Invisible superstars

They've made their mark in film, literature, business, food. But where are Britain's Asian pop stars? Thriving, reports Ian Burrell - though you wouldn't know it from the charts
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The Independent Culture

She had a bindi spotted on her brow and was clothed in a sari, but the sight of a beautiful Indian girl demonstrating her stunning vocal range on Britain's favourite music show was such a cultural anomaly that even members of her own community refused at first to believe that she was Asian.

She had a bindi spotted on her brow and was clothed in a sari, but the sight of a beautiful Indian girl demonstrating her stunning vocal range on Britain's favourite music show was such a cultural anomaly that even members of her own community refused at first to believe that she was Asian.

It was April 1982, and Sheila Chandra was 16 years old and just out of school. David "Kid" Jensen was presenting Top of the Pops as she became the first Asian singer to perform on the programme. The Goombay Dance Band were at No 1 with "Seven Tears" and Margaret Thatcher was in her first term as prime minister.

It was supposed to be a seminal moment in the history of British popular music. Monsoon, Chandra's group, were seen as the breakthrough act that would pave the way for the arrival on the British music scene of a flood of performers from the offspring of parents who had arrived from the Indian subcontinent in the Fifties and Sixties to form the country's largest ethnic minority communities.

Yet more than two decades on, Britain has yet to produce a single Asian artist who can credibly claim to be a household name (unless you count Freddie Mercury, whose Zanzibari ancestry was unknown to many of his own fans). When Mojo magazine this month picked its top 100 moments in modern music, not one Asian artist was featured.

Monsoon were released by their record label - which, bizarrely, asked Chandra to change her name to Boo - seven months after reaching No 9 in the charts. "Phonogram was pushing for us to be less Indian-influenced," the singer says. "We refused because that was our raison d'être. They felt it was too risky." In the Eighties, no other Asian artists made it into the mainstream charts. The title of Monsoon's hit, "Ever So Lonely", had carried a certain irony.

Today, even Nitin Sawhney, probably Britain's best-known Asian artist, admits that he "still cannot be regarded as part of the mainstream". And he has six albums and 14 awards, including a nomination for the Mercury music prize, to his credit.

"It's almost like it's impossible for an Asian artist to break through to the level where you could walk into a hairdresser's and mention [the artist's] name and everybody would know them," Sawhney says. "It's a shame. Where's the support for Asian artists? There isn't any. There's no chance to get to that level."

Sawhney realised that he faced an uphill struggle when he first came to prominence as a member of the jazz-based James Taylor Quartet more than a decade ago. "Do you think we should have a Paki in the band?" was one comment he heard from a music industry employee. When Sawhney's work was recognised by the Mercury prize in 1999, he walked into a music shop to look at his CD racked alongside other award nominees, only to find it was missing. He later tracked down Beyond Skin, tucked away in the World Music section.

The reasons for the failure of Asian artists to reach a level where their appearance at a local record store would arouse mild interest among Middle England shoppers - let alone send them into a frenzy of excitement - are many and complex. Not only is this a story that highlights the reluctance of the British record-buying public to look beyond cultural and linguistic differences; it is also a tale of cynical marginalisation by the British record industry, which it may come to regret in these times of global recession in music sales.

What it is not, is a story of a lack of talent. Britain is the creative hub of the worldwide market in Asian music, with individual artists achieving six-figure album sales across a global diaspora. Furthermore, the hybrid sounds of the current generation of British Asian artists and producers - fusing the favourite R&B, hip-hop and dancehall sounds of the English inner cities with the musical traditions of Punjab - are topping charts in Europe and being seized on by the creative giants of American music, such as Timbaland and Dr Dre.

The most important British Asian record of this year, "Mundian To Bach Ke" by the Coventry-based producer Panjabi MC, was only a hit in Britain after it sold 150,000 copies in Germany and reached number two. The track, which features traditional Indian vocals and dhol percussion over the theme to the Eighties television show Knight Rider, had been big on the British Asian scene some four years ago but it was ignored by the mainstream until it was picked up by German clubbers.

But, British support or not, many of these young Asian musicians are destined to enjoy stardom. Unbeknown to most of the public, some already do. Britain's biggest-selling Asian artist, Tarsame "Taz" Singh, sold more than three million copies of his last album (sung in English, Punjabi and Hindi) and brings airports to a standstill across South Asia, South Africa and East Africa, where he is known as the face of the band Stereonation - or "The King of Asian Pop" as The Times of India calls him. But he has no mainstream record deal in the United Kingdom and his last single received no national radio airplay.

