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My Soundscapes

A Playlist for the UCL Geography BAME Network

By Tariq Jazeel

Oct, 2020

Listening to music is so often a shared practice, something we do in public or in quasi-public contexts, but at its core it is also a hugely personal experience. As such, to write a playlist to present to others is a task that raises some searching questions, not the least of which is a question about how we present ourselves to a community of others? There is, of course, nothing remarkable or new in noting that music means something to each of us, but that these meanings matter in terms of the ways we make ourselves present in the world is something I really only felt the force of when I first sat down to write this list. Maybe this is all just overthink (I’m told academics are good at that), but it seems to me that to write about the experience of listening, and to think about how best to say something about what music I choose to listen to, and why, can feel like gross over-exposure; a kind of making public of what so many of us choose to keep hidden via headphones, closed windows, muted volume dials, and intimate forms of sharing with friends, lovers, and family.

So, what follows in this list is a narrative more than anything else; a story that I want to tell through just some of the music I choose to listen to regularly, repeatedly, enthusiastically, curiously. However, as much as I hold that listening to music is an intensely personal experience, this playlist is also an attempt to try to say something about why I think music matters socially and politically as well.

In what follows then, I want to make the point that I think the music to which we listen is important precisely because it provides something of a bridge between the personal and the social, the private and the public. That is part of my narrative here, indeed it is probably why I am interested in soundscapes more generally.

1.‘Butterfly’, Talvin Singh,
(from the album OK, 1998).
Read Tariq's commentary here
2. ‘Heavy Intro’, Amar (from the album Anokha: soundz of the Asian Underground, compiled by Talvin Singh, 1997).
Read Tariq's commentary here
3. Krishan, ‘Raja Raja Sola’    (from the album Asian Avenue, 2005)
Read Tariq's commentary here
4. ‘Airtight Remix’ – Funky Technicians (from the album Logical Progression, mixed by L.T.J. Bukem, 1996)
Read Tariq's commentary here
5.‘War’,                                       Bob Marleyand the Wailers (from the album Rastaman Vibration, 1976)
Read Tariq's commentary here
6. ‘The Heist’,                              Kae Tempest                            (from the album Everybody Down, 2014)
Read Tariq's commentary here
7. ‘Keep On Moving’, Soul II Soul (from the album, Club Classics, Vol. I, 1989)
Read Tariq's commentary here
8. ‘Somebody Already Broke My Heart’, Sade (from the album Lover’s Rock, 2000)
Read Tariq's commentary here
9. ‘Comin’ Home Baby’, Herbie Mann (from the album At the Village Gate, 1961)
Read Tariq's commentary here

 

1. ‘Butterfly’, Talvin Singh, (from the album OK, 1998).

My first song is chosen in part because I am at the outset of a new research project that focuses on a particular kind of music: British Asian dance music from the mid-1990s through to around 2010, or more specifically what became known as the ‘New Asian Kool’, or ‘Asian Electronica’. This predominantly London centred, post-Bhangra music mixed sitthar and sampler, tabla and turntable, and emerged from the studios of musicians like Nitin Sawhney, Joi Bangla, Badmarsh and Shri, and not least Talvin Singh. The second track from his 1998 album OK is an exquisite and, for me, inspiring tune called ‘Butterfly’, one of my favourites that I have written about previously and that many of my students will have heard me play in lectures or seminars.[1] It is a song that I have not tired of listening to in the twenty plus years since I first heard it. What continues to fascinate me about this song is that, when it was released in 1998, it was essentially uncategorizable. Part drum and bass, part Indian Classical with nods to North Indian ragas, part club anthem, the hybridity of this tune was boundary crossing, experimental, modern, and ‘cool’ at one and the same time. Yet, aesthetically it was also unmistakably South Asian in terms of its instrumentation and its tonal qualities.

