Follow the Sounds of the Spice Trail...

Meet the South Asian artists who are using their diasporic experiences to transform the Sydney Opera House into a celebration of South Asia’s musical decadence.
Adele Luamanuvae
Sydney, AU

As a ten-year-old in the backseat of my Mum’s old Holden Barina, the bass of Timbaland and Missy Elliott’s iconic “Get Ur Freak On” felt best when my hand was placed upon the car speakers. The booming Indian tabla hand drums and the instantly catchy six-note base melody played on the Punjab tumbi sit underneath Elliott’s bars like kindling while she does what she does best: ignite the song.


“Get Ur Freak On” is one of those songs you would hear everywhere: in the club, in the grocery store, through the headphones of the stranger on the bus. It’s an undeniable bop that only holds bop status for many important reasons, one of them being the sampling of South Asian sounds.

South Asia's richness goes beyond indulgent food dishes, cities of colour, and sensory explosions. Deep in its varying mother tongue lies a language known to all: music.

“There's a lot of flavours to pick up from South Asian music,” British-Punjabi artist Raf-Saperra told VICE.

“Music, for that reason, is just so universal and shapeless.”

Often, South Asian music is enriched by unique vocal styles, alap note bending, the sounds of the sitar, harp, or drums, or the following of raga—a melodic improvisation framework that allows you to “colour your mind.” It’s a free-flowing river, a scarf in the wind of sound that twists and turns, grasping onto human feeling.

Other prolific artists, such as Vince Staples, Yasiin Bey, and M.I.A, have all borrowed and sampled South Asian music independently, transcending geographical separation through one sonic experience. Because it consists of such deep, diverse sounds, South Asian music speaks to the soul and provides a sense of nostalgia that those outside of the community wouldn’t understand. It’s music that takes time to deconstruct and dissect, a genre that's worth breaking through the shell of to see the core. 


For one night only in Sydney’s Opera House, VIVID’s Spice Trail is where the East and West collide. Artists from Sydney, Switzerland, California, and South London are coming together to celebrate their South Asian diasporic experiences through the sounds of their ancestors.

VICE: What are you listening to right now?

Raf-Saperra: At the moment, I'm listening to a lot of sad music. But there's also a Punjabi artist called Satinder Sartaaj I’m listening to. He's an amazing artist and was the first Punjabi to ever perform at the Sydney Opera House. So I'll be one of the second of them.

India via California Carnatic singer Sid Sriram: I've been listening to Ryuji Sakamoto and many of his film scores. Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas. Been going back to Blonde a lot, Frank Ocean, and a lot of Indian classical music.

Tamil-Swiss singer-rapper Priya Ragu: I'm listening to Glass Beams. They're artists from India but based in Australia. They're pretty cool.

What do you think is the most striking part about music from South Asia?

Sid: Even just within the Indian subcontinent, each region of the country has such a different culture, a different music, a different way that people move. So then you go broader, looking at the whole region of southern Asia, and it's exponentially more diverse. From studying Carnatic music, the most striking thing about it melodically is that it's a very different approach from Western or European melodies. We have microtones where you can really slide through certain notes in a way that feels quite different from Eurocentric melodic approaches. Rhythmically, there's a whole system that feels very complex but still has a super dope groove to it. Those two things create very vibrant music.


Bengali-Australian DJ Munasib: Part of it I will never be able to explain or share with anyone. It comes from nostalgia, and it's more feelings-based. The drums speak to my soul. This show incorporates all of the microtones that Western music misses. With Eastern music, we go through every single scale and all the tones in between. Western music doesn't do that. It's really just a combination of the drum patterns, the types of instruments used, and the folk-sounding vocals that you get.

Tell me how identity intersects with your line of work as a musician.

Munasib: When I was younger, being the brown girl, I didn't hate it, but I knew it wasn’t cool, and I wanted to be white. Brown was never seen as a cool thing. And much of it comes from "Oh, the accent sounds stupid”. But we're not supposed to be speaking a white man's language, which is English. That alphabet doesn’t translate. We have some of the most beautiful-sounding languages in the world. And that's what our tongues are made for. 

Although I was consuming all this really rich and beautiful shit in my home life, I never tied them together and thought that I could have a space in the art scene or the creative scene around me because I'm not seen as “cool”. But then I started to lean into what actually made us different. The jewellery, the colours, the sounds, the food – everything is undeniable. I don’t know many other people who are doing a similar thing. I will never run out of inspiration. I can tell my own individual, unique story, which no one else is telling. And that’s something I push in everything I do.


Raf: Being a first-generation Punjabi, we undeniably are kind of in our own space right now. For my brothers and sisters, there is a sense of not completely belonging over there and not completely belonging over here. That's something that boils and bubbles up within a generation and then slowly starts piecing into actual culture. 

