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Category: Interviews
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DJ Siraiki - A pioneer in New York’s South Asian electronica scene has spent close to a decade building audiences around this music, as well as creating ties across the Atlantic to artists on the British Asian Scene. His co-created, ground-breaking almost five year old club night Mutiny has opened doors for new artists and brought in some of the godfathers over stateside for a visit. Here is half of an over dinner interview that lasted about 75minutes. So, be advised its huge :).


AV: How did you get started in this music, where did the interests develop - how did all come about?
S: I grew up in US at the older edge of the second generation and the music that I grew up with was punk rock and 70’s reggae. Those music styles were formative for me, they helped me articulate who I was and gain a political voice. Reggae appealed to me because I had grown up in a household where I had been brought up with a clear sense of Indian colonial history and anti-colonial struggles. It had a third world identity, contained anti-colonial politics and, when you listen to a lot of the tracks from the seventies coming out of Jamaica, there were often references to India and other parts of the world that were decolonizing or had recently decolonized. That music dovetailed with the way that I was brought up and taught to think about my own connection to India. Along with that, punk rock had an energy and intensity that I was looking for and I really connected with. The whole do - it - yourself (DIY) aesthetic was so central to punk rock. It was all about subverting the music at that time; if you had something to say you just formed a band or just started a magazine - so that is something I connected to. There was also this turning point for me when I was 12 years old - one night while watching the nightly news there was a segment about the Sex Pistols while they were touring the US. At the end of the news report there are these two guys from the Sex Pistols and an NBC reporter trying to interview them; they are basically messing with the reporter - there was just this energy and irreverence that I totally connected with - as a 12 year everything got transformed with me and after that I heard Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols the first sex pistols album and that just transformed things to a new level.

Growing up through my teenage years I didn’t really have a punk rock community so it was something I listened to at home. At this time I lived in a town in California called Santa Cruz, which was a regular stop in the Jamaican touring circuit - so I did have more of a community around that music. There were a lot of kids who were into reggae at the time and I saw some of the greats of 70’s reggae come through - this is the end of the 70’s beginning of the 80’s. At the same time as all of that, from the age of 8 or 9 I had been playing the drums from the age of 13 or 14 I had been studying the sitar - so by the time I was 16 I was playing drums in garage bands, punk and post-punk bands and I spent some extended periods of time in India with my family - staying with my uncles and aunts studying the sitar really intensively. At that age I was already trying to figure out some way of bringing those different music’s together. It didn’t seem unnatural to me that I was into both. But, it wasn’t always an easy fit in terms of bringing them together. Also, I really didn’t have a community of South Asian kids around me who understood what I was trying to do with it.

AV: So when did you move out to NYC?
S: In 1989 - I think it was. Bhangra had really hit over here in the US and Canada and that was really the first time there was a music scene that combined elements of the different types of music that I had grown up with - that was specifically of the second generation; it was really exciting but at the same time I was always looking for something more, something different, something beyond that because bhangra was kind of mainstream within the community and there were moments when it was really glitzy - and that went against the grain for me in terms of growing up in punk. So I started looking from other South Asian and British musicians who maybe were on the margins of that musical community and who like me had grown up with punk and reggae and the DIY aesthetic and the same connection between music and politics and that’s what ultimately led me to find out about Fun Da Mental. I figured out that the second generation in Britain had reached a critical mass thus, there must be other kids who grew up with the same music that I did and the same attitude towards music and the same connection between music and politics. I started to seek them out and find out whatever I could about what was going on in Britain on the peripheries of the bhangra scene. The first bands that I started reading about were Fun Da Mental, Corner Shop, Voodoo Queens - which was an all women punk group in which three out of the five women were South Asian british and then a hip hop crew from Manchester called Khalifs. The highest profile at that point was Fun Da Mental.

AV: So share with us, how Mutiny get set up?
S: Well in the process of traveling back and forth between England and America to meet the artists I was also gathering a lot of music. Because, every time I met up with an artist they would give me a stack of vinyl - and the music they were giving me was just impossible to find here - the only other person at that time who I knew was into this music was Dj Rekha. She had managed to get her hands on the first Asian Dub Foundation single and she was playing that and some other Fun Da Mental tracks on a radio program that she was doing at that time on WBAI - so from my trips back and forth - gathering all these records I started bringing doubles and bringing stuff for Rekha and the two of us started spinning them in various places.

