristic forms is the bane of cultural memory: it is social false memory syndrome. Rather, a constant and knowledgeable reinterpretation of cultural forms realizes the value of 'community memory'. ADF's music, consciously radical in its project, relies on the inevitable constructedness of that communal expression.

A useful invocation of memory here would be as an overlay of remembered sounds, where their musical reinterpretation creates an archeology of community memory. Again, as Benjamin uses this idea in another essay, "֭emory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried." It is in this sense that Asian Dub Foundation, swinging merrily on Benjamin's balls, emphasizes a subaltern sense of history, an awareness that where "books dem are burnt and documents are shredded" history is a matter of constant excavation and repossession. "This is the rhythm of my life," ADF sings alongside a revamped rock ragga that bursts out in the latter sections of 'New Way, New Life'. History is continually reconstructed through an assertion of an intact cultural sense, even while an immigrant culture is in the midst of vast self-alteration. The meaning of that 'rhythm of my life' lies in its possessive pronoun, that act of bringing an originating musical culture to the forefront.

What the Asian Dub Foundation brings home in its community music is the reinterpretation of memory through the tangled threads of disparate British cultures. In this they are creating a still-newer New England, an England where African and Asian diasporas meet and engage in the joys of aesthetic procreation. ADF establishes itself within reciprocal relations between black and Asian Britain, a statement made by musical adaptations as much as by inter-communal political alliance. Both live on the unprivileged side of Motha England's color line, where blackness is an all-encompassing trope. "Black is not just the colour of our skins / it is the colour of our politics" speaks Ambalavaner Sivanandan, well-known Marxist theorist and director of the Institute on Race Relations, in 'Colour Line'. The Indian Ocean is black no less than the Atlantic. The final track's recording of Assata Shakur on 'Reluctant Warrior' is the only dubious point on the album, given that it heroizes her violence.

ADF exists as a collective and the values of a collective inhabit this album. That is altogether too rare, given prevailing emphases on individualism and material accumulation. For ADF, collectivity is a means of historical self-enlightenment just as is community. "Examine de story before you tek de stage / unscramble freaktalk displayed pon de front page / frequency flashing synchronised like strobe / can't do it alone you need to get into de collective mode," they sing. The learning demands made in order to control technology rather than exist under its control add emphasis to the need for collective educational values. Moreover, technology capitalization demands add an irresistible push towards collective self-organization in order to assemble resources to resist a politics of passivity. "Make your own programme / no bother become digital captive / you need some audio / get into collective mode..."

Community Music was released last March in the UK. To this date, it has not been issued in the US. However, French and British import copies can be found at a variety of American retailers. Shame on Slash, ADF's American label, for not getting on the ball. 

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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