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EASTERN SPRING. Chapter 3 - The A-Z Of Fear

Well, even Richard Pryor can be wrong. The aggravation that had been building since a young age, combined with an intense shyness, and an equally intense sense of language as perfor­mance & defence meant I had to be a some kind of scribe, hell, it’s what my name means. As I was to discover late on in the 80s writers, the best writers, didn’t just tell you what you could be listening to, they came to occupy a deeply intimate place in your life. To the point where you felt them overseeing your choices, to the point where they open the world up to you. See, you can be eight and sobbing down by the VG supermarket after an unkind word and a smack in the face from a passing peer and realise that England is a bitch. It takes you a little longer to realise how that bitch can fuck you over, problematize you forever. White skin so pure. Black skin so pure. You? Denied cool. Always the wannabe.

The way Indians get portrayed by the English in my still-unfolding formative years is always somehow needy, wanting in, fatally and laughably unable to be cool. Basic point about 70s & 80s Britain – if you were part of an ethnic minority your life wasn’t just unrepresented anywhere else, it was a life almost led in subterfuge to the mainstream, a mystery to school friends, street-friends, teachers, everyone bar you and your fam. Its mundaneity wouldn’t surprise anyone, but if you were Asian it felt like black and white hated you, and when you’re not surrounded by Asians who hate back with any kind of intelli­gence you’re left feeling kinda soft, unarmed. That ‘Mind Your Language’ quiet acquiescence in our own ridicule was all we saw of ourselves in British culture and even those scant glimpses of shame were only when we weren’t simply invisible, out of the press (apart from the usual ‘issues’/’problems’), off the telly, never ever on the radio. It’s taken fucking ages for that to change, for Asians to present anything other than a wheedling subservience to a white culture they want in on.

Curry N Chips. God bless Spike, eh. 

I’d say that only in the past 5 or 6 years have Asians genuinely become another part of the furniture on TV, have been able to simply be without being attached to some exotica or issue (arranged marriage/cruel marriage/violent-marriage, still to this day Asian culture has a handy displacement function for a white culture that needs it’s ‘subtler’ misogyny diffused – ‘Asian Paedophilia Gangs’ are the latest deodorant of choice I believe). Even now, it’s rare for an Asian to be represented without the comforting attachments of food and Bollywood to swiftly attach themselves – in the entire sub-genre of Anglo-Asian reminiscence I still find far too much self-deprecation, too much jollity in juxtaposition, far too little anger. Asian anger and refusal of Britain’s head-patting conde­scension, as I found later, has a history that stretches back to the 30s in the UK. A history that wends close to my home too – one of the first Indian Workers Associations to be created in Britain was created in Coventry in 1938, Coventry the ever politically-agitated city that gave birth to 19th & 20th century political figures as diverse as Mo Mowlam, Tomas Mann & leading neo-Nazi Colin Jordan. More concerned with worldwide socialist revolution and Indian Independence than the trade-unions that barred Asian membership, the fledgling Coventry IWA meetings were attended by Udham Singh, a member and frequent speaker, a firebrand who went back to India to complete the successful assassination of General Dwyer in 1940, revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Udham Singh
To this day in Cov, the kabbadi tournament that takes over the rugby-ground every year is named the Udham Singh tournament, in honour of this Marxist-Leninist agitator who called Cov a home and would end his days in Brixton & Pentonville nicks, hanged under the name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad (a taken name he adopted to demon­strate his transcendence of race, caste, creed, and religion). Nehru said Singh had ‘kissed the noose so that we [the Indian people] could be free’, Gandhi refused to honour him– what was bizarre to me was that this was a guy who lived and worked & rabble-roused in the same areas I grew up in, down the road from the Courtaulds factory my dad worked in. As a teenager craving this knowledge, I had to dig deep for it in the footnotes and forgotten byways of books no-one reads any more, it was a history of Asian resistance to discrimination that was revelatory and inspirational to me, accompanied with the angry realisation that I’d had to find out about it for myself, that no-one was teaching me or telling me this stuff. I can’t stress how formative that lack of presence in the culture was, how what I was learning was clashing so much with our cultural representation, how much it meant for black and brown in the UK when you heard LKJ or the Specials or Lenny Henry on the telly or radio, those rare special moments where the whitewash lifted. The whitewash hip-hop was to truly and finally lift from my vision.