Growing up as a British born South Asian through 70s, 80s and 90s, this song and album were part of an emergent genre of music that in the mid-1990s helped to make it feel decidedly ‘cool’ to be a South Asian in Britain. In a context where South Asians in Britain had historically been represented as problems, fetishized objects, and sometimes as objects of ridicule, this mattered. It was indeed a genre of music that signalled the emergence of a different kind of Britishness, one that we knew very well existed, but that mainstream British popular culture was now beginning to accept as its own. And as it did so, my sense was that British popular culture, or in fact the very idea of ‘Britishness’, was also getting a little less blindingly white in the refracted shadow of this New Asian Kool. Talvin Singh’s album OK won the Mercury Music Prize in 1999 (he remains the only British Asian artist to have won it), and ‘Butterfly’ was the song chosen to play in the new millennium in a ceremony at London’s Millennium Dome (now the O2), which was attended by then Prime Minister Tony Blair; itself a reminder of the millennial hopes that were pinned on this musical genre, as well as its inseparability from New Labour’s investment in, and reliance on, the creative industries as a vehicle for rebranding Britishness in the 1990s. If ‘Butterfly’ was an anthem of the ‘New Asian Kool’, it was also a song that became enlisted in the project of ‘Cool Britannia’.

2.  ‘Heavy Intro’, Amar (from the album Anokha: soundz of the Asian Underground, compiled by Talvin Singh, 1997).

From this same period, from this same genre, came Amar’s ‘Heavy Intro’, which energetically is something of a change in register. It is a pared down song that begins with the simple yet spellbinding sound and feel of a bow sliding across the strings of what I think is an Indian Sarangi or Tar Shehnai (it could be a violin!). These ever-present strings hold the song, but Amar’s voice soon joins to accompany this sliding tablature, adding a haunting layer of melody, which is punctuated by the slow intermittent beat of some kind of drum, possibly an Indian Nagada, and the accents of finger cymbals. The cumulative effect is as if we are witnessing some kind of offering at temple. For me, however, the temple this song conjures is the club night, Anokha; a weekly event that Talvin Singh and Sweety Kapur ran at London’s Blue Note Club in Hoxton in the mid-1990s. It was one of the first club nights and regular live venues for the ‘New Asian Kool’, and this song is taken from the compilation album that Singh produced during that period, Anokha: soundz of the Asian Undergound.

I remember going to Anokha. I remember being captivated by its desi vibe, by the way that this broadly constituted community of clubbers were collectively enticed into Singh’s new world; a new world of confluences and chemically orchestrated convivialities, one where nothing quite had a label that stuck or defined anything with any degree of certitude; one where all our musical preconceptions were always in the process of being reformulated. At Anokha, listening and dancing was a way of building new worlds that we didn’t know we were building. But I also remember buying the CD, playing it at home incessantly and being fascinated by its eclecticism. Back when that’s how you bought music, there were sleeve notes as well that accompanied the disc itself. And I remember the notes that Talvin Singh wrote about Amar’s ‘Heavy Intro’, which seemed to me to encapsulate the social and political potential of this music at the time:

I hear that voice right within. Amar is Asian soul – 21st century Asian soul. Ever since tuning into an Asian radio station & hearing a fully blown voice of a 14 year old singing a r & b tune in Hindi & with the internation [sic.] & attitude of Indian music, I have been totally inspired. The voice of the British–Asian underground. Amar’s got the ticket to take it overground.

(Talvin Singh’s sleeve notes in Anokha: soundz of the Asian underground, 1997)

3. Krishan, ‘Raja Raja Sola’ (from the album Asian Avenue, 2005)

I’ve listened to a lot of hip-hop from an early age, but this is the only rap song that has made it into my playlist, and it is not from a very well-known artist, nor is it a well-known song. Krishan was perhaps Sri Lanka’s most well-known hip-hop artist and a pioneer of Tamil rap in the early 2000s. His 2005 album Asian Avenue was big news in Sri Lanka and made some ripples across the increasingly transnational world of global hip hop. I don’t really know much about Krishan, I think he came to the UK to attend university in 2005, just after the release of his album, and I understand that after his return to Sri Lanka he eventually emigrated to Australia. What struck me back in the mid-2000s though, was that his was such a fresh, modern and urban sound that came straight out of Sri Lanka at a relatively early stage. When I found this CD in a Colombo record store in 2005, I first thought Krishan was positioned somewhere in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, like the more famous London based Sri Lankan Tamil rapper and songwriter at the time M.I.A., whose first album ‘Arular’ was also released in 2005. That Krishan was Sri Lanka based was a bit of a revelation to me, and I think speaks of the transnational geographies of musical style, and hip-hop’s many translations as it touches down, and emerges from, disparate locations across the globe.