AV: How did you know Rekha before Mutiny?
S: I had met Rekha within the community activist circles. Actually the first time we met was oddly enough at this random meeting of an organization that was forming out in Brooklyn for the promotion of Punjabi language and culture - and she was providing the sound system for this meeting. I was there to be introduced to a number of people in relation to the taxi documentary. Then subsequent to that we both met at a couple of organizations that we were involved in. My first opportunities to DJ were at this club night called Abstract - started by Dj Spooky, Dj Sinj and MC Verve - they were the first folks who gave me the opportunity to spin this music. Also through the influence of ADF and talking to them I had started buying a lot of jungle and just got really hooked into it. Jungle took all the music that I had grown up with, in terms of Dub and Reggae and sped up to a speed and intensity that to me was closer to punk. So that’s what I started spinning at Abstract: a combination of jungle and drum n base on the one hand and all these tracks by British Asian bands that I was gathering and it was around that time that Rekha started basement bhangra which was doing really well. After a while I just went to Rekha and said that we need to create another music space to be able to spin all this music that is coming out of Asian Britain which is not bhangra or hindi remixes that most people in the South Asian community aren't aware of.

AV: Was this also done to provide funding for your trips back and for to England for your movie?
S: Well the first couples were done as fundraisers but it was mainly done to have another cultural musical space. Mutiny was started on the one hand as a space where we could play the newer music that was coming out of Asian Britain, a lot of which was at that time was based around drum n base and jungle, but also to create a space where NY based South Asian dj’s and artists could develop their music and an audience for the music - especially those artists who were not as interested in working in the bhangra or remix scene. Initially the first few events that we did - Karsh was there; it was one of the first times he was pulling together a lot of the threads of the music into a more South Asian musical entity - driven by beats. At that time the band that he was working with, in order to develop that music was called Bhom Shankar. Some time later in December, I was on the phone talking Talvin Singh and he said that he was going to be coming to the US in January and that maybe we should do an event, so of course I said yea we would love to do that. So we set it up as fundraiser for the documentary - he was really generous about that and Rekha and I set about promoting this thing like crazy. It was at the Cooler, in addition to Talvin, Bhom Shankar was there, Dj Spooky was there, Dj Mutamassik was there, and Rekha and I were there - and the night of the show we had over a 1000 people come. And the energy was incredibly intense - it just convinced us that this was a space that needed to be there and needed to exist.

AV: So now its five years later, do you guys have something similar planned for your fifth year anniversary?
S: Right now we are looking at a couple of different options, for the fifth year anniversary. Of course we want to do something big - involving both folks from England and folks from here and just blow it out. But, nothing concrete is set yet.

AV: Changing topics here; is their a timeline or anything finalized with the compilation that is in the works, as rumors go?
S:Well, I am not sure about the timeline, I think most of us are at this point are concentrating on making the tracks. And the process of conceptualizing and putting the compilation together is still in its early stages but we are creating the material that obviously is going to be the strength of the album. That in itself is a really crucial thing - I think things are at a crucial juncture now because all of us who are making tracks that have our original sounds and not only that but also sounds that are different from what’s coming from England. Karsh has released his album and has done really well with it and is out there carving certain paths and that’s been a really positive development because it is something that has specifically come out of New York. I think that’s where the future is, when you look at this whole scene and I mean both the scene that is here and in Britain - the next real big push of energy is going to come from all of us here in the States who are doing this and making their own tracks.
AV: Yea it seems that the things coming out of Britain have slowed down quite a bit.
S:Yea but, I think there are a lot of things that are in the works right now in England and I am starting to see that there is going to be a little upsurge in the next couple of years just because the people who have been working on their albums have been getting closer to finishing them. For example Asian Dub Foundation’s next album is probably going to come out either late this year or early next year. Also I know that State of Bengal has been working on a couple of new tracks and Talvin has been working on a new album that I think he is going to put out independently.

AV: So talking about other artists, any plans to include people outside of mutiny in the compilation or is it just strictly Mutiny?
S: Well we have talked a lot about all the different approaches to it, and that could be one approach - to have the folks from England who have played at Mutiny as guests - but it really is too early for me to say.

AV: So how do you as an artist yourself - try to break away from the term Asian Underground. How do you stay from being called that?
S: Well when I am sitting down and making music I am not thinking about how I have to produce music that breaks away from this genre or that one. It’s really about finding and connecting with what’s already inside you and expressing that in whatever you do and not latching on to something outside of you that you are either trying to emulate or trying to break away from. Rather I go about finding my own voice and whats unique about that voice. For me that has been the process of connecting with all the music that I ever grew up with. So when I am making music there are elements of Jamaican dub style baselines that come from my connection with reggae from the age of 13 or 14 you hear South Asian elements particularly tabla and dhol which have the intensity and driving rhythm that are really unique also drones (tanpura and harmonium) which I have always been interested in because I have been interested in the kind of connection between South Asian drones on the one hand and pure distortion on the other. Some distortion even includes little fragments of stuff I record off of news reports - some times I just sit on Saturday morning and record stuff of Eye On Asia, take little phrases and record stuff from CNN such as Bush’s speeches and military experts and just chop all that stuff up. I think that my approach to the music very much comes from my experience of punk rock of just not being bound by rules and just taking everything from everywhere and putting it together and mashing it together and making something work and maybe refining it. So what really attracts me to music of all different kinds and which I aspire to in my own music is intensity and that intensity doesn’t mean necessarily speed - which is the case with a lot of my tracks because they are meant for the dance floor - but you can get just as much intensity out of something that doesn’t have a beat or is slower bpm. Its all about building something that didn’t exist before or building an intensity that exists only because you have pulled things together that add up to something that is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s something I feel is still a process for me and I am still trying to break away my own expectations about my music and trying not to think about the dance floor when I am making tracks and using South Asian elements. I am trying to move away from using elements that are really obvious like a vocal floated over the top of something but, rather chopping that vocal up into little bits and integrating it in a way that is a bit more experimental, a bit more challenging and a bit more true to myself.