Dance music, in the capacity of South Asia sounds, is explosive. I released a dance/UK garage record in 2022 that was influenced by my time going to underground shows and seeing Yung Singh perform. I'm a student, and seeing the community they were pulling up over there shows how eclectic everyone's tastes are. I may be Punjabi, but I know growing up in my school, and my area of southwest London wasn't a heavily Punjabi area. Sometimes, when you live so far away from people of your culture, you kind of start feeling like you're a bit alone in this. You kind of have to hide some stuff. And so combining all those things, all those experiences and perspectives and then finding yourself in a creative field, whether you're an artist, painter, actor, DJ, singer, or producer, those experiences, insecurities, and vulnerabilities will show in your work. And I think that's one of the most beautiful things that I get to live as a vocalist. I think we're in a really nice pocket right now.

Sid: It’s at the very core of it. My mom is an Indian classical music teacher. It was a real blessing growing up with that form of music around me at all times because it allowed me a deep connection to my culture, even when I was far away from the country I was born in. 


There was definitely an identity crisis growing up. We didn't see Indian or South Asian people on billboards, in movies or on the charts. Because of that, it didn't feel like a realistic goal to have to do all of this. But I think the music is what really allowed me to find my way through that. When you come from different places and are of the diaspora, it's easy to fragment your identity and present as "this is the Indian me" and "this is the American me" and keep them separate. But through music, I could destroy that barrier and celebrate the whole spectrum of who I was.

Priya: I feel like this is my life path. Music has helped me discover different sides of myself and my cultural background. I definitely think it takes time for people to understand the music we've created. Because it's a fusion of our different cultural backgrounds, it's still kind of new in the industry. And I think that takes time until it really reaches the people.

What has been the most liberating experience for you so far in music?

Raf: I'm still trying to find that liberation. I feel like my biggest thing is representation. I don't want to be a heritage act or something that gets celebrated for being South Asian. When dope South Asian artists come up, they get celebrated for being South Asian. I'm at a place where I want good artists to be celebrated for being good artists. I think we're fighting the right fight, but it takes a lot of education from our side. But the one thing that I do have right now is the fact that I can sit here and even just speak about these things. Many other South Asian artists had to crawl, and some had to walk to reach this point. I'm growing and learning, and I think that's probably the main thing that I've got right now as a currency.


Sid: Making my album Siddartha. I grew up studying Indian classical music, and I fell in love with R&B and soul when I was around 7 or 8. So much of my life has just been trying to figure out how these different forms of music can live with each other and have conversations with each other. And this album was the first time it felt like I didn't have to think about overthinking. A creative wave just kind of hit in a way that I couldn't deny or ignore. That was liberating because it took away this notion that I control everything. Sometimes, the most liberating feeling is letting go of control and surrendering. And I think the process of making the whole album was exactly that.

Priya: I like that my music is not one genre, and I can create whatever I want. If it's Kuthu or garage or pop, gospel or soul. I just enjoy that freedom of creating whatever I want. I think it's way more difficult to create one genre of music.

Munasib: Once I started to see people connecting with my art or not even connecting but being intrigued by it, that was my driving force to keep going.

When you go into the music-making process, is the intent to make someone feel something, or do you focus on how it makes you feel?

Sid: Self-expression is the only goal. It's a very cathartic kind of exercise – I'm not thinking about how I feel or anyone else really. The moment when I'm really making something that feels special, it feels like my brain has turned off, and I'm just a vessel that's channelling. Those are the times when I think I make my best music. When I start to think about how it will be received, and get in my head about it,  that's when the magic kind of dissipates. Letting myself express as honestly as possible is always the goal.


Priya: Once you put your music out there, you never know how others will perceive it. But it's always different once you're on tour, playing the music live and getting to talk to the fans. Mostly, they relate to the stories and the cultural representation. 

How does it feel to be bringing your sound to Spice Trail?

Sid: Playing at the Sydney Opera House is momentous. I can't wait to perform there for Spice Trail and this lineup of artists. Between myself, Priya and Raf, we're very diverse and different. So I think it really speaks to the fact that as people, there's such a broad, beautiful spectrum of experience and art and music and sound. So I think it's gonna be a really, really special set of performances.

Priya: I never thought that I'd play one day in Australia. It is huge to be able to connect with people and play our music there. You can expect a lot of fun, energy, and oneness.

Munasib: I think now, at this stage, it just makes sense. It’s almost poetic because, for brown people, or any brown family member or cousin or anyone that comes from overseas here, the first thing they do is go to see the Opera House. We always go the next day and take a billion photos, and you start to realise how iconic it is when you see it through the lens of tourists and other people. I'm lucky to be from Sydney, this is my home. And I’ve always had a sweet, beautiful relationship with the building because every time I go, it makes me smile. My Dad brought one of the biggest Bengali artists Runa Laila to the Opera House in the early 2000s – I was 9 or 10. That's so crazy to me, because now I'm working in music, and my dad was also the first person to set me up to play at the Opera House years ago. So now that I'm doing this now, it’s a dream come true.

Astral People Presents Spice Trail at Vivid LIVE will be held on Tuesday, May 28, at the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall. Tickets are available here.

Adele is the Junior Writer & Producer for VICE AU/NZ. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter here.

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