Starved of a culture I could truly call my own but at least dimly aware of a history I wasn’t being taught, by the time I turned 11 I was primed for hip-hop to come stomping into my life and offer revelation and revolution. It did, via ‘The Message’ played on Mercia Sound’s morning show as I sat in the back of a blue Hillman Imp (next to the engine). I remember it as the moment my teenage years started, ordering my mum to turn the radio up at the top of a snowy Gulson Road, waiting for the lights to change and hoping the handbrake held. Every moment since leads back to it. Rap was never purely the vicarious thrill as writ about in the music press to this day, hip-hop was a bolt from the blue that seemed to me, still does, to be the only music to accurately map something approaching my consciousness, splat­tered and splayed by a dizzying array of sources, leaving me seething with questions as to how that revolutionary everything­is-usable mindset could help me. Even with rap though, it was still engagement with a culture you never saw on the screen, only heard sporadically. Prince was more visible and he became my next obsession. Asians could imagine looking like him. But actual real Asian folks you never saw ANYWHERE except where the piss was being taken. The stereotypes that 70s/80s telly threw out about Asians were living lessons that if you’re told to be a good sport it tends to be for your humiliation, if you’re told it’s ‘harmless fun’ it’s guaranteed to touch-down at playground-level with no fun, and plenty of harm. It introduced you to the twin concept that not only can they take the piss out of you as much as they want, if you dare to raise a single voice against it, you’ll be lambasted for over-reacting, spoiling the fun, ‘thinking’ about it all too much.

It Ain't Half Hot Mum. Were these all real Asian people? We never knew.
As for pop, bar Freddie Mercury, who as with so much, never exposed himself, we were nowhere, absolutely nowhere. How could we be? Black musicians, though frequently marginalised, were at least part of English pop culture, increasingly were taking that step from peripheral figures to front men and women. Asian musicians were seemingly nowhere to be seen. According to pop, no matter what our moves in real life, we were still to be drawn into the first faltering steps of ‘integration’, that dance with the other wherein the other gets rendered palatable. And this lingered long after black musicians could feel confident as figureheads – deep into the 80s Asians were still persona non-grata in Western pop. Bereft of anyone from my background answering my turmoil, hip-hop like Public Enemy & Ice Cube & Ice T from the States, and Gunshot, and Ruthless Rap Assassins & Black Radical Mk II from the UK filled in the gaps in my knowledge, pointed me towards a wealth of reading and listening that finally started answering some of the questions I was having about racism, the white power structure, the history of hate that I felt we were still always living through, even as mainstream culture was pretending those wars were over. It was still however, mainly black culture, whether reggae, dancehall, dub or hip-hop, that seemed to at least be addressing this. The Asian pop music I got to hear that wasn’t decades old, looked & sounded identical to the West’s 80s aspirational models, seemed to have no impetus bar a desperation to sit alongside western pop.

The first time I saw myself or my kind of radginess repli­cated anywhere was in 94 when Fun-Da-Mental happened, even later in the 90s when Cov-born Punjabi MC bought bhangra to the charts it had that feel of novelty-single, like Whitetown, like a brief foray into the mainstream before the usual retreat back to our own undergrounds (and so it proved). The fact that Asian music is now reduced down to catch-all titles like ‘desi’ and predominantly ignored by the pop mainstream bar the odd stolen loop/vocal re-emphasises just how little Asians are repre­sented in pop, just how ‘foreign’ this music still is. The abiding assumption being that we’re timid, would rather stick to our own – only in UK hip-hop, a music massively marginalised, do I see equal participation of Asians – really reflective of how the Bollywood pop that is many Asians primary pop experience doesn’t NEED mainstream acceptance in the UK to survive, it has a population of a billion in India to cater to. That ability for many Asians to now feel confident enough to simply pursue their native tastes in the land they’ve migrated to means that Asian culture is to a large extent still invisible in the UK, keeps itself to itself. But that comfort & ease in inconspicuousness was not the way my parents raised me, and not a tactic that was possible for me growing up: that retreat into a ‘native’ narrative was impos­sible when Marathi song was itself on the retreat in the Indian 70s (bulldozed out of Bollywood in favour of Hindi films that could appeal to the whole nation), when I was being so gleefully saturated in a Western culture I saw no reason I shouldn’t belong to, a culture that in pockets and peripheries of the past and present ,offered me the rebel strain and political bite I found so lacking in mainstream pop whether white or Asian. My parents, and my sister were crucial: they were cool, they stepped off, let me read, pushed Sivanandan and Ellison and Malcolm X and Marx my way, let me a little loose from the strict career-minded strictures that made so many of the other Asian kids me and my sister met seem so weirdly part of some pre-program, armed with futures that simply didn’t interest us. For me and my sister, an older Western culture of art and rebellion spoke more clearly to our dreams than present-day Asian culture’s emphasis on (teenage snort of derision) ‘entertainment’ and conformity. We turned to our own kind and they were from a different planet. They were eager to please.

