Outsiders may still pigeonhole South Asian culture as bhangra and Bollywood, Punjabi MC and Priyanka Chopra, but, in truth, the region is rife with cultural variety. Pakistan’s electronic music scene is one of the most innovative in Asia. India’s rave scene has progressed rapidly. Politically conscious rap acts like Ahmer and Prabh Deep are rising up in Kashmir, Delhi and beyond.
In Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, culture is thriving: club-heavy dubstep and D’n’B can be heard in the clubs while experimental techno and ambience can be found at festivals next to alternative folk music and blazing hard hip-hop.
There’s history here. For decades, South Asia has played host to pioneering acid house producers (Charanjit Singh), infectious future-facing disco (Rupa), anti-establishment punks (Hoirong, False Flag, Death by Fungi) and more indigenous artists than can be counted.
These scenes often aren’t celebrated outside of South Asia, let alone acknowledged. South Asian faces rarely get photoshoots and profiles, cover stories or recognition, despite the rise of artists like Nabihah Iqbal, Joy Crookes and the incomparable Anik Khan.
This disparity is why I created chalo – a new project from myself and The Jazz Diaries. It’s curated by label head Jitwam and aims to celebrate South Asia’s immense creativity. This week we released a compilation tape celebrating music by South Asian artists across the diaspora and in the region.
There isn’t one singular sound. chalo is a place where visceral hip-hop sits next to lo-fi electronica. Where Qawwali music – a form of Islamic devotional singing – can be heard next to a meditative string quartet. More than anything, it’s an introduction to the glut of South Asian artists.
Listen below and keep reading for a rundown of every artist on the tape.
Since electronic music became India’s de facto avenue to get rich in the industry, most have naturally strayed towards the booming scene. That makes it especially refreshing to hear someone shred the guitar like Kumar Shome. Having played alongside the likes of Sampa the Great, Mulatu Astake and The Cat Empire, Shome’s blend of jazz-funk asks, “what would Prince in a jazz band sound like?”
Sid Vashi’s genre-fusing music is wildly inventive, pulling from disparate strands to create beguilingly soothing melodies. On chalo, this comes to fruition with his radio edit of “Transmission”: glistening synths, a viscous bass and subdued hi-hats layered underneath high-pitched vocals.
Mumbai-based producer Nate08 has been a session bassist for years — you can find the name Nathan Thomas scattered across jazz-funk and singer-songwriter releases in the Indian alternative scene. As a solo artist, there are very few producers in India – arguably even South Asia – who possess his output, melding together wobbling basslines and funk-filled production for a sound that falls somewhere in between desert disco and stoner-doom.
London-based multi-instrumentalist Aroop’s amalgamation of house, disco and broken beat may sound familiar, but nestled deep within each track are the production skills of a highly-skilled artist who draws from Afrobeat, Latin, funk and jazz.
It's hard to quantify Janoobi Khargosh's sound. Nothing in South Asia sounds like this band and its synth-pop of soft guitars and dreamy vocals. Their 2019 album Strangers has been aptly compared to Tame Impala and frontman Waleed Ahmed to Kevin Parker, but that would do an unimaginative disservice to both parties.
A multi-hyphenate artist who flits between disciplines and excels at them all, KAVYA has skirted the edges of the male-dominated music scene for far too long. After gaining recognition as part of the band MOSKO, she’s now carving out her own lane with sweetly alluring alt-pop.
Ethnomusicologist, festival curator, musician, archivist, DJ, producer, singer-songwriter – Natasha Noorani does it all. The Lahore-based musician is the founder of festival Lahore Music Meet and has a side project as Peshkash, archiving Pakistani musical history and ensuring that the rich Qawwali sounds that come from the country aren’t hidden or forgotten. She’s basically holding up the Pakistani cultural scene on her shoulders.
Vancouver-based musician Ujjy has only one full-length album to his name – the achingly vulnerable thank god 4 death, in which he weaves his parents’ voices through his dark, depressive R&B.
Karachi-based producer Asfandyar Khan (AKA TMPST) creates ambient textural tracks and hard-hitting techno. A stalwart leader of the country’s music scene, TMPST has been around for over a decade, and his influence is felt all over the country’s music industry.
MC Kash doesn’t release music anymore. His 2010 song, “I Protest”, brought such furore from an authoritarian Indian government unwilling to allow Kashmiris a voice in a secular, democratic country that they raided his studio. Since then, he’s kept a low profile and his confidantes close because with every incident in Kashmir – and there are a lot – his name is brought up. Without his leadership, many of Kashmir’s musicians wouldn’t exist today.