4. ‘Airtight Remix’ – Funky Technicians (from the album Logical Progression, mixed by L.T.J. Bukem, 1996)

As I’ve already suggested, compiling a playlist like this involves thinking as much about how we listen to music as it does thinking about the music itself. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Sussex in the mid-1990s music was a big part of my life, and I went through a substantial period of being addicted to what was perhaps perjoratively referred to as ‘intelligent drum and bass’ (as if the less ambient, hardcore jungle music was somehow unintelligent). The musician, DJ, and producer, L.T.J. Bukem, was something of a legend in this genre for many of us and his albums and live performances (I seem to remember that he came to Brighton often) were always, to me, sublime. I mean that in the sense that the ambient yet rhythmic pull of this music seemed to take me to places, perhaps a more spiritual plane. Logical Progression was a mixed album released in 1996, a year after I graduated and a year before I’d saved sufficient money to do what many good middle-class kids did and go off backpacking around the world. This album was my soundtrack that year, and the Funky Technicians’ track ‘Airtight Remix’ is the first song on the album. It is 8 min 11 secs of hypnotic, ambient bliss; a sonic bath in which my mind was able to wander, and I remember it as such. This is perhaps not the most profound piece of music on my list, but when I listen to this song today, to this album in fact, I think not only of the utter joy, friendships and experiences of my undergraduate days at Sussex, but also of watching the sun setting over Hong Kong Island from Kowloon Bay, the vast expanse of the Nullarbor Plain in central and southern Australia, the coral reefs and sandy beaches of Raratonga, and other incredible cities and landscapes I was lucky enough to experience through the course of 1997.

But there is another reason this song is on my list. I was addicted to this album at about the same time that I began to immerse myself in the British Asian dance music scene. For me, there was an acoustic resonance between so called ‘intelligent drum and bass’ and ‘the New Asian Kool’. I don’t really know what it was, perhaps the pace of the music, its rhythm, its newness, its feel. And one thing I discovered when I was lucky enough to interview Talvin Singh a few years ago was that this particular album, L.T.J. Bukem’s Logical Progression, was a big influence on his own work in the mid-1990s.

5. ‘War’, Bob Marley and the Wailers (from the album Rastaman Vibration, 1976)

Reggae too was a big part of my life in those years, and my tastes ranged from the smooth sounds of Dennis Brown and Sugar Minott’s Lovers Rock, through the heavy bass reverb and dub plates of artists like the Mad Professor or the Tassili Players. But well before the spectrum of my own taste in reggae music expanded into these reaches and beyond, like many teenagers it was Bob Marley’s universal popularity that first exposed me to reggae and then got me hooked and eager to learn more. I remember buying the four-cassette box set of Wailers music called ‘Songs of Freedom’ and reading from cover to cover the thick booklet that accompanied the cassette tapes. The internet tells me that it was 96-pages thick, and I remember the booklet being packed not just with biographical facts but also details and archive photos that offered context to the Wailers’ music, and Marley’s eventual crossover into British, European and subsequently global superstardom. (The internet also tells me that the booklet contained many historical inaccuracies!) The point though is that there was a material culture to listening that if not lost, is now hugely different in the era of the digital download.

Since his premature death in 1981 at the shockingly young age of 36, Marley’s life and the global impact of his music has been covered in any number of documentaries, biographies, and critical commentaries. I have always been compelled by his intertexts, perhaps because, as Paul Gilroy has put it, “The history of Marley’s continuing worldwide appeal reveals a distinctive blend of moral, spiritual, political, and commercial energies.”[2] And it was this immanent political urgency in much of his music that I think first drew my attention to the simple fact that music is political; that its energy can entrain and synchronize the tempos of our dissent, as Gilroy has put it in relation to Marley.[3] ‘War’ is a track that first appeared on Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1976 album Rastaman Vibrations. It is bouncy, funky, energetic with an overtone of unmistakable anger, yet at the same time it is restrained, and somehow hopeful. Most intriguingly to me at the time though, its lyrics are derived from a speech made by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, formerly Ras Tafari, to the United Nations General Assembly in 1963. It is a song whose form of dissent routes our head nodding and foot tapping through the Ethiopianist tradition so central to Marley’s work and to Rastafarian anticolonial politics.