The image A.Sivanandan chose as the cover to
'A Different Hunger: Writings On Black Resistance'
a book that majorly changed my mind & life.
All our teenage lives we were introduced to kids who osten­sibly should’ve been like us. Like them, we’d grown up with Marathi parents, like them, those Marathi parents tried to keep their roots intact. Unlike us however, their parents seemed concerned only with one kind of fitting in – the ability to reach a point where you could make money, become a ‘professional’, economically earn your place. In order to maximise their kids ‘competitiveness’ their parents controlled pretty much every facet of these kids lives, from the books they read to the telly they watched to the music they listened to. Their parents were always worried about their kids growing up ‘too English’, kept their offspring’s cultural inputs as withered and limited as their own, set their parenting ambition as churning out clones of themselves, kids who’d end up as nervously ambitious and greedy (and usually deeply and offensively Hindu-nationalist in their politics) as them. My parents watched as me and my sister became gobby little lefty freaks and pretty much gave up on any notions of us fitting in by the time we were in our teens. From then, we were free. They allowed me the breathing space to learn that you can either get angry and sad, or angry and proud, and you’ll often get both, allowed me the dawning discovery that that crinkle-cut chip on my shoulder and this pain in my heart are touchstone, launch pad and cul de sac inescapable. In startling contrast, the kids we were introduced to were sensible, never gave their dimwit parents the credit of being able to cope with disobedience, barely listened to Western pop, slavishly stuck to the Marathi music that was all the music their parents supplied, if they supplied music at all. Art was not a lucrative enough aspect of life to waste time on when there were qualifica­tions to earn, studies to commit to, doctors and lawyers and businesspeople to become. Painfully straight-laced people I felt even less solidarity with than most of the white folk I knew.

My old school badge. I fucking hated that place. 

But then, I’m getting angrier as the 80s roll on. I almost entirely blame my school. I’m put in a grammar school as a toddler then asked later if I want to continue to another fee-paying grammar. Scared of anything new, I forego the oppor­tunity to drop out and swim with the kids I know down the street & continue to be privately educated at monetary cost to my parents, and lasting social cost to myself. A fatal, yet apolitical, misjudgement on my part and perhaps my parents also, that only really starts biting when I realise that the ‘tolerance’ of the middle-classes is the worse possible nurturing ground for anything other than a constant debilitating hatred of whitey I’m yet to fully shake.

I develop this hatred because I went to King Henry VIII school in Coventry for 11 years of my life. Take a stroll up Warwick Road from the Station and you’ll see it. Fucking ridiculous building with a facia that looks like a medieval castle, augmented with modernist blocks, reflecting its old-boys­network pretensions and it’s nasty streak of Thatcherite drive. Rich kids & posh kids & just about making-it kids went here, parents suckered by its pretence at being a public-school in the Rugby mould, kids dazed at the Victorian parochialism that went on behind that façade. Jerry Dammers and Philip Larkin were the only alumni I ever cared about. We had houses, house-ties, delusions of jolly-hockey-sticks grandeur, a teaching staff composed nearly-entirely of paedophiles, child-beaters, funda­mentalist Christians, classical scholars and right-wingers. My sister, 3 years older than me, was part of only the 2nd female intake. By the time I was in & already developing the scruffiness, terror-of-PE & avoidance of work that would blight my school-life forever we were 2 of about 4 Asian kids in a junior school of about 400. When we passed the 11 plus and made it into the senior school we were 2 of about a dozen Asian kids in a school of nigh-on 800. Racism was, as with most schools at the time and to this day, a daily occurrence, something you went home and cried about until those tears could harden into a response. My response was always verbal, never thrown a punch in my life, and (enough times to not get down about it) it was a response better than theirs & faster. Be nastier back.

