From punk to rap: Explore the desi sounds of South Asia

From punk to rap: Explore the desi sounds of South Asia

In perspective: Chee Malabar, Brooklyn Shanti, Saraswathi Jones, the Kominas and Shahid Buttar
07 Feb, 2016

How do you make sense of the notion “home” when you don’t where your homeland is? How do you reconcile the colour of your skin or your creed with a culture that sees only in stereotypes? How do you achieve that fine balance between the culture of your parents and that of your peers? Or do you even care? To whom do you swear your allegiance when your father’s country is a dim memory and your new land turns against you and “your type”?

This week we listen in on a few expatriate South Asians as they try to answer these questions through their music.

Chee Malabar | Postcards from Paradise Take 2

Chee Malabar arrived in California via Mumbai at the age of 12. As he shared in an article for Scroll, rap music was the “spine” that supported him through a hellish childhood in a strange land – a support his immigrant family was unable to provide.

This rap is seriously good. A cascade of remembered shards of Indian street life—many of them described with a frankness a non-native could not get away with—builds into a stinging critique of blind faith, karma, indifference, intolerance and the colonial past. The postcards of paradise – of the Taj Mahal and the Ganges – it turns out “weren’t meant for me”.

Still the divided loyalties of the immigrant are not so easily dismissed. The song’s central refrain – “Something like love/ something like hope/something like beautiful” – is deeply moving and intimate. A genuinely powerful work.

Brooklyn Shanti | Rani Rani

Brooklyn Shanti proclaims that he makes music from “tropical regions”. A producer of eclectic sounds – a recent effort is titled, “Soviet Bhangra” – Brooklyn is a Bengali American who also has been known to trade under the name of DJ Nabin. In addition to producing the warm sounds of the tropics, a second mission in life is to promote the music and culture of his motherland in as many parts of the world as possible.

This lilting track is an example of the DJ’s approach: reggae, Bengali lyrics and poppy guitar. Clearly Brooklyn Shanti is comfortable within his immigrant skin.

Saraswathi Jones | Mother Tongue

When I first observed Saraswathi Jones, also a Bengali American, standing demurely (even a bit awkwardly) in conservative sari before a small live audience, holding a big bluish guitar my instinctive thought was: you got to be kidding.

But the ballsy way she strummed her instrument and her bluesy voice blew me clean out of the water.

Ms. Jones’s singing echoes with the tones of Marianne Faithfull, the lyrical strength of Ferron and the unexpected power of Usha Uthup. Her delivery of the lyric – ‘Don’t lose your mother tongue/you were born today/don’t lose the one thing they can’t take away – is cutting, playful and utterly compelling.

As her gorgeously made-up eyes twinkle, Saraswathi lays out what must be one of the essential conversations the immigrant home: fear of losing touch with “our culture”. “You’re in the papers/on the national scene/but you’re forgotten in the new regime/you’re a flash in the pan on the screen/ don’t lose your mother tongue/ you were born today.”

The Kominas | Sharia Law in the USA

Turbo charged and proudly politically incorrect Boston’s popular Muslim punkers, The Kominas have been fighting in the emotional trenches for years.

A group of Pakistani immigrants that came together in post-911 America, The Kominas musical purpose seemed to be an attempt to re-negotiate their place in a suddenly hostile and hysterical America. With provocative lyrics guaranteed to get the fatwas and arrest orders flowing, Sharia in the USA resurrects the raw rage of the Sex Pistols as well as some of the prankster activism of 80s cult heroes, The Dead Kennedys.

Shahid Buttar | NSA vs USA

A lawyer, an activist, a poet, a journalist, a thinker and a rapper. Shahid Buttar, whose blood is Pakistani, Afghan, Iranian with dollops of French and British, has the most impressive curriculum vitaes of all of this week’s artists.

For many immigrants, the journey from one country and tradition to another is essentially about securing a better life for the next generation. “Contribute, fit in (without forgetting your mother tongue of course) and don’t cause waves” seems to be the formula.

Obviously, Shahid didn’t get that particular memo.

If this hard-hitting rack is any indication, he has completely internalised the American (too infrequently exercised) right to speak out and protest an overreaching government. In doing so, Buttar, unlike the others, seems to give no importance to his identity as a South Asian immigrant. The only group he wants to renegotiate space for is America’s citizens. His message is pretty basic: a people (immigrant or native) cannot be free whilst its government surveils their every move.

The article first appeared on and has been reproduced with permission