State of Bengal
SIX days ago, the news came as a sudden shock to those who knew the man and his music. Sam Zaman, the UK-based Bangladeshi DJ who went by the name State of Bengal, passed away after a cardiac arrest. He was best known for his tracks ‘Flight IC408’ and ‘Chittagong Chill’, the album ‘Visual Audio’, his pathbreaking collaborations with the Ananda Shankar Experience and Paban Das Baul, and remixes of works by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Massive Attack, Bjork and Algerian musician Cheb i Sabbah. While initial reports said he was 43, Wikipedia put his age as 50.
State of Bengal was one of the early stars of the UK-based Asian Underground scene, whose popularity among a cult audience was largely attributed to the efforts of producer and tabla player Talvin Singh. The popular club Anokha was founded by Talvin with promoter Sweety Kapoor, and the compilation ‘Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground’ was a success.
The movement, which peaked between late 1995 and 1999, essentially comprised musicians from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka who blended rootsy traditional music from the sub-continent with modern club styles like drum n’ bass, jungle, house, ambient, triphop and 90s electronica. After Talvin got the 1999 Mercury Music Prize for his album ‘OK’, the style received a further boost. However, while most musicians continued to produce music on a personal level, the sub-genre as such slowly faded away.
Till the turn of the century, there was a lot of innovative music by Asians in London and Birmingham. Besides Talvin and State of Bengal, artistes like Bangladeshi band Joi and Indian songstress Amar were labelled Asian Underground. The former had an excellent album ‘One and One is One’, but after the death of member Haroon Shamsher, his brother Farook continued to work on his own. Amar, along with State of Bengal, was one of the early acts to play in Mumbai, with a memorable show at Juhu’s then-hotspot Razzberry Rhinoceros in the late 1990s.
There were others who used a similar amalgam but preferred to be associated with the ‘British Asian’ sound, rather than be described as ‘Asian Underground’ artistes. While Asian Dub Foundation, Aki Nawaz’s Fun-Da-Mental and Tjinder Singh’s Cornershop were among the first to use such sounds in the early 1990s, Nitin Sawhney, Badmarsh & Shri and later Karsh Kale were all part of this effort to promote Asian music in the UK. Sawhney, in particular, had – and still has – a huge following, thanks to his albums ‘Beyond Skin’ and ‘Human’, and also his contribution to films and television. Through regular appearances in India, Kale has successfully broken through among the audiences here.
Besides these groups, others used the Asian Underground influence too. Zakir Hussain’s Tabla Beat Science, featuring producer Bill Laswell, and Talvin’s Tablatronic project mixed north Indian rhythms with Asian underground and electronica influences. Foreign acts like Cheb i Sabbah and Transglobal Underground, featuring Natacha Atlas of Belgium, used a lot of south Asian sounds.
Whether they were called Asian underground or British Asian, their music was a far cry from the commercial sound of UK-based artistes like Apache Indian (who used more reggae), Bally Sagoo (Bollywood remixes), Malkit Singh and Panjabi MC (both bhangra), and Tarsame Singh of Stereo Nation (pop-friendly tunes). The basic formula the Underground lot used was a more club-oriented extension of the fusion concept, retaining the basic melodies from the Indian sub-continent and yet being modern and energetic enough to cater to western listeners.
While the bhangra brigade was followed even in India, the Asian Underground and British Asian were followed more in the UK, and very selectively in Indian metros. The chunk of the audience comprised either UK-bred youngsters of Asian origin whose parents had grown up on Hindi film music, Indian classical or ghazals, or of people who travelled to the UK or mainland Europe and soaked in the latest club sounds there. As the name suggests, it was an underground sound, and not a mainstream one. Yet, it was something that was considered cool and happening by the young crowd.
Unfortunately, the glory days didn’t last long. To begin with, the Asian Underground musicians concentrated on DJing and playing in clubs. They released very few albums in comparison to their pop and bhangra counterparts, and thus lost out on those who preferred home listening. Though they had a few shows in India, the number and frequency of concerts was inadequate.
Even otherwise, the tastes of audiences changed towards the beginning of the 2000s. Indipop was becoming passé, and bhangra was getting repetitive. Indians across the globe were opting for a pure Bollywood sound, which had begun relying on Punjabi and Sufiana-inspired hooks. Even within international dance music, there was a shift towards celebrity DJs like Paul Van Dyk, Sasha and Paul Oakenfold.
Yet, though the genre lost its sting, the musicians continued to create new stuff. Asian Dub Foundation and Nitin Sawhney continued recording regularly, their last albums being released in 2013. Besides electronica and club music, Talvin Singh started focusing more on classical tabla playing, releasing albums with flautist Rakesh Chaurasia and sitar exponent Niladri Kumar.
As for ‘State of Bengal’ Sam Zaman, he released his last album ‘Skip-Ij’ in 2007, but has thereafter spent time DJing, doing session work, teaching music and conducting workshops. Musicians who knew him admired his keenness to experiment with sounds and his knowledge of traditional folk forms. He shall be missed, especially by those who followed the Asian Underground movement and 1990s UK club scene closely.