On my first day in the junior school aged 6 I called another kid a ‘fucking bastard’ and was dragged in front of my one-armed Jewish-homosexual head teacher (there were nice guys there in amidst the Nazis, like I say, a strangely populated place), bollocked, and told to write a 2 page essay on the word ‘bastard’, it’s meanings, it’s uses, and why I shouldn’t have said it. I plagiarised it from an obscure safely irretrievable source (ahhh Readers Digest Books, how much I owe you), a trick I’ve used ever since. Through those 11 years at that institution I was lazy, but finding ways to survive. The bored & bullied becomes the bully, lashes downwards & draws tears from those who won’t fight back. Steady consistent theft and defacement at the library, on report and in detention elsewhere, later on drinking in lunch-hour, I got through. I recall sitting on my last day there dreaming the whole panorama of gym and playing fields and chemistry lab aflame, teachers corpses riddling the walkways, fellow students running screaming, a revenge too good not to keep in the imagination. Violent thoughts, never actual violence cos I’m too much of a coward and too smart to want a beating.Two of my teachers ended up with their paedophilia outed, one committed suicide, one wrote Christian tracts about how the bible insists that children “must be sexualised” and taught my sister that “the IQ of black Americans was lower than that of black Africans because they were the stupid ones who had got caught for the slave trade”. Another teacher forbade any involvement in relief for Africa because Ethiopia was a ‘communist country’. Another threw objects at you, sent you to first-aid if he drew blood. Another smacked you in the face, another took secret photos in the showers, another popped pills, another sexually-initiated male & female pupils he took a fancy to - you learned these eccentricities, mind boggling at the auld-England that created them, the ‘best days of your life’ (don’t worry kids, they ain’t) a fucking nuts cartoon populated by ancients of the ancient schools, incidents of cruelty and stupidity & vindictiveness too numerous to mention, far too many teachers hankering for the brutal days of yore, the teaching that had battered them into the weird shapes they were in.

Best years of your life? Don't worry kids, this is a big fucking lie. 

You got through despite it, and the English teachers were alright, mainly hippies (the women) and old queens (the men). Started to discover in English, that I wasn’t bad at writing, could occasionally be moved enough, (like my Uncle Abba especially blown away by Shakespeare) to come up with unique responses. Music teaching, with the advent of GCSEs is moving from the historical (which I excelled at with my at-home/library spod-u­like development of knowledge about classical music) to the practical (which I’m shit at) but music, by 85, is becoming the only thing alongside literature that I care about. I hit the Marathi stuff hard in the mid-80s partly because of the sheer grain of it – it’s scratchy and atmospheric in an era in which I find it hard to like the sounds bands are making. In the Live Aid years (which is a sound doubtless being rehabilitated as I speak, some earnest defender of big ‘orrible echoey drums and a whole mess of fretless fuckwittery tweeting ‘It Bites’ videos long into the night) I go backwards in all music. Un-hiply, I listen to nigh-on purely 60s and 70s music for two years instead of Nik Kershaw & Climie Fisher (sozboz), and what current Indian pop I hear in the 80s is just as shite as the western pop it’s ripping from. I’m engaging in nostalgia for an India that perhaps never existed, the scratching search for roots when your DNA is forged 5000 miles away from your birthplace – crucially I’m in free-fall at the realisation that, hold on, I ain’t gonna fit in ANYWHERE.

A growing realisation that I don’t even feel at home being an Asian, because Asians I know beyond my own family have a sense of community, meet up, large groups, places and spaces and surety. In contrast, we’re seemingly a community of four, eight at a stretch if you include blood-tied folk from London. The language my parents speak, Marathi, is spoken between them and them only. When we go to Foleshill, Cov’s main Asian area, hearing my mum twist her mouth into the consonants of Hindi and Urdu even I, remorselessly and lazily uni-lingual, can tell the difference. In India I’d be living in a state of 100 million people, the second most populous in the country. In England, Maharashtrians number nearly-none in the 70s and 80s. We weren’t part of that wider influx of Gujaratis from Uganda that had Enoch frothing at the gob, although the hatred he touched on has shadowed me always, and always will. At school, I’m realising that the middle-classes have just as venal hatreds in their hearts, but have the power to construct glass ceilings of sociability underneath them, out of them, closed circles you look foolish even trying to enter – I hid away, with a couple of close friends who ended up leaving me. By the 6th form I was on my tod, and folk steered clear, and that was fine by me.

