Once Upon a Time in Hoxton

Never mind the North South divide which separates London from the rest of England. Eight years ago, when Hoxton was hardly hip, the edges of its potential were reflected in the wide glasses of art impresario Jay Jopling. But this was a time before White Cube2 settled in, when this East London village was a mostly brown town and still served up a decent cheap night out. C B Patel's ethnic papers Gujarat Samachar and Asian Voice were published out of a dubious looking building in a grim side street. You could walk most of Hoxton Square without the fear of becoming part of some Gilbert and George installation. In the far corner, away from the glare of Maurice Saatchi's limo's headlights, the Asian Underground music scene was bubbling over at a club called the Blue Note which hosted Talvin Singh's weekly Monday night dance blitz, Anokha. Talvin's eclectic mix of tabla beats and r'n'b struck a chord with the organic leather sandal wearing, prayer beaded and granola bar crunching Guardian brigade and his Monday night events would often swell with over a thousand people. At its peak, half of the clubbers were brown the other half white. Guest DJs played sets and Talvin had taken the cue from DJ Goldie's popular Sunday night slot at the Blue Note, Metalheads, in which he blasted West Indian, Jamaican, reggae and British music and served West Indian food. Talvin took the formula and dished it out with lentils and chapattis. It worked.

It's the height of Brit Pop, boy bands, Britart, unmade beds and Asian Cool. New Labour's media friendly grin beamed back at us in the dawn of TV politics. A play that showed at the Birmingham Rep by Parv Bancil, Made in England was first performed as a fifteen minute try-out at a political literary festival, Seeing Red, a reaction to New Labour's cheesy grin and toothy policies. It's part of the Decibel Xpo 2004. Plugged by a roaring Vanity Fair headline, "Cool Britannia," was, after dark years dwindling under successive Tory regimes, re-asserting her place as an international player. The key question of the moment was 'who am I?', and whilst Britain as a nation sought redefinition, this developed within her many ethnic communities and citizens. Young British Asians started to ask important questions about cultural identity and roots.

The second generation had gown up in the '80s when style was the only substance and celebrity was something you did on your birthday. Magazines such as Wallpaper* and i-D had picked up on the cool sub-culture of Britain's Urban Asians. Daytimes were big, no, not soap shows but the bold and the beautiful bhangra dance parties at which girls and boys could meet because they weren't allowed out at night They had grown up and were born here but were still expected to have something of "back home" about them. The second generation's attitude to living in this country, to being British, was quite different to that of their parents. The first generation had been the transplanted: Talvin Singh's parents had been expelled by Idi Amin and he dedicated one of his albums to his father's journey. In 1997, The Asian Underground movement was about to go chemical, Talvin signed up with Island Records and a lesser known kid on the block, Nitin Sawhney, was making chilling mixes of Eastern prayer mantras, garage, soul and r'n'b. The two circled each other with wary eyes and arch rivalry, you were either a friend of Talvin or a friend of Nitin, and never the twain did meet.

Our parents' was a guest mentality to living in the "host" country. The second generation didn't carry that same sense of eyes averted head bowed humility. The artistic sought answers in creativity.

Imran Khan's stylish magazine 2nd Generation was started in the shadow of that question in 1995 and it focused on multiculturalism. It reflected the zeitgeist and blasted the misconceptions many held about Asian youth. His background in space selling for style bibles such as i-D and Another Magazine opened his eyes to the idea that a whole generation was in danger of being completely ignored and disenfranchised. The clever title was coined by Toby Young, then editor of the Modern Review. He had just fired Khan and was sitting in his living room delivering the bad news about the bust up of his business relationship with co-owner Julie Burchill when he told Khan to start an Asian mag, for "guys like you, cool second generation Asians." The rest as they say is history. The first issue bore Talvin Singh on the cover with his blue spiky hair and punked out chic, combat trousers and 'dare me' glare fixed outward. The Indobrit identity thing started to take shape. The bi-monthly magazine spawned 14 issues, the last four of which were resolutely un-Asian. They featured white and black kids on their covers. Khan was ahead of his time, commissioning articles on what it meant to be Kurdish in 1997, followed by 50 page fashion shots of Asian models in bovver boots and Union Jack T-shirts. Imran Khan says , "It was my bloody-mindedness and the resolutely anti-commercial stance we took, 2nd Generation was the outpouring of the bizarre vision in one man's head." When the celebrity obsessed 90's took hold, there was little place in the market for thinking style magazines. Circulation, which had peaked at 43 000, started to plummet.