Singh, still in his late twenties, nevertheless chooses to remain in England, living in a five-bedroom house in the Warwickshire countryside and driving a Mercedes. "This is my roots," he says in his Coventry accent. "I'm British and proud to be. This is where I was born."

Chandra is also a survivor. Now living in Somerset, she has 12 albums (fusing Eastern and Western vocal styles) to her name and is also a successful solo artist - but in America, not in Britain. "America has been my best market for a long, long time," she says. "America is more album-orientated and that suits my temperament as an artist. Their alternative college radio does not have a problem with playing me, and it is well-regarded by a young, trendy audience interested in eclectic sounds. I get very little radio play here."

While television and radio have inevitably promoted the greats of the British rock and pop canon, and offered black youngsters role models from Diana Ross to Bob Marley, young Asians have had few musical references in the media. This week, Keith Harris, former manager of Stevie Wonder and the chairman of the UK record industry's business network organisation Music Tank, admitted that there had been failures in working with Asian acts. "There is a lack of cultural diversity in the employment processes of the record companies, and that leads to a lack of people who are close to what is going on out there," he says.

Apache Indian (real name Steven Kapur) became the most successful British Asian artist in terms of chart success with seven Top 40 hits in the early Nineties. But he says: "I never grew up seeing Asian faces on television or hearing them on radio. There wasn't any of that."

Outside his own community, Britain appears to see Apache Indian as a spent force, who had his moment a decade ago when he received four Brit nominations for his unique brand of Punjabi-influenced dancehall reggae. Yet he remains a huge global star, playing from Zanzibar to Japan and appearing at 15,000-seater venues in America this autumn alongside the current king of reggae Sean Paul. Despite having to "move off around the world", he is not bitter. "I have been all over the world three times, but Birmingham is the home. My family, my base, my roots," he says.

While Apache Indian was being influenced by Jamaican sound systems in the West Midlands, other second-generation Asians were creating music that was truer to the traditions of the subcontinent. In the outer western suburbs of London, and in the Birmingham conurbation, bands such as Alaap and Heera performed at weddings and day-time parties organised to avoid the late-night curfews imposed by parents. Their music was bhangra, the drum-based traditional sound of Punjab that is loved throughout much of India and Pakistan.

By the end of the Eighties, the bhangra scene had become so huge (packing out famous London venues such as The Hippodrome) that the style press labelled it the next big thing. But it was way too soon. As Sawhney says: "A lot of the bhangra from the Eighties was being played by middle-aged men in sequinned suits."

More significantly, the British public has never been receptive to music that not only sounds foreign, but is not sung in English. For 15 years, Raj Roma and his family have sold UK Asian music through their Birmingham-based record company Envy Entertainment. "Sometimes I think the mainstream see it as something alien," he says. "Europe is warmer to it. I have been to France and there are lots of Algerian artists that are big. They seem to accept it."

There have been other problems, too. Distribution of Asian music in the UK is dominated by scores of small, independent shops from Southall to Bradford. Product is generally sold more cheaply than in big record stores, and without barcodes. Asjad Nazir, the showbiz editor of the London-based newspaper Eastern Eye, says: "They were selling more units than the English acts but the units were not being counted."

Paul Clifford, the chart operations manager for The Official Charts Company, says: "The problem we have faced is that a lot of the products don't carry barcodes and the whole chart system works on barcodes. We are taking data from 5,000 stores a day, and there's not really time to be investigating what these sales are with no barcode." Several records (including a Stereo- nation single) almost made it to high chart positions, only to be downgraded after reports that Asian shopkeepers have been buying records in bulk from high-street stores. Despite suspicions of vote-rigging, the likely explanation was that they were taking advantage of discounted prices to re-sell the CDs from their own stores.

When the short-lived hype around bhangra died away, the tag became a millstone. The music and style press decided they had "done bhangra", while record companies told upcoming Asian artists such as Sawhney that "we don't do bhangra", even when they were creating something very different.

When British Asian acts came back into the spotlight in the mid-Nineties, it was as part of a movement that was carefully orchestrated by the record industry, with little concern for the music that was actually being listened to in Asian communities. A diverse range of talented artists, whose inspirations ranged from jangly alternative rock to breakbeats and sitars, were lumped together as the "Asian Underground", even though some had little in common other than their ethnicity.