Ustad Bismillah Khan

That sense of being an alien, that self-aggrandizement inevitable to the slightly pompous teen, was exaggerated for me everywhere I went, even if I sought a community to belong to. In the 80s I don’t walk down the streets of ghettos like Hillfields or Foleshill or Longford feeling at home. Sure I feel safer, I feel like I can disappear/show myself easier, I don’t feel folk crossing the road to avoid me like I do everywhere else, but I know I don’t belong there either, know I don’t see my family’s curious features mirrored anywhere. The A to Z of fear that is created deep inside your brain if you’re black or brown is getting fully mapped out for me, the streets you can’t go down, the places you can’t walk in, the unofficial lines of segregated geography that are laid down young and stay forever. Sure, maybe paranoia but racial paranoia is at least, safety. I can walk into the Standard Music Centre, the Asian-record shop down Foleshill road and feel as alienated as I do in HMV or Our Price but I can feel unnoticed, I can sit in the barbers getting my chrome dome shaved drinking heavy sweet cardamom tea and listen to the conversation and not understand a single word but for once not feel under observation. Race, when you’re one of only about five Asian kids in your entire school, is important, creates and moulds your consciousness and the cut of your jib in a vintage disappearing way. Gives you a conflicted sense of wanting to vanish and wanting to make as big a noise as possible, hide out and try and figure out who the fuck you are but also stamp your greenhorn incongruity on the cosmos. There’s a small rack of Ustad Bismillah Kahn & other raga maestros in the music shop. That’s where I go. The medallion-man clichés of the Bollywood sound-tracks that cover the walls leave me absolutely cold, as they still do, because that shit could be from anywhere, made by anyone, piped into any shop in any city on earth. Even by the midst of the 80s I can hear that its aspirations are becoming almost entirely westernised, entirely globalized to the point where the specific and local is subsumed in the welter of Western expectation,

I can hear it losing the universality and strangeness of old Marathi cinema-song, losing its unique prehistoric suggestions and unmediated wonder. So just as I’d rather listen to the Velvets and the Stones and Motown comps while the 80s rolls its Burtons sleeves up and back-combs itself into grisly big shapes, by 1985/86, in contrast to the clear commercial space that Bollywood pop is ravenous for, I opt to lose myself in those old tapes, that old classical vinyl that even then is becoming a relic of an India gone. Snobbishly distasteful of the new Indian pop, this old stuff keeps yielding a sub-cellular glow I can’t explain which you could call ‘belonging’, a racial memory that cuts beyond language. Something to do with the beats, with the fact that Marathi movies of the golden age so often fantasised a rural Maharashtrian idyll that my parents, like so many of their gener­ation, had abandoned for a city life in Mumbai or even further afield. Songs that make you wonder about what could’ve been, what you’d be if your folks had stayed in the village, how out-of­synch you are with your destiny as is anyone who escapes the world they were born to, to step and stumble out into another. Out of synch as is anyone who’s walked on those black beaches barefoot and finds themselves grown up and trudging through a substance called snow that they’d only read about before. In such a torment of shattered identity, Amitabh Bachan breakdancing wasn’t gonna cut it as glue to repair me, as anything I could get behind or get together with. Hip-hop stepped in and gave me a way my broken-ness couldn’t just be lived with, but lived FROM, could become the ground I could grow up above. I can trace an awful lot back to ‘Yo Bum Rush The Show’ and Public Enemy because they introduced me to thinking about race without fear, to realising that a head seething with questions doesn’t have to find answers or hide out and pretend it’s OK. By the time, through PE, I’d got into the music press and a whole lot of other stuff through that conduit; I’ve been bent out of shape severely. Got put forward for Oxford & Cambridge. Fucked up the exam cos people like Chris Roberts & Simon Reynolds & David Stubbs & The Stud Brothers have brilliantly fucked up my life as later Simon Price & Taylor Parkes would, end up ranting about situa­tionism in response to a rather anodyne question about the Duchess Of Malfi, unrepentant when my appalled English teachers lambast me for my foolishness


