Sound of the Underground

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Asian Dub Foundation is one of the most radical and vibrant bands to have appeared on the music scene over the last decade. In May they premiered an original soundtrack to the classic film The Battle of Algiers. Pandit G, founding member of ADF, spoke to Tom Hickey and Ian McDonald about their project, music and politics.

Why did you choose to do a soundtrack to The Battle of Algiers?

We did a soundtrack to a film called La Haine, which was very successful. It came out in 1995, exactly two years after BNP candidate Derek Beackon was elected in Tower Hamlets, where I was based as a civil rights and anti-racist community worker. We were gigging a lot in Europe and you could see what was happening in France was happening here. We were meeting up with bands in France who were working with refugees and running centres for Algerian youth. They even got two independent local councillors elected last year. So there were lots of people similar to us, and La Haine, a story of multiracial friendship tested to destruction by racism and social repression, was spot on.

But the other film we wanted to do was The Battle of Algiers. There was an article in the Guardian recently that reported how the Pentagon screened the film to see what kind of reaction occupation gets. And you have the siege of Fallujah of course. It couldn't be more appropriate: the Algerian War of Independence displaced about a million people and more than a million people died in it. If it's not a story about Iraq, or about the occupation of Palestine, then what is it about? There are even little lines in the film that are relevant to politics in Britain today. The French general briefing reporters while showing hidden camera footage of people going through the checkpoints of the Casbah in Algiers says there is no point looking at IDs because terrorists will have perfect IDs. So the Blunkett issue is there and this film is 40 years old!

One of the great things about the film is the mixture of silence, dialogue and music. How did you feel about reworking the soundtrack?

I don't think there is a moment in the film without music, but as a musician all you can do is to try and enhance whatever the feeling is, whether it's a bomb going off or resistance, like unarmed people taking on the French army. You can raise the intensity of that experience if it's done well, but it's quite difficult to do it with an old film. In new films they put the soundtrack, ambience and dialogue on separately, so it was easier to do La Haine, which only had a few tracks anyway. Also The Battle of Algiers already has a superb score by Ennio Morricone, so part of you doesn't want to touch it.

It took a bit of time to do, because we wanted to incorporate the best aspects of the original, then add ours on top, or mix it up or resample it. It's quite complicated, but with technology and a lot of work we managed to rewrite most of it.

Tell us about the formation of the band, including the reasons for your name, Asian Dub Foundation.

We formed in 1993 out of Community Music, a voluntary sector organisation that started looking at music training, using up and coming music technology coming out of the experience of the punk DIY culture, the beginnings of dance music, the rave scene and hip-hop. The band's bassist, Dr Das, was a tutor there; I was working in Tower Hamlets. We set up in one of his workshops and started as a sound system before becoming a band. As for the name: 'Asian', because all of us were of Asian ancestry. 'Dub' was the methodology, the technique used. Whatever you have, you put it all together to create sounds. 'Foundation' was showing how we were creating something wider, with educational projects called ADFED, and political campaigns linking to activists like The Fire Next Time in the US and bands in South America. Lots of networks have simultaneously sprung up with the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements.

So what was it that most provoked you to form a band - politics or music?

Both! Musically there was revolution going on, though it was completely ignored by the mainstream. That was the drum 'n' bass jungle - jungle was like music secularism. People in the reggae, dance, rave, R&B scenes created drum 'n' bass jungle, with reggae at the heart of it. At the same time I was doing a lot of casework around racist and fascist attacks. The first benefit gig we did was for Quddus Ali, who was stabbed by racists in Whitechapel. What was being offered to people was this tame Britpop, seen as the voice of youth by people like Tony Blair. Even with Oasis, who were mimicking the hedonism and emptiness that was going on, there was a certain self-belief, but it was also very individualistic.

Isn't there a tension between the business of making music and political activism?

There can be. For example, we were supposed to be doing a benefit gig for the miners in June - us, Billy Bragg plus a couple of others. One famous band wanted £90,000 to perform! The organisers prevaricated and they lost the booking - that's the nature of some of the bands. They talk the talk but don't do anything - they are not linked into the community, they pay lip service only. You have to make it self-organising, you have to be independent, you have to have good people around you and you learn from your experiences. You have to be realistic. The Free Satpal Ram campaign, a case of a convicted murderer who we said is innocent, is a good example. We were asked to do a track. We had quite a lot of knowledge of civil rights work, so we worked with a lawyer, raised money and publicity for 'Free Satpal Ram'. We had London Records put the tune out and put 3,000 to 4,000 posters around the country with 'Free Satpal Ram' on it. You can use the machine to your ends, but you have to know where the boundaries are.

How important is the influence of South Asian music and politics in your work?

Very important. Dr Das was taught tabla by his aunt. Chandrasonic, our guitarist, was taught sitar, so it's intrinsic in the music. We also celebrate classical singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Politically, we do tracks like 'Naxalite', about the militant uprising against feudalism in India. Funnily enough the Liverpool dockers really picked up on that tune. It's really about resistance, which is why the dockers picked it up. 'Assassin' is about Udham Singh, who was hanged by the British for his revenge killing of the British general responsible for the Amritsar massacre in 1919. We wanted to show that there is another side to Indian history - which is militant.

How do you place yourself with respect to 'Asian kool'?

Well, you've got to put it in context - it's not necessarily an Asian thing. The obvious music point is that they needed something new in the early to mid 1990s. Lump us all together and they think we are all the same. We were asked by someone once where our tablas and sitar were and Dr Das simply pointed at a small Japanese box, the sampler, and said it's all in there - an eastern box of delights! You have to deal with the stereotypes and knock them down - like the George Harrison effect, the hippie tendency, daft ambient bands who half-play a tabla and think they are being respectful.

But at the same time it did give some bands a bit of limelight. However, the trouble with being flavour of the month is that once the month's out no one's going to care. So we reject attempts to categorise us as 'Asian kool' or anything. The 'angry' tag is something we have to deal with. Sometimes that can work against you as you are seen as negative, especially by the mainstream press. NME called us 'skunk rock' - that lasted about three weeks and then it was 'political'. What does that mean? What is political? What isn't political?

Asian Dub Foundation will perform in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 17 October, after the anti-war demo which will round off the European Social Forum.