The soundtrack to a revolution: interview with Asian Dub Foundation

Asian Dub Foundation, with Chandrasonic, centre.

A History of Now
Asian Dub Foundation

The artwork for A History of Now, the new album from Asian Dub Foundation (ADF), is a set of iPhone apps.

But instead of Apple’s tame applications, the band of British-born Indian genre benders have invented their own parodies.

A typical one, named “Instigator”, features a burning bottle and the instruction: “Stuck for a weapon while protesting against government cuts? Let ‘Instigator’ turn your phone into an instant Molotov cocktail!”

It’s clear that since they began as a London community music project to fight racism in the early 1990s, ADF have lost none of their incendiary fire.

Hardly surprising, then, that when the band’s seventh studio album was released just as the protests began to build against Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, someone edited news footage of the revolt to the album’s title track and stuck it on YouTube.

The video, which set ADF’s brittle shards of guitar and searing eastern strings to images of hurled tear gas canisters and bloodied revolutionaries, built a following to rival the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“The song itself is about information overload,” guitarist and band leader Steve Chandra Sevale — better known as Chandrasonic — tells Green Left Weekly.

“But its rhythm and sound seemed to go very well with the images and thus the song’s meaning was changed. I love that!”

Not that the band aren’t well-versed in the Middle East. They have written and toured a live soundtrack to the classic Algerian anti-imperialist film The Battle of Algiers.

They have also composed an opera about Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, which they performed with the English National Opera.

Chandrasonic has even hosted his own Al Jazeera TV series, Music of Resistance, showcasing musicians who fight repression.

This eclecticism has ensured ADF have never lost their relevance. Yet they have never compromised their unique sound to do so — even when they started out by embracing the rattling snares and fractured breakbeats of the nascent jungle scene.

“Well, our take on jungle was hardly generic then,” says Chandrasonic, who earned his stage name through his unconventional habit of detuning all his guitar strings to one note and playing the instrument with a knife.

“There was no jungle act that used live dub bass, echoey post-punk guitar and Indian sounds at the time.”

For the same reason, they’re now keen to avoid any generic dubstep sound.

“There’s a bit of a herd mentality about dubstep at the moment,” says Chandrasonic. “We often nod to new ideas coming from the clubs, but we don’t let it swallow us.”

Perhaps because they manage to fuse so many different elements, ADF have never sounded fused to any particular time. Nor have they ever wanted to be — musically or politically.

“None of the songs are about the ‘political situation right now’,” says Chandrasonic, who bristles at the band’s “political” tag.

“They’re not news reports and I wouldn’t want them to be. I hope they will transcend the transient, though I do like it when people interpret the songs in their own way.

“One journalist asked me whether ‘This Land is not for Sale’ is about the [British] Coalition’s proposed sell-off of the forests. No it wasn’t, but you’re welcome to think it is.”

One of ADF’s apps, labelled “Zapata”, explains the true meaning of “This Land is not for Sale”.

“It’s based around the land rights issue in Mexico,” says the blurb for the app. “Last year we were honoured to play a very special show in Mexico after which we met a delegation from the peoples’ front for the defence of the land, including a woman whose husband was one of the 12 political prisoners from the Atenco land struggle.”

In the Atenco land struggle, people fought against the government’s plans to build a new airport on their lands, and in response were met with rape, killings and imprisonment.

“The delegation we met gave us an audio recording of a very powerful speech about Atenco, and this became the backbone of the track.”

The result is unlike anything ADF have produced before, adding a childlike, chanting charm to their energetic edge.

But the band have sung about indigenous rights before — one of their best-known songs, “Naxalite”, is a raging battle cry for the persecuted tribal warriors of north-east India.

They therefore have few illusions about the situation in Australia.

“The crimes against Indigenous people in Australia are on a par, and even surpass if that’s possible, the crimes of the apartheid regime of South Africa,” says Chandrasonic.

“I remember being sick to my stomach the first time I went to Australia about it, just by watching the TV. I’m sure the happy-go-lucky, ‘matey’ Australian self-image is a psychological construct that makes these crimes more palatable in popular culture.”

Other Indian visitors to our shores have been equally, if not more, offended.

Indian students contribute up to $4 billion to Australia’s economy, but a report in January this year said the number of Indians studying in Australian universities had fallen 30% after last year’s spate of violent attacks against them.

“That is one vile statistic,” says Chandrasonic.

But are things in Britain getting any better?

“When we started it was easy,” he says. “You could spot the racists and they hated you. Easy to see the enemy.

“Now it’s not so easy — Islamophobia, various versions of multiculturalism, two vicious wars, the criminalisation of asylum-seekers, blaming immigrants from eastern Europe for unemployment.

“I feel that, yes, my own personal experience is racism has improved — but have things improved overall? Maybe not.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on February 5, in which he said Britain’s promotion of multiculturalism was helping promote terrorism, hardly helped.

“The equation of multiculturalism with ‘home-grown’ terrorism is ignorant, dangerous and wrong,” says Chandrasonic.

“The war in Iraq, failure to find a resolution in Palestine, the US funding Bin Laden in Afghanistan — a whole host of deep geopolitical causes underlie the rise of radical Islam, not whether a local school celebrates Eid or Xmas.

“The effect of his speech? The thugs of the far right will reduce it to making Muslims the enemy within. And of course he made no mention of the increasing preponderance of divisive faith schools, which he supports.”

Cameron and his austerity-cutting ilk come in for another kicking on one of the highlights of the new album, an explosive, pogo-ing ska anthem about the bankers’ bailout.

The song, titled “Where has all the Money Gone”, asks, mockingly: “Is it down the back of the world’s biggest sofa?”

It may jest, yet it seems Cameron has fooled the British public into thinking the money has vanished and the poor are to blame for the country’s debt.

Chandrasonic is more hopeful.

“He’s certainly convinced people that cuts need to be made,” he says. “But when they start to bite, he won’t be convincing many people for long.”

Another of ADF’s apps shows rather less hope for the future. The “Weather” icon shows a sinking Statue of Liberty.

Does Chandrasonic feel preventing climate change has become a lost cause?

“It’s certainly feeling that way,” he says. “It’s getting to the point where the debate has been reduced to obscure fact jousting between those funded by the state and those by corporates. It’s such a grand abstract that it’s very difficult for people to internalise.

“I think the environmental movement is in danger of being derailed altogether by this. I myself would prioritise more concrete stuff — deforestation, species destruction, overfishing.

“Most people respond to stuff like that, not obscure debates about temperature.”

ADF, no strangers to pushing the boundaries of technology in their music, know the technology already exists that could save the world. But, as Chandrasonic points out, it’s all down to who holds the power to use it.

“If you read the projections at the beginning of the last century, the time we’re in now was supposed to be a time of leisure — jetpacks, robot cleaners, holidays on Mars,” he says.

“What happened to that? Technology is ultimately neutral. Its development and implementation can only reflect the powers that be.”

Yet, as ever, he is optimistic.
“Who knows where this technology is going to take us — and reshape us,” he says. “And it’s not just a question for the privileged West.

“I have seen first-hand how mobile phones are changing the lives of nomadic peoples in Mali — for the better, on the whole.”

Which explains all those refreshingly radical iPhone apps.

[Mat Ward’s full, unedited Q&A with Chandrasonic - in which he talks more about the new album, its apps and his unease with ADF's "political" tag - can be read at .]

The title track from Asian Dub Foundation’s new album ‘A History of Now’ put to footage and images of the Egyptian revolution.

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