6. ‘The Heist’, Kae Tempest (from the album Everybody Down, 2014)

Kae Tempest is a lyrical genius. Actually, Tempest is a genius without adjectival qualification. Their 2014 Mercury Music Prize nominated album, ‘Everybody Down’ signalled Tempest’s arrival into the mainstream and the public eye, but their work had been circulating in the world of spoken word performance since the early 2000s. Tempest is at one and the same time poet, performer, recording artist, novelist and playwright, and like their subsequent albums, the ‘Everybody Down’ record is a story in verse. It is an album to listen to like you would read a novel. In fact, its narrative arc was expanded upon in Tempest’s debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, which was published in 2016. Everybody Down, a collaboration with Dan Carey, tells the story of Harry, a drug dealer somewhere in southeast London, who buys from the big boys and sells at high prices in the City to discerning clientele. Harry’s dream is to make enough money to get out, to set up a bar of his own, a speak-easy, a classy joint. Harry falls for Becky, but Everybody Down is the lurid and dramatic story of a drug-deal-gone-wrong and its consequences for Harry, Becky, and those around them. ‘The Heist’, the eighth chapter in this story-cum-album, describes that drug-deal-gone-wrong in the backroom of a seedy club called Paradise. Harry and Leon, “friends since before they could say the word friends”, meet the dealer Joey, whose “…eyes shine vicious and cold,” in an exchange that turns awry and bloody and is something of a pivot for the rest of the album’s narrative arc, which is essentially a tragic romance. ‘The Heist’ is a compelling piece of music, not just because Tempest manages to balance deft lyrical flow with captivating story-telling, but the cross rhythms and discordant waves of sound that weave in and out of the track build a tension that is palpable, agonizing, disturbing. It is a track whose formal qualities as much as its lyrical poetry remind me of the power of music to tell stories, to move us, to make us feel.

 

7. ‘Keep On Moving’, Soul II Soul (from the album, Club Classics, Vol. I, 1989)

1989. Caron Wheeler, Jazzie B. et al. Soul II Soul. Club Classics, Vol. 1. So many memories. Or to be more precise, so many feelings that I remember when I listen to this song, and to the album from which it came. It was exciting, it was new. It was dynamic. And it seemed not so much to speak to a moment, but to precipitate one that heralded the emergence of modern Britain. I think of this album as so very British, which is something that struck home with even more clarity when I watched again this track’s official music video as I was writing this. The playful, eclectic, vibrant and diverse scenes of late 1980s London street life, spliced with staged studio shots of the North London Funky Dreds and their entourage singing, dancing, and performing, speak of the vitality of Britain’s diasporic culture and its creative potential in the late and post-Thatcher years. ‘Keep On Moving’ was, consciously or not, the reiteration of Marley’s more exasperated cry in the early 1970s, but Caron Wheeler’s more hopeful and soulful iteration of that very same refrain at the end of the 1980s felt more like an injunction to harness the promise of Britain’s contemporary diasporic trajectories and unique constellations. It celebrated a “restlessness of spirit”,[4] one that has come to be integral to emergent and immanent notions of a Britishness that is never finished, always open, always becoming something more. It is an optimistic song that I want to continue to hold close as an anthem for today, even in the midst of all the political closures that seem to threaten us from all sides. ‘Keep On Moving’ is a song that reminds me of the power and potential of the arts to do the kind of dynamic and demotic work of always making room for something new, something fresh, something-to-come…

 

8. ‘Somebody Already Broke My Heart’, Sade (from the album Lover’s Rock, 2000)

I can’t say exactly why, but Sade has to be on this list, on my list. Sade’s smooth as silk voice and her sumptuous arrangements are another very British musical institution. Hers is a distinctive sound that many of us have grown up with ever since her first album ‘Diamond Life’ was released in 1984. ‘Somebody Already Broke My Heart’ comes from her fifth studio album, Lover’s Rock, which was released in 2000 and for me is her most listenable album. It struck me when I was compiling this playlist, that just as a handful of Sade’s songs keep popping up on a number of other playlists I have across my devices (‘Your Love Is King’, ‘No Ordinary Love’, ‘Lovers Rock’, ‘Soldier of Love’, and ‘Babyfather’ amongst them), I don’t think I could quite sit through and listen to any Sade album in its entirety. Sade’s albums are intense. They are painful, full of the hurt and heartbreak of real life. They set the drama, fragility and vulnerability of the human condition to her own hauntingly stylized soundtrack. Emotionally, they take a lot out of you. I hope she’s OK.

