Power to the small massive: Asian Dub Foundation @ WOMAD Singapore

29 Aug

Friday, 24 Aug 2007

Reviewed by Kirat Kaur

They came, they sang, they played, they rocked! After years of relying on their music as an outlet for anger against oppression and as inspiration to work for social change, it was the most wonderful experience to finally see them perform live. Their 1 hour 20 minute set consisted of some new tracks from their upcoming album as well as a good mix of songs from their previous albums. My favourite was Fortress Europe – that song just lends itself so well to a live performance. It was angsty, angry and resistance-fuelled. My least favourite was the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan track, Taa Deem. It was cool that they wanted to pay tribute to him; after all, it’s his 10th year death anniversary. But to be honest, the performance straddled the line between music and noise a bit too closely for me. I think the recorded track works well because you can clearly hear the beautiful fusion of qawwali, rock, punk, etc, whereas there was too much feedback and audience cheering in the live session to get a full sense of the composition.

I liked that they picked a lot of songs with socio-political messages to perform – besides Fortress Europe, they also sang Rise to the Challenge, Kill Racism and a new track about those getting left behind and trampled on in India’s impending rise to superpower status, before ending the night with Rebel Warrior. Musically, I realized that it’s really in the live performance that their unique and label-defying style comes through. Simply seeing the DJ booth, tabla, electric guitar and dhol on one stage complemented by smooth vocals with a dose of hardhitting lyrics was a phenomenon in itself. Without having to deconstruct their sound, listening to their performance of Riddim I Like proved their musical credentials like nothing else could.

Even while ADF’s musical style is a constant reminder that South Asians don’t all play the sitar and sing in ululating aahs (and smell like curry and live in ashrams and…), they continue to push the envelope all on musical fronts in their explorations of hybridity. I particularly enjoyed the way in which the tabla and dhol were pretty much the percussionist backbones of their music. Having now taken a few dhol classes myself, it was exciting to see how the traditional beats blended with the other instruments and how new beats were created to work in the context of their sound.

Throughout the concert they kept up a lively engagement of the audience. For example, during portions of songs where the music stopped to allow for Hindu spiritual incantations, they would raise their arms into the air, point their faces to the sky and assume a position of spiritual reverence, encouraging the audience to do the same. It was funny because I think it was meant to be at least partly in jest – a subtle parody of religious dogma and unthinking compliance, but I’m not sure if most of the audience ‘got’ that.

In fact, I’m not sure if most of the audience ‘got’ ADF at all. This is the only thing that tempered the experience of the performance for me. As with criticisms of other such music festivals, the crowd was made up mostly (and this is of course a gross assumption based solely on physical appearance, accents, snatches of overheard conversations, my limited social network and the steep $58 ticket price) of Western expatriates, kids of Western expatriates, university students and middle class 20/30/40somethings. Since I currently fit into the last category, I implicate myself and interrogate my own social position in my critique of the audience as well.

The beauty of music, and of all art for that matter, is in its ability to elicit enjoyment at many different levels and from many different perspectives. There are no laws against enjoying music on a purely superficial level. Political music, however, wants to do more than simply elicit pleasure. It wants to ask questions, raise awareness, it wants to criticize, educate, surface alternatives and explore other possibilities, and it wants to move people and inspire them to action. The depressing thing is I’m not sure if ADF accomplished that on Friday night. It was clear that most of the people around me did not know ADF’s music – most didn’t seem to recognize the song titles when they were announced and weren’t mouthing the song lyrics. Worse, there was an obvious disconnect between what the band what trying to say and what the audience understood. For instance, when a band member said “We want something from you… We want your oil! Sound familiar?”, I turned and saw “huh?” looks on the faces of the group of people standing next to me. And when introducing the song about India’s poor, they started talking about how some people are saying that India is going to be the next world superpower, and people actually starting cheering. The band looked disgusted and one band member groaned, “No, no, no. That’s not necessarily a good thing. We want equal power for everyone!” Towards the end when they were about to start singing Fortress Europe and said, “This song is for all immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers everywhere”, the cynic in me began to wonder how many of the people who cheered were really Singaporeans who mutter under their breath about losing jobs to foreign talent and who chose to blind themselves to the Bangladeshi workers shuttled in on lorries at the end of the night for clean-up.

All in all, though, it was a good evening and I’m glad I finally got to see ADF perform live. One can only hope that for the members of the audience at WOMAD who had never before been exposed to ADF’s music, that their ADF concert experience would at least propel them to dig deeper into and find out more about the band and hopefully, their broader political message. In the meantime, watching the Asian Dub Foundation perform might just have restored a little bit of my own commitment to fighting injustice and reinvigorated the spirit of resistance that I thought I was coming close to losing.

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One Response to “Power to the small massive: Asian Dub Foundation @ WOMAD Singapore”

  1. Channi Singh March 1, 2008 at 9:09 pm #

    Wonderful Review, Just Beautiful.

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