Talvin went off to "do" India, remixed Madonna, and become a judge on Miss World. Basically, he sold out, and the Asian Underground movement splintered. He released a couple of albums, OK and Ha but neither delivered on the promise that it was the best, long awaited and much hyped groundbreaking sound he aspired to. This was yet to be defined although he did some cool music when he turned Japanese for a while. Madonna wore a bindi, released Ray of Light, chanted 'OM' and went crazy for henna; Cornershop released "Brimful of Asha", about the playback songstress and half sister of Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle. Even Gwen Stefani went more Eastern than East end for a few minutes.

Nine years ago, when DJ Pathaan was taken on tour by David Bowie and Simon Le Bon came down to listen up at Anokha, the time was ripe for a lingering look at Asian culture and lifestyle. All the record labels thought they could sell the sitar sound. Whilst there is room for this in sexy Soho media clubs, the desks of the editors of Sunday magazines and the boardrooms of the big creative agencies, once Asian is filtered into the populist mindset it gets translated into the Bollywood version of how the British perceive British Asians — through their Raj tinted glasses. When Bombay Dreams hit the West End two years ago, many in the British Asian community felt that they had been acknowledged and their cultural input into British art was now complete. Look Ma, it's us. But Bollywood and a satirical musical on the shady side of the film industry in Mumbai is about as far as you can get from the second generation's experience of being British Asian.

Another men's magazine called Snoop, published by British Asian Media hit the ground running with its tits-in-your-face sexy covers of bikini clad kajal-lined eyes of Asian babes and the frank discussion of sex and mixed couples. It started as a tabloid A3 college giveaway with a focus on music. Bancil recalls "It was great to write for Snoop, about Meera (Syal) and Sanjeev (Bhaskar), because they had sold out. Raj didn't censor anyone, so you could say whatever you wanted." Then the magazine caved into the advertising boom of the late '90s. It exists today and is a mix of Bollywood gossip and Asian rude boy cool. Its editor, now and then, Raj Kaushal says of the time, " It was a bunch of trendy white types getting down with the ethnics, there was no grassroots support for the movement and it was all up its own arse. The difference is that today it's substance over style. There's a lot more grass roots support and things have really broken through. It represents."

Back then the sound of its glossy pages turning echoed the disgruntled sighs coming from young Asian men in urban Britain. We're talking post-Southall, pre-Brixton and Toxteth. Angry young Asian identity was getting a voice and some words. If India didn't fit, neither did the hijacking of certain parts by the mainstream white press of music and culture that Asian youth had defined as its own. The penny dropped when Bancil and his gang couldn't get into Anokha, a night they had supported for months, on Indian Independence Day because it was packed full of white press.

The words came in the crucible of this creative collective through the poets and writers who lent the movement some credibility and helped to define the shapeless, miasmic sense of displacement. Bancil who was then barely 30, is described as "the best playwright of the generation," by Imran Khan. He might not have gone on to garner celebrity and success in the same measure as Tanuka Gupta or Ayub Din Khan (East is East), but his take on growing up in Britain and being Asian is honest.

Bancil started out at Waterman's Art Centre in Brentford and introduced the likes of Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal. When Syal joined their One Nation Under a Groove Comedy night, she was on the verge of quitting her career as a comedian. This gets airbrushed out of her CV. A lot of the material from the first series of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars was taken from those raw, rough edged nights in West London. Bancil is understandably bitter about the lack of recognition his former colleagues have granted those days which seem to have been formative in their careers as comedians. Today, he is pitching a comedy and the first question he is asked is "Is Meera in it?"