Learning by now, is something I take from everywhere except school, something I do everywhere except the classroom. I cannot emphasise enough just how much the magazine Melody Maker meant, and still means to me. Every Wednesday morning, it was my education, my inspiration, my launch pad into the world. It seems strange now, the idea that something as transitory & supposedly ephemeral as a magazine could exert such a collosal hold over someone, no matter how ripe for takeover I was back then. But even though the paper it was printed on could’ve wrapped up yesterday’s chips, the words and images that were printed were titanic, huge, and life-changing, as etched in my memory now as they ever were. It wasn’t something you could say about all music magazines, only the Maker. It was special, a unique collection of individuals working at peak power. Not only was the music that the Maker introduced me to a revelation, it also picked out the sources I should be studying, the films and books that surrounded the culture, the writers and theorists I had to follow, every piece threw down hints to a thousand other things you could explore.

In contrast to today’s endless music-crit efforts to be down with the kids, the Melody Maker never ever felt like it was talking down to you, only across, only with both the humility and conviction strong enough to allow you as a reader to catch up, to try and understand, pursue your own avenues. The people who wrote for the mag, and the photogra­phers who snapped for it became obsessions for me as deep as the music they sent me towards and shot: Simon Reynolds’ mindblowing conflation of modern theory and noise, David Stubbs’ scabrous humour and deep intuitive use of the English language’s vulgarian power, Chris Roberts’ enormously stylish mix of poetry, suggestion and romance – these people, and many others, ended up, even though they seemed to be living enviably connected lives in the big smoke, massive shadowy presences in the life of this little fuck-up from Cov, overseeing my life and it‘s choices, yaying or naying every decision whether sartorial or aesthetic, popping off a myriad directions your head could be splattered to. Your heart would rush of a Wednesday, knowing that at some point you’d be picking up the newest copy, my room was a place where the photos of Tommy Sheehan, Steve Gullick and Joe Dilworth would end up on my wall, the writings of the Stud Bros and Carol Clerk and Paul Oldfield and Jonh Wilde & Paul Mathur & Jon Selzer & Simon Price scoured, re-read, re­absorbed.

These were writers who seemed to know everything about music, but crucially they were writers who clashed, disagreed, and had something to say about how pop should and could be, and that opened up a vital space whereby you could start thinking for yourself. They were cool, often cooler than the musicians they wrote about. In stark contrast to the needy, party-crashing tactics of today’s press, these were writers stylistically bold enough to exist in their own space and drop their own atmospheres onto you & into your life whenever you started reading them. After a while you could spot them a line in, their voice, their hold on your heart and head. Even when I leave school (and after a summer in which my mum burns all my old copies saying they’re a ‘fire-risk’ – still not forgiven her) and end up studying at York Uni their weekly transmissions transfix me, new people like David Bennun, Cathi Unsworth, Andrew Mueller, and particularly two writers I’d come to call friends, Simon Price & Taylor Parkes, providing me with a weekly dose of rocket-fuel to the skull, always funnier and faster and sharper and more generously honest to their own dreams and delusions than any other kind of writing I’d ever read. Writers, you felt, who had read, who had also been separated a little from their peers thanks to the big over-heated brains they were lugging around their whole life, the mad amount of listening and learning they’d, like you, wasted their adolescence with. I owe that paper & the saints and angels and devils who wrote for it, everything. Finally free at uni from the middle-classes and able to reconnect with the white working class my schooling separated me from, the white working class who’ve rightfully taken the piss out of my poshness ever since, I find in English lessons that I’m surrounded by stuck-up wankers, realise I ain’t gonna get a fucking job out of this. Decide seminars and lectures with these twats are less important than the pub. Also getting into a frenzy about music and writing, waste my words in love letters, waste my mind with 9-bars and shabby slaggishness, only able to listen to Indian music back at home in Cov when trainfare can be scraped up.