The careers of acts such as the indie group Cornershop (who reached No 1 with the Fat Boy Slim re-mix of "Brimful of Asha"), the classically-trained Talvin Singh, the politically-charged Londoners Asian Dub Foundation and Bradford's eclectic Black Star Liner, were not helped by a label that suggested they would not be around too long. One by one, the artists were released by their labels. Tjinder Singh, Cornershop's vocalist, quit the business last year, apparently in disgust at the industry's obsession with manufactured bands.

In a process that has taken more than 20 years, it has become clear that if UK Asian music is to succeed it must be on its own terms, and with a sound that reflects the diverse range of influences experienced by the British-born sons and daughters of migrants from the subcontinent.

Tucked away behind the white art deco magnificence of the Hoover Building, one of the great landmarks of the outer west London suburbs, is a music studio that is attracting the interest of American music stars from Britney Spears to Mary J Blige.

Rishi Rich, a 26-year-old producer from Harrow, west London, is at the vanguard of a fresh hybrid sound that seems destined to raise British Asian music to a higher plane. Inspired by the hip hop, R&B and dancehall reggae he grew up listening to, his music is an infectious combination of heavy basslines and the dance-friendly drumbeats of bhangra. Rich says: "There's a lot of multicultural activity going on. It's not about being black, white or Asian any more, it's about all being together and appreciating each other's music."

British R&B artists such as Craig David and Mis-Teeq have hurried to record at Rich's studio, and the American artists he has worked with include Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin. His latest single, "Dance With You", reached No 12 in the British charts despite a lack of interest from commercial radio that contrasts with that shown in his work for mainstream artists. "Dance With You" combines the Punjabi vocals of Juggy D and the rapping in English of Jay Sean. The music confounds industry stereotyping of Asians as "not street". Nihal, a DJ on BBC Radio 1, complains: "People [only] think of Asians as middle class, educated and studying law and medicine."

Jay Sean even has a rap, "You Don't Know Me", aimed at journalists and record industry types who fail to understand the music and treat it as a fad. It runs: "Now the Asian scene is the place to be/ Ever since Goodness Gracious Me graced the scene/ What with Missy, Truth Hurtz and Redman having a taste/ We've even got the Kumars dancing with Gareth Gates."

Rishi later makes his way across London to the Ministry of Sound nightclub, where queues stretch far into the distance for a club night called Desi, organised by Mandeep Singh and his company Bump and Grind. Singh is already negotiating to take this very British mix of R&B, bhangra and dancehall to America. The modern Asian sound is spawning clubs in San Francisco and Sydney, Durban and Dubai - but Britain is the only place making the music.

Coaches have come to Ministry of Sound from universities across the South-east, delivering an audience that is a marketing executive's dream: young, street-savvy, stylish and well educated. The crowd is predominantly Asian but far from exclusively so.

When the Rishi Rich Project come on stage, just before 1am, the crowd is clinging to every vantage point and the music induces a mass of waving arms that recalls the multi-limbed Hindu god of dance, Shiva. Earlier the same week, a mainly-white crowd at the University of Essex had responded with no less enthusiasm. Juggy, delighted by the reaction to his Punjabi lyrics, says: "The generation we are in now has all been brought up together. We all do the same things. We all watch the same programmes and eat the same food."

The Essex show is part of a university tour by the BBC digital radio station 1-Xtra that demonstrates the growing appeal of this music to all ethnic backgrounds. Backstage at the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, Mark Strippel, 29, (aka DJ Markie Mark) says the current strength of British Asian music is down to years of groundwork. Strippel is the sole white member of Panjabi Hit Squad, a four-strong crew who travel to northern India to record the work of musicians and vocalists and mix the sounds with hip-hop and dancehall beats.

The Hit Squad, who have a show on 1-Xtra, grew up together in Hounslow, west London, and helped to set up some of the first Asian club nights in London's West End. After years of being the only white face at clubs, Strippel is delighted by the music's growing appeal. "If you are white or black in Britain, the chances are that you have heard Asian music either in a shop or coming out of a car," he says. "It's really good to bring everyone together to listen to bhangra. They relate to it in the same way they do to hip hop and dancehall."

The first UK Asian Music Awards will take place next Wednesday in London - nearly a decade after the launch of the Music of Black Origin (Mobo) awards. Moiz Vas, who is co-ordinating the event, said it would be a "celebration" of the real sound of British Asian youth culture. "There is not one act that has been groomed by the mainstream," he says.

If nothing else, the ceremony will give long overdue recognition to the artists who are spreading the sound of young Britain around the globe but go almost unrecognised in the land they call home.