Not surprisingly Bancil's audiences tend to be mostly white. His plays with their uncomfortable themes are never going to be populist. He tends to anger his own; we have an unspoken time honoured rule in British Asian society, that if we don't acknowledge something or speak of it, then it can't exist. His documentary for Ch4, Goodness Ungracious Me resonated the sentiments of many of us. We were bored of the TV stereotypes being put out by writers in it for the bucks, like Meera Syal who has done nothing to enhance the positive for the perception of British Asians today. There is something uncomfortable about the laughter which emanates from the mostly white audience at the stupid jokes, the dull stereotypes. Some say that the discomfort lies in the incongruity of laughing at ourselves, with others who are not British Asian. It's buying into the con of seeing humour in the ridiculous but it's a bit more toxic than harmless fun. A three week stint in Selfridges shop windows doesn't define who we are and the 50 year celebration of Indian independence became a long look back over the shoulder of the colonising power rather than an opportunity for frank cultural dialogue and exchange, which is what it could have been.

The Union Jack is the symbolic centre round which the story line of Made in England revolves. It's about Pakis growing up here, to whom the flag means skin heads, bovver boots, Neo Nazis, racist attacks. It's also the backdrop to the hard rock band the main characters are trying to get off the ground. Bancil stays close to the theme of the play which is about selling out your identity as a British Asian and becoming what someone, a record company, your fans, require from you. The main character is a young British Asian musician who is offered a lucrative deal but the Faustian barter Bally Bangra, now Billy India, makes is the sacrifice of identity and self worth for a number one hit, toting a sitar and wearing a pink turban. Mick the older musician has always refused to sell out and stayed true to his art. He runs a tattoo parlour and this is where two of the three acts of the play take place. Without giving too much away, the play examines Billy's journey to stardom and how he becomes a washed up celebrity and the disillusionment he has to confront. But it's not just a play about the music scene, it hits home some of the questions a lot of us were dogged with, growing up here.

Bancil is positive about the developments in Birmingham and feels the British Asian community is more evolved and developed. "Birmingham has been great to me this time," he says, although he voices some anger at the fact that most of the people running the arts scene tend to ringfence Asian productions. He couldn't get a gig at the much acclaimed SAMPAD centre. He's been touted by Jatinder Verma, the founder of Tara Arts as a writer who "never looked back." His inspirations are not Tagore and Shankar, they are post-punk, hip hop and garage house.

In his earlier work, Crazyhorse, the whole dizzyingly dysfunctional backdrop of the tangled relationships which exist between the first and second generations is thrown under the light. It's about a young Sikh kid's initiation into gangs and drugs. While he embraces the warrior aspect of Sikhism he rejects his father and the other teachings. A dead mother makes a guest appearance (strangely Bollywood, that) and the action takes place in a repair garage, which is quite surreal.

So here we are, eight years on. Not much has changed except that Asian has taken turns being cool, uncool and now, thanks to the trend predictor's indices, we're cool again. Coming back to the music, because that is often the easiest indicator of the inroads a trend has made, what's different? Asian culture is locked in a battle with itself for mainstream approval. Pop phenomenon Jay Sean's most recent song, "Jay Sean v Jay Sean" illustrates this well: it's Jay Sean the artist at odds with Jay Sean the rapper. The commercial is at odds with the creative. Bombay Dreams is two years old and we're still alive, but there's a lot more vibrancy and depth to British Asian theatre. A good place to start is at the Rep with Made in England. This time round, it represents. There's a deeper support and it's not all London based around a few arty types. Birmingham has a rich seam of Asian Underground music, with the Shaanti collective as resident DJ's at many of the city's hip spots. Bhangra was born out of the Midlands and although it's now a nationwide genre, it's still got solid acts emerging from garage compilations and the likes of Bally Sagoo and his Ishq label.

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