Videos now make it possible for me to watch the films these songs come from but I end up watching with my eyes shut. When I hear the stunning Akheracha Ha Tula Dandavat (sung for the film Maratha Tituka Melvava in 64 by Lata with her sister Usha providing ‘echo’) I’m amazed to discover that Lata also composed the music under the male pseudonym Anand Ghan, but when I look at the screen, all is out-of-synch, mouths open to silence, shut to be given voice. Eventually that starts suiting me fine too cos I feel out of synch, I feel there’s a mismatch between the simple stories & bucolic idealism of the films and the suggestive wonder of the music and sounds. Hearing the wonderful song Jithe Sagara Dharnimilte sung by the exquisite Suman Kalyanpur (a Bengali singer relocated to Mumbai) the out-of-synchness reverberates even stronger, I realise that both Suman & me are born out-of-synch with our place, displaced to somewhere we will always be a visitation in. The composers,as revealed on the credits, start to become an obsession, because unlike my parents, I don’t associate these songs with the experience of watching movies, I associate these songs with closing my eyes and letting the pictures come unbidden. Names like Sudhir Phadke, a great classical & playback singer in his own right and composer of some of my favourite Marathi songs, Shrinivas Kale who’s hits have been part of Marathi film for 60 years now, the genius Hridaynath Mangeshkar who’s Koli Geets (fisherman’s songs) redolent of the Konkan roots of my mum – these were people who’s individual styles were unmistakeable once you knew which songs they’d wrote, but who were almost vanished in terms of their persona and presence unless you lived in India, unless you scoured the sleeve notes of what vinyl you had and hassled your parents for instant translations. People I wanted to find out about but whose lives were shrouded in obscurity and modesty – as a vintage pop fan and a fan of vintage Marathi song there was a powerful mismatch between those western artists who pushed their egos right at you, and these quiet genii who almost seemed to want to disappear, letting other singers and actors take the spotlight armed with their songs. Partly you put it down to that meekness you so wanted to destroy in yourself, later you realised it was more laced in with the entirely different notions of what it was to be a musician that prevailed in the East.

I'm aware in the 80s, that the move I'm making on Indian music is as squalid & fearful & reactionary as that of a rare-groove fan on black music, or a classical-music fan who refuses to listen to anything later than Brahms. I was listening to exclu­sively ‘old’ Indian music, to the denigration of what was actually contemporary Indian pop in the 80s, a retro-fixated snobbery that mirrored my distaste for contemporary western pop. Partly it's pre-emptory resistance to a perceived patronisation -‘Indian’ pop as perceived by the English as I grow up is nigh-on entirely those pale imitations and painful malapropisms of contemporary western pop that reassures and ratifies a white industry’s control of what we hear, their artistic ‘right’ to that control. The camp failure, the Bengalis-in-platform stereotypes: the ephemerali­sation that always accompanies the designation ‘exotic’ means half the planet’s music, of which India is a substantial part, has always only been afforded the hipster dabbling that characterises most people’s ‘foreign’ listening. That mistreatment of non-white music by the white-dominated music industry, that I see in the misrendering of hip-hop in the mainstream media as well as the complete ignorance of Eastern musics across the entire media, has started to really get stuck in my craw by the late 80s. The germs of realising that maybe, at the Maker, in my daydreams, there’d be a place for me and my problems. For me, as primarily a hip-hop fan, the way hip-hop was written about often seemed guided by the same mistaken sense of the music only gaining respect when it told you what you already knew, reified the same old Stagerlee/insurrectionist stereotypes (i.e. had encoded within it the reassuring narrative of black FAILURE). The revolutionary possibilities of hip-hop not just as music or message but as way of thinking about the world seemed to be entirely ignored. By the time Uni coughs me out in 93, I’m fucking seething. Six months in to a dole-life I have no desire to ruin with work I write a letter and another stage starts. The letter that got me in at Melody Maker was about precisely the frustration I felt at white treatment of black music, and after hired I’ve banged on about little else since, because still deep into the new millennium black music simply doesn’t get the same treatment as white, still is hidebound by clichés of instinct that refute intellect.