AV: So talking about compositions - are there any other artists that you are working with to produce music?
S: Yea, well Navdeep and I have done and are continuing to develop a live act that brings together on his side turn tables and tablas, and on my side turn tables and sampler sequencer - I work with a Roland SP 808 - it has 16 pads of sampling plus the sequencer and affects unit. So when we play live its all of those elements together. So what you are hearing is some tracks that we are spinning off of records that we are adding layers to both through Navdeep’s scratching and tabla and also through various samples that I am playing off of the sampler. And then that’s added to some tracks that are our own original tracks, which we have usually burnt onto a CD and are playing either wholly or partly off the CD and then again adding layers to it. There are also tracks that I am playing directly off the sampler sequencer that are primarily my tracks and samples but with Navdeep playing tabla. So that has been great and it’s been a direction that we felt we just had to go into - having not just the dj’s but also the live elements. And then in addition to that I have been working with Chandrasonic from Asian Dub Foundation - originally there was this point in 1999 when ADF were touring in the US and they were just finishing the tour at the same time I was scheduled to go and show the rough cut of my documentary to a festival in Chicago. And I was talking to Chandrasonic about it and he said "I need a break from the touring so, I’d love to come to the film festival." So we arranged for him to come to the festival, we screened the documentary together and did a question and answer session afterwards and that night we did a set together at the after party to the festival where Chandrasonic was on guitar and affects and I was playing turntables and another little sequencer that I had where I was playing some of my own tracks. And it just went so well that we decided that we had to keep doing it whenever we could. Which isn’t that often. But, that gave rise to other events. We did that again at Summer Stage where we opened for Roni Size and then after that we started trying to pass files over the internet - like little samples and that was not the easiest way of working. So, the last time I was in England we actually sat down and started working on a track - it was a track that I had started working on right before I had gone to England and we took elements from it and resampled them into his set up and started working on it together - and that is kind of half way done at this point and hopefully we will get a chance to finish that off sometime in the next few months. It’s something that both of us are interested in continuing to do whenever and however we can. Then most recently dj Spooky and I did this thing where we exchanged with each a series of unfinished elements - I gave him some beats and samples from a track that I had just started and he likewise gave me some from an unfinished track - so we are doing a project where I am building a track out of his elements and he is building a track out of mine, and hopefully sometime in the near future that will get finished and release as a double sided single.

AV: So are there any other instrumentalists besides Navdeep and Chandrasonic that you are or will be working with?
S: I haven’t hooked up with anyone yet - I have done work with a hip-hop spoken word artist Mike Laad and we have done a couple of performances together - he isn’t an instrumentalist but he is a producer and vocalist. In terms of instrumental elements including South Asian instruments - no besides working with Navdeep I haven’t connected up with any other instrumentalists - it is something that I am interested in but for me personally also because there was a point in my life when I was intensively studying the sitar and its been many years but I still have it so incorporating it into my music is a possibility - though I think the way that I would incorporate it - I would really try to work with it in a way which people haven’t in the past - weather that is going to involve more electronics and affects or what - I don’t know. I feel that with a few important exceptions the sitar has often been used in a way that its just a little bit of exotic window dressing on a track - I think that the sitar because of the 60’s is so coded - people hear a little twang of a sitar and there are automatically certain connotations with it that are much more about the late 60’s and the early 70’s. So if I do incorporate sitar I would really try to think about how I can do that in a way that breaks out of the expectations. Probably anger some purists by doing that.

AV: With that last statement - how do you react to someone who is angry about the usage of classical sounds in this new format?
S: Well with any new style of music there will always be people who are unhappy about something. But, culture is not something that is static, it is constantly evolving and moving forward and changing - I don’t see the newer forms of music that are coming out of the diaspora as replacing or threatening classical music - they are just expanding it to different types of music that are possible. Particularly outside of South Asia.

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