Babar Luck: 'I use brains - and fists'

Mixing soul, ska and punk rock, Babar Luck's music captures the growing pains of a British Asian. He talks to Phil Meadley

Babar Luck is a musician who's not afraid to explore the dark side. He's also not afraid to find humour and hope amid extremism, racism, violence, and despair. This is what makes his solo album Care in the Community such a vital, life-affirming force. It's an album that offers a ray of hope when misunderstanding and intolerance seem to be the order of the day. It's also an album that couldn't have been made at any other point in Britain's tainted postcolonial history.

By far its biggest asset is Luck's unerring ability to write a decent tune. Among a vibrant backdrop of punk-rock riffs, rock-steady ska, acoustic soul, and hip-hop, his stark, poetic, and often melancholy wordplays paint a picture of the trials and tribulations of growing up as a British Asian in the East End of London.

At times bearing close resemblance to Scorsese's Gangs of New York (check out "My Friend Used to Be (A Madaxeman)") it chronicles the complex, and often brutal tribal systems of London's multiethnic street hierarchy. "I protect myself with my fists," he says when we meet. "But I'd rather use my brains. That's just how it goes. I've got my East End hat, and my Canning Town switch, and when you hit the Canning Town switch there's a red mist, and you get out of there."

In the flesh he comes across as a mass of happy contradictions, the result of an endlessly inquiring mind and overactive vocal cords. He veers between positivity and sadness, his long, dark beard, beanie hat, loose trousers and piercing dark-brown eyes making him look every inch a Muslim - except for the nose ring, the most obvious sign of his playful, rebellious streak.

As someone who's always loved the sound of a searing, overdriven guitar, Babar Luck stood out from the crowd. "When I was a kid I used to mix up bhangra beats, thrash metal and hip-hop. My friends used to think it was mad, and that it would never come out, but I told them to wait until 2050. Hopefully I'll still be making music. That's my mission in life; to create and cross over music, and infiltrate."

Luck talks with machine-gun flair, firing out bursts of intuitive sound-bites and streetwise philosophies. "When I was with my tribe of Jamaican boys, English indigenous boys and Canning Town Asian boys, we used to have strange heroes. We used to admire Yasser Arafat, but not for this reason or that reason. It was in the same way people admired Ariel Sharon. He's another fighter. All these little Al Pacino types - you don't mess with them.

"We had to build up our own little street culture and stand up for ourselves. I remember going to Drew Road Primary School in E16, and I was the only brown boy. Jaswinder Singh was the only brown girl. Even the teachers used to make fun of us.

"In our comprehensive school, we had 20 per cent black, 20 per cent Asian, and 60 per cent white and/or mixed up. Our school was the only one in the area that had coloureds. Every day there used to be battles. You'd hear cries of, 'Get the Pakis, get the Pakis!' It was absolutely insane, but the beauty was that all the hard white boys, hard black boys, and hard Asians got together to defend themselves [against each other]: the unity and brotherhood was unbelievable. It was harsh growing up in that environment. The area was grey and flat, but the people made it what it was. You will never ever get that kind of love, or deception, or cruelty anywhere else."

He was inspired to get into music by his brother Azam. "On my 15th birthday he gave me albums by The Beatles, Elvis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and The Clash... London Calling and Sandinista were very important because those punks were making advanced world music. That's when I started to really study music. I've always loved writing songs which have a conscious edge, and which make people open up, or feel good and inspired. I feel it's a challenge to any musician to talk about things that matter."

After various incarnations Luck joined King Prawn, a band he describes as "very hardcore, very dance-oriented, very subversive". They lasted 10 years before splitting up - persuading Luck to go solo. "To be against mainstream and popular culture was one of my things. I was in a crossover punk-rock band and I'm still doing that underground thing. I'd be happy to stay there and do little DIY projects for the rest of my life.

"But in the end you have to make a living. King Prawn weren't brown enough, black enough or white enough. I'm not black enough or white enough for this society, but that's just how it is. You've just got to let it be. I'm like the alternative Paul McCartney."

After recording a sparse 20-track demo, Luck sent the results to Jim Chapman (manager of celebrated Tuvan rockers Yat-Kha), who in turn put him in touch with musician Lu Edmonds who made his name playing with The Damned, PiL, and legendary UK garage punk band The Mekons, and who was a member of Billy Bragg's Blokes.

"The main instrument he plays on the album is the saz - a Turkish instrument that sounds like a really strangely pitched guitar," Luck says. "I went to his house in Brixton, banged up 15 or 16 tunes, and that's what appears on the album. I was in a really foul mood at the time, and feeling overemotional. Trouble is that I've been overreacting to everything since I was a child. I was born scared and paranoid, but music is a gift from Allah, and it protects me from the demons out there."

The album is called Care in the Community because Luck's mother was a social worker. "That is what everyone of faith and non-faith should be doing: helping people who have problems dealing with society. It's like in that Neil Young song, "I have a friend who's never seen, who lives inside a dream."

As a liberal but devout Muslim, he finds the climate of hostility and religious insurgence a cause of consternation: "There's so much to cry about these days. It kills me that these people use the word of God to inflict hatred and pain, to make war and political gain, and to make profits from their own selfish needs.

"If you are a true man of faith, you walk away from battle. Islam can't be corrupted by man. There must be rule, but there must also be love, tolerance and acceptance. It's about celebrating diversity, and to me the greatest force for unity is music. I'm a first-rate songwriter, second-rate singer, third-rate rapper, and fourth-rate comedian, but I've built my spaceship and I'm boldly going where no Pakistani has gone before."

'Care in the Community' is out on Rebel Music. Babar Luck plays Tramps, Plymouth, on 27 May (