At Melody Maker I was allowed, finally, to vent, and encouraged by fellow writers (particularly my reviews editor Simon Price and the guy who initially spotted my letter, Taylor Parkes) to follow and feel fearless in that line of attack. I can’t imagine any print editor right now being like that – monomanias, obsessions, ideas of how pop SHOULD be rather than simply reporting on what pop was, were actively encouraged at the Maker, visions competitively perfected, your journey through pop and yourself not only allowed but respected, a uniquely joyous place to work whose sacrifice & destruction by cruel commerce and evil-plans enacted by utter utter cunts would be one of the most traumatic episodes of my life. Ahem, don’t get me started – at least at the start my intent as a critic was always to dis-avail people of the timidity and temerity they had for black music, this idea always that in liking black music you either wanted to be black or are taking a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. For me, in the early 90s, that misery required no holiday-ticket to visit, stepping out my front door or staying in and watching telly you could see that racism was as alive and well on the streets of the UK as it was anywhere else. Hip-hop was the only music coming from a minority or immigrant perspective, the only music suggesting a cannon beyond the usual rock names, and the only music saying anything politically. Its treatment as a fad, hype, or technique rather than art form seemed to me utterly incommensurate with the lessons you could learn from it lyrically, the places cosmic and street-level that it could propel you to in the space of a syllable or a loop. It was musical armour, a new shape to throw back at the cosmos. Any person in a minority looking for music that mirrored their own chaos was listening to rap music in the late 80s & early 90s. For all its avowed aggression & stridency, it was actually the confusion of it, the power it gained from the piling up of that confusion in sound & word, that made it such an essential soundtrack to the blistering tension and rage of being who you were.

Ustad Allah Rakha Kahn

As part of a minority you’ve always got too much on, frequently too much on your mind, an extra level of negotiation with yourself and others that simmers and seethes along with everything you do. It’s exhausting, when a minority within a minority doubly so, when a minority within the minority of a minority well . . . you can imagine – the pride my auntie thought my mum should have in her racial-rarity found it’s inverse in the anger I felt stranded out in Cov a might-as-well-be million miles away from anything I could call my roots. My response as the 80s ended & the 90s began, inspired by the writers who every Wednesday for 75p were blowing my mind, was to examine how things seemed through my prism, make sure I was able to express myself through voracious reading and shameless plagiarism, developed the trick of saying things other people wish they had said. Were I an arrogant cock, which I am, I’d admit that that’s a trick handy for being a critic; it’s also a trick that in the wrong bored juvenile & cowardly hands can turn you into a nasty cunt at times, a verbal bully. Angry little bastard, using Western pop as taught me by Melody Maker & others to assuage or amp that anger, aware that much of my life would be spent as some kind of irritant, yet more unsure of exactly how that inner-volcano could be safely unleashed. University was even more loneliness and aggravation and the beginning of drink and drugs as lasting solution but for real calm, back in Cov, for a sight of another way that nothing else offered, I tried sometimes to imagine how my parents listened to these songs the first time as the old TDK reels rotated again. In the village, surrounded by jungle (ironically when I listen to Ustad Allah Rakha Kahn or V.S Jog in 92/93 I hear jungle-d’n’b prefigured polyrhythmically), travelling cinema set up amidst the trees and snakes and monkeys and these astonishing songs coming singing through the thick forest air. I’ve only been to India twice. Once when I was a month old, of which I recall nothing. Then once again in 1982. I hoped to afford to go again but never did – but as I face-down adulthood at the end of the 80s I could at least say I’ve been to that jungle, seen what I dreamt, heard and felt the hum and energy, been part of an ancient routine, dodged army ants and snakes and lizards in my mum’s village and my dad’s village, noticed I am never stared at yet feel terrified in the roaring Mumbai streets that became both their homes, came home to Cov, my home, shaken and shocked at my own precarious identity. Able to realise that perhaps I should never ever talk race with the white folk, they simply will never ever get it, and convinced they needed schooling, by me if no-one better came along. That last tour of India was valedictory though I didn’t know it at the time: ever since I’ve been hearing only of deaths, my dad and mum’s generation falling to old age and illness, my cousins and contem­poraries falling to pressure, expectations, alcoholism and madness. My own madness as the 80s close out and I ready myself for the outside world is that white people will never understand me, and that’s proven a madness unbroken even now after all this bleeding chipping away through the medium of record reviews. I never ever ever talk race with white folk cos within a minute I want to slap ‘em, within a minute they’re telling me that it's me who’s a racist, within a minute I know even more fervently that I’m right, that most white folk have not a frigging clue about racism and what it means. OK, let me talk to you about that that unshaken opinion. Once you’ve stopped shaking, and once I’ve answered that call.


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