Going Multitone: Desi Ska Music

Laila k sonic boom six.jpg I was saddened hear about the death of Desmond Dekker, one of the pioneers of the original Jamaican ska music scene (hear some of his music at Myspace). Ska, which Dekker and a handful of others invented in the early 1960s, is a kind of double-speed form of calypso that is generally upbeat and celebratory. It was a pop fad in Jamaica in the early 1960s that was reborn as a kind of multicultural pastiche in England with bands like Madness and The Specials in the late 1970s. Those bands were self-consciously racially integrated — often with black lead singers and white bandmates — and they were hugely commercially successful. The lead record label in this second wave of ska bands was 2 Tone Records, which got its name from its distinctive checkered logo, though “two tone” also clearly referred to the label’s multicultural, racially inclusive vibe.

I was a big fan of this type of music in high school and college, though I grew up during the ‘third wave’ of ska — after it had been reborn yet again as a kind of offshoot of American punk rock. As I bounced along to Operation Ivy in high school, I wondered: what about desi ska? The upbeat rhythm you find in The Specials (or earlier, in Desmond Dekker himself) is also key in Bhangra, and the two genres seem almost made for each other.

In fact, there was some ska-bhangra fusion back in the day, and there still is some today. If the mainstream record label was called 2 Tone Records, the desi version was Multitone Records, and it was founded in the early 1980s, just around when Brit-Asian Bhangra bands like Achanak and Premi were first starting to make records. (This was also, coincidentally, just after the peak of the 2-Tone Records era on the British music charts.) The vast majority of the CDs on the Multitone label were never available in the U.S., or were released in such small numbers here that they were (and are) impossible to find.

The best CD I have in the British ska-bhangra genre (or perhaps we should call it Punjabi ska) is a Multitone compilation that came out in 1992, Cultural FX’s Hareepa. Of the songs on that compilation (which is way, way obscure), the best song is a “Boliyan” (actually a version of ‘Gur Naal Ishq Mitha’) by a Bhangra band called Sahotas. You’ll never find the CD anywhere, but you can sample a few seconds of the ska-inflected Boliyan here (track 10).

If the Multitone experiment with ska kind of sputtered out, another desi experiment with Jamaican music exploded. Apache Indian’s “No Reservations” came out in 1993, and it was so catchy and novel that I pretty much forgot about the idea of desi ska for awhile. Apache Indian was doing ragamuffin reggae rather than ska, and he found a surprisingly large commercial niche (though I think he never really got past the status of a novelty act, either among desi audiences or among mainstream reggae fans).

But back to ska. Rishi Rich’s recent CD “The Best” also has a congenial Punjabi ska song on it, “Mainu Kaleyan Wekh Ke,” which you can listen to here (only works in IE; watch out for pop-ups). It’s actually a high point on a CD that is weighted down by a lot of downtempo R&B-sounding songs. The song comes completely out of nowhere.

I haven’t found much other desi-influenced ska music, though I am curious about the song on Neville Staple’s solo CD, called “Nachna (Indian ska)” with a Punjabi vocalist, KS Machan. Thus far, I haven’t been able to find the track anywhere.

And then there’s Sonic Boom Six, an extremely peppy straight-ahead third wave ska/punk band whose lead singer, Laila K, happens to be a Desi. I don’t hear any Punjabi language or musical influence in the songs on Myspace, though Laila does add in some lyrics about “growing up on the outskirts/ I’m a desi/ with a white boyrfriend” (rough transcription) in the band’s cover of The Might Mighty Bosstones’ “Knock on Wood.” Her manic energy and high-pitched voice remind me a little of MIA, though the style of music is obviously completely different.

And of course there’s Outernational, though I’m not sure I would strictly speaking call them a ska band. (I am of course a little biased in their favor because of the Sikh lead singer!) And Manish also talked about Stubhy (Kaustubh), the Indian lead singer of Lucky Boys Confusion here. But as with Sonic Boom Six, these bands all have singers who just happen to be desis.

I have a feeling there’s more out there (or there will be). I’m especially curious about whether people have tried to do musical fusion — the upbeat guitar/horns sound of ska with mixed with Punjabi dhol and tumbi. Though really, as long as people are having a good time with it, it’s all good as far as I’m concerned.

[PHOTO CREDIT ABOVE: Punk Rock Portraits]

41 thoughts on “Going Multitone: Desi Ska Music

  1. Fantastic post Amardeep.

    Neville Staples, who used to be in The Specials comes from Coventry, same city as Panjabi MC and Kray Twinz. I believe he is involved with the business/managment side of Punjabi pop singer Taz a.k.a Stereo Nation who are also from Coventry.

  2. Wow, Coventry is hot! And the Stereo Nation connection explains it, though I still don’t know who KS Machan is.

    Incidentally, Stereo Nation might be a good candidate for a desi ska effort — too bad they haven’t tried it yet.

  3. Wow, Coventry is hot!

    As someone living in the UK, I can’t put into words how inadvertantly humorous that statement is ;) God bless bechara bhole-bhalle Amardeep.

    However, the place does have a huge desi community, so I guess it’s a nice place to grow up in (and/or live in) if that’s your sort of thing. Same as any town or city in the UK or the US which has lots of Indians there.

