The Wire, 1995? or Observer?
by Simon Reynolds
White English pop is in a sorry state these days. From the Swinging London fixations of Blur, through the mod revivalism of the New Wave Of New Wave, to Smiths-retreads like Echobelly and Gene, nostalgia is the order of the day. Drawing on an ever more circumscribed and depleted range of whiter-than-white influences--The Who, the Jam, Bowie, that most insular and parochial of artists, Morrissey-- bands hark back to the lost golden age of Brit-pop.
So it's hardly surprising, that the only truly vibrant music in this country is that which reflects, rather than denies, the multiracial, culturally promiscuous nature of '90s Britain.
Take jungle, a frenetic hybrid of hip hop, reggae and techno with a black-and-white underclass following. And look at the rise of Asian rap groups like Fun-Da-Mental and Asian ragga-dancehall artists like Apache Indian.
The latter may soon be joined in the charts by Bally Sagoo, Asian pop's hottest dance producer. I talk to 30 year old Bally during a hiatus in the shooting of a video, at a converted church in Crouch End that's now Dave Stewart's recording studio. It's Bally's first video, and it's for a breathtakingly pretty song called "Chura Liya" that could be his breakthrough into the mainstream.
Born in New Delhi, Bally was six months old when his parents emigrated to England, and has lived in Birmingham all his life. Music is in his blood: his father played in one of the first Asian bands in Britain, the Musafirs, "a sort of an Asian version of The Shadows". But Bally never really cared for traditional Indian music as a boy, preferring the "hardcore street sounds" of electro and hip hop. Now almost every genre of studio-concocted state-of-art dance informs his sound, from house and techno to ragga and jungle.
Throughout the '80s, Bally honed his production skills, remixing bhangra tunes and giving them the kind of turbo-charged "beef" that he heard in Western dance music.
"To be honest, I basically changed the whole of the Indian music industry, by bringing in samplers and sequencers and modern beats".
In 1990, he started making his own music, and has since released six albums that each sold over 100 thousand copies. After last year's 'greatest hits' compilation "On The Mix" (through Island 's sub-label Mango), Bally signed to Sony in a massive deal that's potentially worth 1.2 million. Now label, management and artist are all holding their breath to see if Bally's past sales and fan-base can translate into chart positions.
"My goal, and I keep my fingers crossed and pray to God, is to see an Asian language song in the charts," says Bally earnestly. "Then you could really say, 'doors have been broken down'. I don't wanna hear any crap about how people won't like it cos they don't understand the words, cos there's been loads of foreign language hits."
He compares "Chura Liya" to Enigma's "Sadeness"--a fair analogy, as "Chura" seductively interweavesethnic exoticisms (Indian movie strings, tabla loops, sitar samples) with DJ-friendly beats.
"Chura" was originally written by the late R.D. Burnam, one of the subcontinent's most famous songwriters and 'musical directors'. Bally went to India to get it resung, then took the vocal back to his Birmingham studio and framed it in a "'90s ragga sound, with a hardcore rude-boy B-line". As well as the romantic Hindi vocals, there's a rap from Cheshire Cat, a white Brummie who chats in a thick Jamaican patois, raggamuffin-style.
"Chura" is a taster for the album "Bollywood Connection", named after Indian's motion picture capital. "The album consists of eight superhits from the last twenty years. I do a kind of Jurassic Park thing, bringing these dead and buried songs back to life".
Although Bally's a Punjabi Sikh himself, he chose to work with Hindi singers. "You're conquering a bigger market with Hindi. Bengalis, Sikhs, Muslims, they all listen to Hindi songs, whereas Punjabi bangra is more of a specialist scene."
Much of Bally's talk is of conquering markets and how Asian music has yet to be "exploited properly". When I suggest that even though "Chura" is a love song, its success might have a political dimension--demonstrating to the racists and BNP that Britain is now a multicultural society, that there's no going back--he shrugs. It's clear that Bally's main interest in crossover isn't cultural integration so much as maximum market penetration. He's an ambitious fellow who aspires to the first rank of world-class dance producers--David Morales, Jazzy B (Soul II Soul), Paul Oakenfold, Jam & Lewis, Teddy Riley--and is tired of being ghettoised as an Asian artist.
He's also frustrated with the limits of the Asian market, where 80 percent of sales are cheaply priced cassettes, and there's a massive problem with bootlegging. (He tells me how one scoundrel in Canada sold 200 thousand pirate copies of one of his albums).
But Bally's transition to the mainstream might not be that smooth, owing to the peculiarites of the Asian record industry. Most Indian music is sold through cornershops, which is why Bally's huge sales have hitherto failed to translate into hits (they've bypassed the chart-return shops). Can Bally and his record company persuade Asian youth to go into Our Price and HMV? And will Asian kids, who are used to paying 2-50 for a cassette album be prepared to cough up eight, nine, ten quid?
It's a gamble for both Bally and Columbia, but the stakes are high: it could be that Asian music will have the same influence on '90s pop that Jamaican reggae did on the Seventies. (Who knows, by the end of the century, maybe there'll be massive-selling white bhangra bands, a la The Police and UB40...)
"Nobody can tell what's going to happen in the future. We just have to hope that the public can accept this music and bring it to the same level that house, ragga, techno, are at the moment. It shouldn't be a specialist thing, it should be up there, loud and proud. Specialist just doesn't make sense."
This reissue dedicated to Koushik Banerjea and Partha Banerjea - nuff respeck from "The Information Centre" ;)