Committed to Life

Could you start by saying a little bit about the history of the group Asian Dub Foundation, how did it get started?

We started in '93 in a place called Community Music, where I was one of the music tutors, teaching music and technology to a range of age groups and people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. One particular workshop was with young South Asian people, and we just continued working together after that and created a soundsystem. Basically it was an opportunity for us to express ourselves. To create music that we wanted to create, and to talk about things that concerned us. At that time, round about the summer or autumn of '93, there was increased racist and fascist activity around London. There was the election of Britain's first and subsequently only fascist councillor in East London. And all of this sort of gave fascists carte blanche, so to speak, some kind of go-ahead to engage in attacking more people of color. We wanted to talk about this, we wanted to do soundsystems. In those days it was just myself, Pandit G and Deeder. And that's how we got going really. There was no other kind of game plan or reasoning that we were somehow going to be an international touring band or any of that. It was just to engage in expression.

You have consistently chosen strongly political themes for much of your music, some on Naxalites, the urban and rural guerilla group that was influential in the Indian subcontinent in the '70s. You have some of your music starting with excerpts of poetry from Nazrul Islam. You have a lot about immigrant identity, moving from a sense of hopelessness to a sense of strength.

Basically every lyrical theme in our music talks about our day-to-day concerns. Or things that we've heard about through our parents. Or things we've read here and there. I wouldn't say we are political in the sense of we go out looking for issues and stuff. We talk about things that we know something about and that concern us and that we actually happen to be talking about.

Sometimes we get people approaching us and saying, "Are you gonna write a song about this or that?" And basically I say to those people, "You've got to write about this yourself." Because we're not like Rent-a-Cause. It's not honest to do that. All the issues that we've written about really stem from our experience as second-generation people living in the U.K., talking about our parents' experiences. At the end of the day, ADF represents the collective experiences of the members of ADF. And hopefully a lot of people find affinity with various parts of what we're talking about.

The music itself, if you want to talk about politics, is more political than the lyrics could be, in that it's talking about what we feel is the "real Great Britain." That's why that's the title of one of our songs. The real Great Britain is actually people of many different cultural backgrounds, many different classes, whatever. Rather than this sort of white monoculture as it has often been presented.

One issue which you have really brought to the forefront, coming back again to political issues, is that of Satpal Ram.

Satpal Ram was just an ordinary, everyday young South Asian guy. He went to eat in a restaurant in Birmingham in England (this was in '86) and was confronted by racists in the restaurant who took exception to him taking exception to their racism. They were verbally abusing the Bengali staff of the restaurant and making racist comments about the music. He ended up having to defend his life against people throwing plates at him. And one attacker in particular, who was much bigger than him, pinned him against a wall. Satpal's main assailant was wounded, subsequently fatally so.

There were lots of discrepancies at the trial. The main witnesses for the defense were the Bengali waiters whose command of English wasn't that good. And the judge refused to allow translators and said that he would translate himself. Now, if any white British person was on trial abroad anywhere in a foreign country and the judge had made such commentary, you would see it the following day in the headlines. No one would stand for it. Because it's completely absurd. Basically Satpal Ram was found guilty of murder. He had many appeals which were unsuccessful.

We got on board maybe four years ago, when a member of the campaign approached us to write a piece of music to draw attention to the campaign and to his situation. Since that time, our involvement has helped to promote his situation, which was the whole point of that record. People come up to us and say that one piece of music isn't going to get someone out of prison, and they're absolutely right. But they're missing the point. It's the legal team and his political campaign that are going to get him out. All we can do as musicians is to draw attention and to try and summon up some support.

Now we are waiting at this precise moment for a decision from the Criminal Cases Review Commission, to see whether his trial can go back to the courts or not.

Satpal has always remained particularly strong. He's educated himself in prison, in the tradition of people like Malcolm X or Bobby Seale, and has got himself really clued up. He's met so many different people whilst in prison. He's met a lot of members of the IRA, as well as the other side. He's actually telling me how he was taught to brew beer in prison by members of the IRA from salvaging whatever ingredients that they had. [Laughs]

One of your songs in your recent release Community Music, starts with a sample of Assata Shakur who is an African-American revolutionary who had to go off into self-imposed exile in Cuba.

That song is "Committed to Life." Basically she's saying she was forced to struggle. She was part of the Black Panthers, she was engaged in teaching, she was engaged in the food programs they tried to do, and a lot of the community-based aspects of the Black Panthers' work. She said she would much rather have done something far more useful like being a carpenter or a gardener. What she's saying is there's no glamour as people think in being a freedom fighter or Black Panther.

People often see the glamorous side of it -- dark glasses, leather coat, beret, a machine gun in your hand. People try and dress us up in some kind radical chic and we say, listen, real activists, real people doing it on an everyday basis just get on with it. They don't go out and wear some kind of uniform. They're getting on with it. And she's saying she was forced to engage in day-to-day struggle for day-to-day people. And ultimately had to flee this country. And she would much rather have been a gardener or a carpenter. And I just think that's fantastic.

What do you see as the vision for the group -- musically, culturally, politically -- and also in terms of your role as inspiration for other groups and other people?

We're currently working on the next album. We've got an expanded lineup, which has affected the sound, obviously. And our approach to technology has gotten better. We use what we call "people's technology" -- pieces of equipment that you can buy for a few hundred pounds. This is part of what we're trying to show to people. It's actually easier than you think to engage in music-making, both in terms of cost of equipment, and in terms of how easy it is to learn. We would like to encourage people to engage in expression, whether it's music or painting or art. Whether it's just bringing up the issues with people that you know, to encourage a culture of questioning as well as of creativity. That is the general outlook and the general message of ADF.

We're trying to do it more by example, that is just by getting on with it. And hoping that people say, oh yeah, after that gig we started our own band or we started up a magazine or we got a website going or whatever. And people have said that to us at various times via our website or in person. And to me that's what it's about really. And that gives me the biggest buzz. Because that's what people have done for me. That's what people I know or artists I've known -- like I met Chuck D recently from Public Enemy -- they have inspired us in the same way. The kind of inspiration that isn't about emulation, but starting from your own experience, your own starting point. That's my hopes for the future, that many more people will engage in creative processes.

Musically, don't ask us... Whatever we're listening to really affects us. The music of Miles, especially. His very crazy '70s electronic stuff.

Post-Bitches Brew?

Yeah, that stuff. On the Corner, Dark Magus. Stuff that was done here, real New York vibe about it. A band that actually looked like Black Panthers. It's crazy, scary, wicked. And we realize as well how much it has in common with Indian experimentation but we're taking it to a much noisier extreme. I haven't studied Indian music in depth. I know some basic principles, the thing about cyclical rhythms and cyclical melodies. How you can go off on a journey on your particular rhythm and resolve it after so many cycles, and all of that. Miles was working with that at that time. He was using drones; he was using cyclical basslines; he even had tabla and sitar in his music as well, and you know the modal aspect of things. That keeps coming up. There are one or two tracks in particular on the new album, which people will say, "That sounds like On the Corner.

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