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Thursday, April 03, 2003  
Asian Dub Foundation
Community Music

Asian Dub Foundation formed in the mid-nineties, the product of a government-sponsored scheme designed to teach young Asian men music technology, two teachers, their pupil and a local scenester inspired to come together and make music long after everyone else had gone home. Given a support slot in 1997 by Primal Scream, they blew their patrons offstage and inspired Bobby Gillespie to hail them as the best band in the world. Fiercely political, they fronted the prolonged but successful Free Satpal Ram campaign, even releasing a single to raise awareness of the man wrongfully imprisoned for murder because of the colour of his skin. Proactive in every respect, ADF are Britain’s cross-cultural, positivist answer to Rage Against The Machine and just about the only good thing to emerge from 18 years of Tory government. Community Music is their third and best album, cementing them not just as one of the most important bands in Britain, but as one of the best.

Their incisive social and moral fury is writ large through their music, as they weave together strafing guitars, enormous reggae basslines and block rockin’ beats with Deedar Zaman’s half rapped, half chanted vocals and elements of traditional Asian music. "Real Great Britain" lays their template gloriously open, an incandescent vocal about the state of the nation at the turn of the new century backed-up with edgy guitars and the kind of insistent, propulsive rhythm that revolutions are inspired by. "Memory War" and "Officer XX" continue the virtuous onslaught, listing the offences of a nation and a culture that tolerate racism through ignorance and avoidance, as forthright as Public Enemy but less aggressive, as exciting as The Clash but even more creative and with greater focus.

That’s not to say that ADF are nothing but righteous preachers, raging in the name of Britain's subjugated racial groups. The message is more one of cultural and spiritual harmony through diversity, positivity and unity, as expressed on "Collective Mode" and the awesome, 21st century drum’n’reggaebass of "New Way New Life". Meanwhile "Riddim I Like" is pure dance music, instrumental and joyously funky, Steve Chandra Savale’s guitar strings tuned all to one note like a sitar, painting Eastern melodies over another gorgeously fat, infectious bassline. "Taa Deem" takes the awe-inspiring, devotional vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and marries them to pounding sub-bass and ferocious drum’n’bass passages, while "Colour Line" is an eye-opening spoken-word rumination on the exploitative nature of world political economics by Ambalavaner Sivanandan.

Britain today is a country where racial tensions are at an all-time high and right-wing politics are more visible than at any time since the 1940’s. Now more than ever we need people like Asian Dub Foundation to help bring together communities and cultures that would otherwise be driven apart by ignorance and intolerance. Community Music is a glorious, unifying example of what can be achieved if our nation could finally grow up and demonstrate the same kind of maturity and intelligence that Asian Dub Foundation are so clearly possessed of. They used to sound like a riot being incited. Now they sound like a party being thrown. Punk guitars, Bollywood strings, Motown brass, drum’n’bass beats, dub basslines and electronica flourishes united gloriously with the spirit of Bob Marley, Chuck D, Malcolm X and Gandhi, moving into completely new territory both musically and spiritually. Passionate, inspirational, energising, innovative and enriching, make no mistake, this record is awesome on just about every level. Let’s have some more.

Asian Dub Foundation
Enemy of the Enemy

Even though they didn’t release a record, 2001 was a busy year for ADF. Long-time vocalist Deeder Zaman played his last gig on New Year’s Eve 2000, before leaving the group that had been his life since he was 14 in order to concentrate on working with grassroots civil rights and anti-racism organisations. In March they composed a live soundtrack to the legendary masterpiece of urban French cinema La Haine which they performed as part of the ‘Only Connect’ season at London’s Barbican, giving the band the opportunity to demonstrate their musical flair rather than their often-cited political stance. This was followed in April by a British Council organised trip to Brazil in order to heighten awareness of ADFED. Autumn saw them dropped by their record label at the same time as they embarked on their first extensive tour of Eastern Europe. 2002 didn’t let up the tempo as the inspirational Adrian Sherwood was brought on board as executive producer for the new album, a new record deal was signed and the British Council sponsored another trip to South America, this time Cuba. That they ever found time to record an album in the midst of all this is extraordinary.

Enemy of the Enemy is imperative and confrontational. Community Music had seen ADF reach out and broaden their palette, the acquisition of horns, strings and wide-eyed positivism contributing to the undeniable quality of the record. But Enemy is almost a backwards step, certainly in mood if not in the accomplishment of the actual sound itself. The party’s over, and now it’s back to the attack. “Fortress Europe” kicks the album into life with urgent strings and a level of visceral ferocity that the band had almost left behind in favour of collectivist vibrancy on the last album.

Deeder’s absence is profound. His is a big role to fill, and the new ADF line-up does not manage it, even with two in his place. Deeder may have cut his vocals at 100mph, but the degree of subtlety in both his lyrical content and his rhythmic/melodic delivery added a hugely important dimension to ADF’s overall sound and tone, his fiercely sharp technique belying a lightness of touch partly borne of ragga, partly of hip hop, partly of his Asian heritage. His replacements often fall into the hideously unsubtle trap of SHOUTING the WORD at the END of each BAR or EVEN each half BAR. Which is gruesomely ANNOYING after a WHILE. It’s not good when the Beastie Boys (capable of so much more) do it, and it’s not good now.

Production-wise, Sherwood’s select team of dub maestros add billows of atmospheric effects and vast bottom-end over which Steve Chandra Savale lets rip with his guitar more often like an act of vengeance than an act of music. Sinead O’Connor (this season’s rent-a-conscience de rigeur) adds vocals to a couple of tracks, most effectively to the down tempo “1000 Mirrors” (“1000 Mirrors” / 100th Window - what is the obsession with glass and numbers in Britain’s dub community this year?). The most effective tracks are when ADF turn away from English language and culture and towards a more Francophone direction such as on “La Haine” and “19 Rebellions”, their frenetic, poly-cultural fusion music perfectly suited to hybridisation with French underground hip hop. Tablas, Bollywood strings and sitar-like guitar effects are sparse, unfortunately, ADF now having more in common with Primal Scream or Rage Against The Machien than Talvin Singh or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There’s a sense with this record that there is just enough dub, but too much foundation and not enough Asian. The spiritual character, which made Community Music so powerful and stirring, is trampled and faded. “Basta”, beginning oddly like early Spiritualized, reaches for that spiritual uplift, but just at the cusp of ascension the confrontation kicks back in, and the SHOUTING on EVERY other BEAT begins AGAIN, and the moment is lost.

ADF are still invigorating and passionate, still ethically and politically faultless, but Enemy of the Enemy doesn’t demonstrate their best side often enough. Far from the masterpiece that was their last album, they still rock like a bitch on a phat and dirty groove. It’s not quite enough.

4/03/2003 11:34:00 pm


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005