Metropolitan Life: The best of both worlds

After Indie pop comes Hindi pop: Emma Cook on why the music business is plugging in to the new Asian sounds
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Three weeks ago singer Bally Sagoo made pop history when his Hindi single "Dil Cheez" entered the UK Top 40 at number 12. So far the record has sold around 35,000 copies and, more significantly, Sagoo's presence in the charts has marked something of a breakthrough; he is signed to a major label - Columbia - and is consequently the first Asian artist to cross over to the mainstream successfully. Ever keen to pinpoint the Next Big Thing, music pundits are already predicting that Hindi pop will soon be snapping at the heels of indie pop, and certainly there are signs that Sagoo's success is not an isolated case: Stereo Nation reached number 53 in August with a Punjabi track and last month Trickbaby got to 47 with their Hindi-language single "Indie Yarn". At the commercial end of the spectrum Sagoo has already sold over 20 million records - last weekend he supported Michael Jackson at his Bombay concert. "As more white people listen to my music they realise it's not just about tablas and sitars. I'm influenced by soul, R&B, I've also got black rappers on my record," he says. "I think the doors are opening now."

In particular, Trickbaby, described in this month's Vox magazine as the "groovy bastard children of Transglobal Underground, Dee-lite and erm, Spice Girls",are also keen to fuse Asian tradition with quintessential pop. Their lead singer Yasmin explains: "I don't feel we're responding to a new wave in Asian music - it's simply what comes out of our own creativity. We were weaned on Indian cinema and it's inevitable that we'd pick up on that." Their single "Indie Yarn" is about a girl who doesn't share her parent's taste in a potential husband. "I don't mind that people pick up on our Asian background," she says. "We're playing games with it as much as anything else."

Although the girls have formed their own record label, Mars, they are part of the larger label Arista, which is certainly one reason for their commercial success. So much Indian music is issued through obscure labels and sold in non-chart return outlets, it can never achieve wider exposure. Music journalist and broadcaster Raj Ghai explains: "One of the biggest problems is that there's no bar code on any of the records and all the outlets are corner shops, video shops or butcher shops." Small wonder Sagoo is urging his Asian fan base to buy from chart-return retailers - if he can convert his established following into record units, the profit will undoubtedly be huge. "It's down to people going into these shops and backing the music," he enthuses.

But there are those who feel passionately about the Asian music scene and view this drive for mainstream success with some scepticism. Aki runs Nation Records, an eclectic dance label that has always championed underground world music and also fronts Fun-Da-Mental, a politicised, pan-cultural group. He feels that chart-topping Asian music will be, by definition, unrepresentative. "I'd prefer it if a mainstream act was actually acknowledged as an Asian thing and the music had some integrity and creativity. A lot of Asians feel that what's there is diluted and it's not what we're about."

Instead, he would like to see Asian electronic acts like Joi, Asian Dub Foundation or State of Bengal achieving more universal popularity. "They have a large element of culture in their music and that side should have more representation." Despite the fact that the pop market is exploring Asian music, Aki feels that prejudice in the retail industry is still rife. "Larger records shops often don't handle our records because they say no Asian people are buying them. That type of response makes me angry and that goes into my music."

It seems that the British concept of Asian music is still relatively cliched - one that is still conditioned to expect a traditional fare of tablas and sitars usually tacked on to a distinctly Western sound. "Personally I think it's really sad that other Asian stuff hasn't broken through," says Ghai. "Singing in Hindi or making bhangra music is not what it's all about. I've got bands out there who sound like Cypress Hill."

Part of the problem is that since the Beatles first romanticised Asian music over 30 years ago, the sound is more usually associated with hippy nostalgia. And now it's happening all over again with the new generation of revivalist bands, most notably Kula Shaker - whose fourth single "Govinda" is sung in Sanskrit. But revisiting George Harrison territory is unlikely to encourage people to listen to the more left-field area of Asian music. Q magazine features editor John Aizlewood sees no link between revisionist Sixties bands and the Asian music scene. "Every five years or so the music industry reinvents itself. But sticking a sitar on Western music doesn't mean it's Asian," he says.

Yet this underrates current developments on the music scene, where artists like Taivin Singh are fusing East and West sounds in a way that makes Kula Shaker sound prehistoric. Singh has worked with Bjork and Massive Attack and runs a club called Anokha at London's Blue Note. "We've been developing a whole Asian movement and underground is going overground now. I see it like Indian food. It's 20 years behind - what the English think is wonderful curry is different to what the Asians think." Singh appears to be bridging that cultural gap extremely successfully and is about to release Sounds of the Asian Underground through Island Records. "We're using their expertise in putting the music out but we insist on total creative control." Which is, as he says, really the best of both worlds.