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Friday, April 18, 2008

Asian Dub Foundation's cracked reflection shifts the agenda


Special to The Japan Times

"Most world leaders have been on drugs," says Steve Chandra Savale, aka Chandrasonic, guitarist for ragga-breakbeat-punk collective Asian Dub Foundation.

Asian Dub Foundation
Asian Dub Foundation (Steve Chandra Savale second from left) PHOTO COURTESY OF DANCE ALIVE

"It's quite documented. Winston Churchill was on speed, JFK was on steroids, and, of course, most Russian leaders, particularly Yeltsin, were complete alcoholics. Supposedly when Brezhnev ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, he was drunk."

Savale is talking me through the inspiration for "Altered Statesman," a song from ADF's sixth album, "Punkara," which was released here last month. Their new record finds the band on typically raucous form, trading politically conscious raps over their trademark fusion of bhangra beats, dub bass and distorted guitars.

It's their first release since the departure of bassist and cofounder Dr. Das, who left to resume teaching music and pursue other projects, while the group's constantly rotating lineup of frontmen has ditched rapper MC Spex and vocalist Ghetto Priest and taken on Al Rumjen, formerly of ska-punk act King Prawn, and MC Aktarv8r, rejoining after a three-year hiatus. Savale — who has been with ADF since 1994 himself — sees these reshuffles as a healthy process.

"People come in fresh and they have a lot of ideas, so there are a lot of new sources to tap," he explains. "We're lucky in the sense that the group combines so many different musical styles anyway — naturally, without even thinking about it — that we can dip into many different fields and it still sounds like us."

While 2005's "Tank" had a distinct soundsystem feel to it, the new album comes closer to the fevered energy of ADF's live shows, with Rumjen's influence felt in the liberal smattering of pop hooks. The lyrical focus, too, has shifted a little from the tub-thumping of old: there's nothing here to rival the vitriol of earlier polemics such as "Fortress Europe," "Free Satpal Ram" and "Naxalite" (named after the Indian revolutionary Communist movement).

"We're not artists in the service of the party or anything like that," says Savale. "We made two albums which were basically about the war in Iraq and 9/11, and now most of the world agrees with us. So what exactly is the point in harping on about it?"

So while "Punkara" can't resist such hot-button issues as the global energy crisis ("Super Power") and oppressive state control ("Radar"), there's also the aforementioned politicians-on-drugs ditty and tongue-in-cheek lead single "Burning Fence." The latter is based on the J.G. Ballard novel "Millennium People," a satire in which the polite middle classes of Greater London turn to terrorism. Key line: "Here comes a Molotov latte."

"It's almost like a cracked-mirror version of ADF," Savale says. "It's like writing about the opposite of the people we normally write about."

The album's most audacious moment, though, comes in the form of a cover of punk godfathers The Stooges, featuring that band's Iggy Pop on vocals. Genre purists will probably be appalled by the end results, but Savale seems mighty pleased with them. "We met (at a music festival) in Croatia," he recalls, "and he really loved the band. I said, just as a joke the next morning, 'I can imagine a bhangra version of "No Fun." ' And he said (deep American accent) 'Yeah, let's do it man.' "

The recording process was quite a change from the last project with which he was involved. In 2004, the English National Opera caused a stir when it announced it was to start work on an opera about the life of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, with Savale commissioned to provide the music. "Gadhafi: A Living Myth" was billed as a genre-busting exercise that would bring opera to new audiences, but after a troubled gestation period, its premiere in late 2006 was met with almost universal critical derision.

"It was probably the weirdest experience of my whole life," he says. "I did some amazing things: I went to Libya and was the guest of the government and stuff." Though a meeting with Gadhafi himself was planned, security considerations prevented it from coming to fruition.

Perhaps inevitably, it was the bigwigs in charge who ultimately derailed the project. "I got to work with some great musicians, got some great music," Savale recounts. "But I honestly have to say that the people there (at the ENO) were a bunch of pillocks. It was very difficult: They had a completely different conception of it. They thought they had something that was politically correct and young-person oriented."

Still, he has no regrets: "If someone comes and says, 'Hey, do you want this amount of money to do this?' you're not going to say no, are you?"

Asian Dub Foundation play May 29 at Club Quattro, Nagoya ([052] 264-8211); May 30 at Namba Hatch, Osaka ([06] 6535-5569); and June 1 at Studio Coast, Tokyo ([03] 5766-6571). All shows start 7 p.m., tickets ¥6,000 in advance.


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