We had to wait nearly ten years for it, but someone finally lifted MC Kash’s Thor-like mic. Kashmiri artist Ahmer is a bona fide star in the making – there’s real fury in his voice as he recounts the horrors of growing up in one of the world’s most volatile states. His thought-provoking, socially-conscious bars are especially refreshing in an industry overrun with pandering rap-pop.
As one of the co-founders of Pakistan’s future-facing label, Forever South Music, Rudoh has always been a cornerstone of Pakistan’s creative scene. His amalgamation of hip-hop, soul, jazz and house create unique rhythms that squelch with a viscous density.
Mumbai-based musician Kumail is rightfully renowned for his esoteric sound. Whether as a beat maker in the vein of a Stones Throw-signee or performing idiosyncratic jazz with his live band, his penchant for staying outside the box has brought him recognition in international waters.
SWET SHOP BOYS
Arguably South Asia’s biggest export, Swet Shop Boys – comprised of Riz Ahmed, Heems and producer Redinho – stormed the industry with their release of Cashmere in 2016. Though they’ve taken a hiatus since, their influence can still be felt today thanks to their roadmap for how cross-cultural collaboration can move up from the underground.
More Time Records founder and Boiler Room programmer and host Ahadadream has risen up through the British electronic music industry, but it’s his unique take on gqom – especially the hard drum style – that makes him such an exciting figure. Whether he’s collaborating with international peers or crafting those melodies himself, Ahadadream’s production is the sound of a dark, sweaty club at 3 AM.
Talal Qureshi is renowned for his peerless creative output. The rapper, singer, producer and DJ is the soundtrack to warm summer nights underlaid by sultry vocals, but what sets him apart is his refusal to be boxed in and his ability to surprise listeners with almost every release and collaboration.
MadStarBase have a ceiling-threatening sound that is wholly theirs, flipping samples of Bollywood disco tunes played by DJs around the world. You can hear Anant Ahuja and Neal Sekhri’s anthems blasting from of cars in New Delhi and house parties in Toronto.
At the vanguard of what many consider Indo-jazz, Sarathy Korwar’s greatest trick has been to convince others he falls into any category at all. An amalgamation of hip-hop and spoken word, interspersed with influences from his Indian upbringing and overlaid with future-facing soaring instruments, Korwar deservedly won best Independent Album for his album, More Arriving, at the 2020 Independent Music Awards.
PETER CAT RECORDING CO.
Peter Cat Recording Co. were darlings of the Indian underground for nearly a decade before they burst onto the international spotlight with two albums in the last two years. Bismillah, their 2019 album, supplied gorgeous, ornate instrumentation mixed with infectious choruses and underpinned by sumptuous grooves. It’s no surprise that they’re beloved across South Asia and are quickly garnering loyal fans in Europe and elsewhere.
Nabihah Iqbal rarely needs an introduction. The London-based musician signed to Ninja Tune makes music that is singularly hers, with floating electronica mixed with thumping guitars and soft vocals that display the patchwork of her influences.
One of the lesser known names on this compilation, Misbah’s music is self-described as “Urdu pop”, but it sits somewhere between shoegaze and funk, deftly oscillating between both.
You can hear the Qawwali influences in the music of one of Pakistan’s finest groups, especially with their inventive percussion. Their ability to thread together contemporary cultures into a sound is more than remarkable – it’s worthy of international attention.
Have you ever heard J Dilla re-interpreted by Hindustani classical music? Or Nas’s “NY State of Mind” by way of a Qawwali raga? Until Pakistani group Jaubi released their debut EP, The Deconstructed Ego, no one did. Their upcoming album with Tenderlonious is sure to attract more of a wider fanbase.
The debut album of Glasgow-based musician Kapil Seshasayee, A Sacred Bore, tackled class and caste in a way that hadn’t been done before by anyone in the diaspora. A highly underrated artist whose due outside of the UK falls surprisingly short.
One of Pakistan’s most inventive producers, Slowspin alters her voice over ethereal, ambient and dream-like production. Her EP, Unfurls, may seem experimental, but listen closely and you’ll find each layer of the track planted with considerable care.
Consolidate label-head Rahul Giri and his Sulk Station partner Tanvi Rao craft dazzlingly considered and sublime melodies. They’ve only released three EPs, but their 2012 project Till You Appear was arguably one of the decade’s best releases in India.
The famed Star Wars actor is also a rapper whose politically-conscious rhymes about identity have shaped the conversation for South Asian creatives and represented our people, one song at a time.
VS Narasimhan’s work as a composer is visionary, melding together Western and Indian influences with the Madras String Quartet. But it’s his deft work on the violin over the past few decades that has brought generations to their feet in applause.
All proceeds from the compilation go to proceeds from this compilation go towards HRLN and Zindagi Trust.