Beyond Bhangra

The seventh UK Asian Music Awards are proof that the scene has finally moved above ground, says Rahul Verma

'We started the UK Asian Music Awards because we sat at the Mobos eight years ago and thought, 'Hold on, where are our awards? Who's representing us?' says Jay Shah, co-founder and creative director of the UK Asian Music Awards (Ukama).

The seventh awards take place next Thursday at London's Royal Festival Hall, and you're unlikely to find as eclectic a show anywhere in the British music calender: the evening will feature Bishi's glam sitar-folk, So Solid's Sef and Romeo, singer and producer Jim Beanz (Timbaland cohort behind 2008's Eurovision winning song), hysteria-inducing US R&B boy band Jagged Edge, as well as bhangra heroes past (Alaap's Channi), present (Juggy D) and future (H Dhami), among many others.

"Bishi opening the show this year is a good look – our logo is a sitar and that's the instrument she plays, so she's a perfect fit. We've tried to get more of a mix into programming because people still perceive the Ukamas as a 'Desi' [bhangra] awards show,' explains Shah. "It's a tricky balance to strike because the Desi side is important because of its popularity with the youth but we are broadening it out."

Nihal Arthanayake who with Bobby Friction has been championing contemporary Asian-fusion music since 2002 in their weekly Radio 1 "Asian Beats" show believes the line-up and nominations reflect the scene's increasing strength, depth and variety.

"I'm a Ukama judge and it's really interesting that artists like Fusing Naked Beats, Nitin Sawhney and M.I.A are in the nominations. That shows the breadth of the music there is. Five years ago you wouldn't have had that. And 10 years ago there was the idea that Asians don't listen to alternative music – only hip hop, R&B and bhangra," explains Nihal.

It's the second year that the awards are taking place at the Royal Festival Hall, and its passage from the first show at the Hammersmith Palais speaks volumes and mirrors the growing clout of artists with Asian origins.

"The awards are now at such a high quality level it takes place at the heart of the arts establishment not in a community centre in Slough," says Nihal. "You can't ignore the fact that Asian artists are getting huge respect – M.I.A's made a massive impact, Nitin Sawhney recently recorded with Paul McCartney and Jay Sean has signed to Lil' Wayne's Cash Money Records.

"I was talking to Jay Sean who said Busta Rhymes came up to him at the Grammys and said, 'I love what you do.' Could you name a British artist who could take to the stage with Jay Z, T.I. and Lil' Wayne? Maybe Chris Martin? But that's exactly what M.I.A did," he continues. "These two have achieved more than anyone from the British urban scene – they are absolutely huge developments for British artists, let alone Asian artists. Now of course M.I.A and Jay Sean are poles apart but if you factor in the Slumdog phenomenon, there's definitely something going on."

Everywhere you look Asian artists are making waves, whether actor/rapper Riz MC; rapper Orifice Vulgatron and his Foreign Beggars; Sukh Knight's Eastern-dubstep; singer/ songwriter Bat For Lashes; Glaswegian bhangra stalwarts Tigerstyle being embraced by producers Switch and Sinden; or Yorkshire; RDB, who secured (and produced) Snoop Dogg in the title song of Bollywood blockbuster Singh Is Kinng.

Friction, who as well as his Radio 1 show with Nihal hosts three hours of underground music on four weeknights on the BBC Asian Network, believes the scene is blossoming.

"It's part of the progression from the Asian underground 10 years ago through to the bhangra phase of Panjabi MC to where we are now.Now the hard-drive of my laptop is overloaded with brilliant music whereas 10 years ago Talvin Singh's Anokha – Sound of the Underground (1997) was amazing but was the best 20 tracks in existence. Now I get 50 MP3s a month that I would put out if I had a label."

Nihal agrees: "The scene is absolutely evolving, if you listen to our show you're going to hear grime, d&b, house, electro, dubstep and a huge range of music."

Friction also points out that the UK is the heartbeat of 21st-century Asian-influenced music among the Indian diaspora, and the motherland too. "Indians in Canada and America, and young people in India, all look to Britain to see what's happening, we have the most developed, happening and exciting music scene."

With support from satellite TV channel B4U – widely watched in India, Britain, UAE, America and Canada – Shah's plans for establishing the Ukama brand abroad and hosting international concerts are within reach: "We will be doing a Ukama Winners Tour in Dubai and India and we hope to be established in Dubai, Canada and India over the next three years. So many of our artists are huge out in India already. Trickbaby, who opened our show last year, are doing Bollywood soundtracks and their last video starred Bollywood A-listers, Abhishek Bhachan and Priyanka Chopra.

"If you look at the impact artists like M.I.A and films like Slumdog Millionaire are making on a global level, how Bollywood has embraced our artists, there's a real sense of things happening," says Shah.

The UK Asian Music Awards, The Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, 5 March (www.theukama.com)

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