9. ‘Comin’ Home Baby’, Herbie Mann (from the album At the Village Gate, 1961)

Herbie Mann’s live album ‘At the Village Gate’ includes one of the earliest recordings of this Jazz standard. It is also one of the slickest recordings of this song. Mann’s flute picks out the song’s familiar melody, whilst the double bass and jazz drums keep the groove going through the song’s foot-tapping eight and a half minutes. In the second movement of the song, the free-flowing vibraphone of the wonderfully named Hagood Hardy takes over. This is exquisite and compelling modern jazz at its coolest. It is in my list because jazz music was a staple at home from well before I knew I had my own musical tastes. My mum and dad were both crazy about jazz. Before she met my dad, my mum used to hang with Ronnie Scott and his business partner Pete King at their basement club in Gerrard Street, Soho. For his part, my dad’s path to the UK in the early 1960s involved taking a chance in a Sri Lankan band that decided to try its luck in the post-imperial metropolis (he played the bongos). They didn’t make it big of course, but once here and after meeting my mum, he too was hooked on jazz and blues. Mann’s At the Village Gate was a favourite from my dad’s record collection. He would play it often, and I remember not just the music, but the look and smell of the vinyl disc, ever so slightly warped, its big yellow sleeve emblazoned with some kind of modernist graphic illustration.

I think I used to be embarrassed by my parent’s taste in music, before I knew it was cool; before I knew they had great taste in music. I grew to love their record collection, and I remember fondly the sense of groove that would fill our house. Amongst the many other records in their collection, this track epitomized that vibe of the childhood home in which my two brothers and I grew up. Mann’s ‘Comin’ Home Baby’ is a special song, with some special memories.

10. An empty tenth…

It is a cop out, I know, but I couldn’t choose a tenth song for this list. For days I have been trying to decide on the last song to complete this list, and there have been any number of songs that I’ve been tempted to include. I wanted to say something about the rambunctious Sri Lankan Baila music that I have so many happy memories of dancing to as a kid at family parties in Sri Lanka (listen here to the wonderfully ludicrous ‘Uncle Johnson’ by The Gypsies, and be sure to catch some of the English lyrics!). I thought about including Gal Costa’s 1970s classic, Vapor Barato, not so much because of the song itself but because when, along with 5,000 others, I saw her perform this version live in the streets of São Paulo at the 2013 Virada Cultural, I experienced the most euphoric 30 seconds or so I have ever experienced listening to live music (check out the build and drop from around 4 mins 12 seconds). Portishead’s extremely haunting ‘Roads’, from their 1994 album Dummy, also occupied my very own Fourth Plinth for a time; the Bristol trip hop scene and Portishead’s pre-eminence in that period were a big part of the soundtrack of my early twenties. And then there’s the Asian Dub Foundation’s beautifully angry and urgent mash-up, ‘Free Satpal Ram’, a protest tune that came arrowing out of the British Asian scene in 1997 like some kind of heat-seeking missile. The song demanded the release of a Bengali restaurant worker who was imprisoned for killing a man whilst defending himself in a racist attack by 6 men in Birmingham in 1986. I even contemplated the Thompson Twins’ 1984 track ‘Hold Me Now’, the first record I ever bought (when I was at primary school, I wanted to be Tom Bailey). I think I somehow felt it important to get across the simple fact that I listen to a hell of a lot of very uncool music!

I spent too much time trying to choose between these and many more pieces of music that crept onto my longlist. And then I realised I didn’t need to choose. The reality is that life always seems to make room for more music. The reality is that I listen to a lot of music; when I’m working, when I’m writing, when I’m reading. When I’m cooking, when I’m travelling, when I’m running, sometimes even when I’m falling sleep. When I’m sitting doing nothing, which is never nothing if I’m listening to music. These are my soundscapes, and they will proliferate.



[1] Tariq Jazeel, Postcolonialism (Routledge: London & New York, 2019), p.140

[2] Paul Gilroy, Darker than Blue: on the moral economies of Black Atlantic culture (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, 2010), p.89

[3] Ibid., p.94

[4] A phrase I borrow from Paul Gilroy’s writing on Soul II Soul, in The Black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness (Verso: London, 1993), p.16

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