  4. By the way, you mentioned the Sahotas, they are a really good band. Five brothers from Wolverhampton. One of the brothers, Mukhtar Sahota, produced a solo album last year which was really eclectic and cool. Did you ever think you would like a song of Punjabi Thrash Metal? Check it out: Jogi

    Also this track from his album is really nice, a slow love song with really good production and video Rang Kala

  5. Do you have a link to a picture of the Sahotas? I somehow have some of their albums and everytime I hear them I picture a group of jolly, fat sardars. Wait, maybe I should just not look it up and hold on to that image =)

  6. Sonia,

    Let me put it this way. The Sahotas look like the kind of guys that some of the ladies here on SM are frequently complaining that there should be more pictures of in order to balance out the booty-friendly tone of this blog.

  7. The Mainu Kaleyan Wekh Ke song is great…thanks…

    OT: the cover for the Rishi Rich CD looks a lot like Craig David’s (or what I remember of it).

  8. PS Not meaning to hijack the thread, but since we’re plugging desi videos, the following is an excellent poetic video and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-type song by Kailash Kher that is currently doing the rounds on some of the Indian music channels:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=rId1koBIpFM&search=kailash%20kher

    I love this kind of music.

    Anyway, back to the bhangra……Those two songs (and the associated videos) posted by Gubroo are also very good, “Jogi” in particular is quite innovative.

  9. Sonia – the guy wearing the beanie hat playing lead guitar in the Jogi video is Mukhtar Sahota.

    There are rumours that they’ve split up and are not working together, brother’s feud, don’t know if it’s true. The website is out of date and amateurish. I think they’re cute.

  10. Thanks everyone for all the entertaining Youtube videos! Keep em coming.

    BTW, Gubroo, last December I played Bikram Singh’s “American Jugni” at a New Year’s Eve party that I was informally DJing in New Jersey. People really hated it for some reason. They were literally booing… I couldn’t understand it, because I think the song is fun…

  11. Amardeep – it’s great when he sings it live in a club! Was listening to an interview with him and he said he wrote the lyrics after watching some American women dancing at a bhangra club in New York. He’s a nice guy. I really like the song.

  12. Dammit! There goes my jolly sardar image.

    Jai ~ Kailash Kher’s voice is amazing. I listen to his Kailasa album on repeat all the time.

  13. From Wikipedia:

    “The current Lord Mayor of Coventry is Councillor Ram Lakha. His wife Meto Lakha (a former city Councillor herself) is the Lady Mayoress.”

  14. As I bounced along to Operation Ivy in high school, I wondered: what about desi ska?

    Amardeep, you mean you weren’t hip to desi pioneer Tony Kanal back in high school or college? or does No Doubt not count in your ska book? ;)

  15. I must admit I didn’t know about No Doubt until they got famous with “Just a girl,” and even then I didn’t much care for them (“ska gone pop,” I grumbled, quietly fogetting that The Specials, English Beat, and of course Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, and The Skatalites were all in it to sell records too).

    And I didn’t realize they had an Indian member till I saw a music video and thought, “wow, that guy looks an Indian with bleach-blond hair!” And even then it didn’t make all that much difference to me. It became more interesting when Gwen Stefani went through her ‘Indian’ phase (which was much better than the current ‘Harajuku girl’ phase), and they did that music video shot on the street in an Indian city.

    But yeah, Tony Kanal should have been in this post alongside Lucky Boys Confusion, Outernational, and Sonic Boom Six. One small bit of news-trivia: did you know that he’s starting his own record label? (Thanks, Saheli)

  16. great post! i’ve been a 3rd wave ska fan for years and felt like i was the only desi out there. while i haven’t been able to find any desi 3rd wave ska, my search did come up with “hadji and the turbans”, a moniker probably in tribute to less than jake who informed us all that johnny quest thought they were sellouts (johnny couldn’t be more right either)

    as a malayalee, i was even more surprised to find out that “SKA has a pivotal role to play in the development and promotion of the Malayalee culture, language and heritage in the region.” I think I’ve just found my mission in life.

  17. even then I didn’t much care for them (“ska gone pop,” I grumbled….)

    I had a feeling. :) But you’re right, they had gone full-on pop by the time of “Just a Girl” — their earlier stuff sounds a bit more pure, I think…. Hadn’t heard about the record label — interesting!

    Great post, Amardeep — thanks. Now, gotta take up the challenge and try to find that Multitone compilation somewhere….

  18. LBC has a song from way back in the day called “Masala” that has got a definite ska/punk flavor (and it’s all about being abcd, sweet). Same with “Perfect,” it’s softer and more reggae, with hindi lyrics.

  19. Hey everyone.

    For those of you interested in the history of the Indian presence in Coventry, there is an exhibition about our history coming up soon. Please look at this website, if interested:

    http://www.coming2coventry.org/

    Thanks!

    (ps: Bally Sagoo is also from Coventry!)

  20. Jai

    Bally is based in Birmingham but was born and raised in Coventry!

    cheers

  21. Amardeep– I agree. As you get further and further away from 1st & 2nd wave it gets a little ho-hum. But….if you get a chance go see No Doubt live. With all the focus on Gwen’s appearance, the band’s musicianship is totally overlooked (compare solo effort to ND albums). I saw them a few years ago at VoodooFest (NOLA) & have never seen a festival-size crowd under that kind of control in my life. Tony Kanal does not f–k around on that bass!

  22. Dave Sharma currently on tour with Bombay Dreams was in the Skalars who at one point opened up for No Doubt- who bassist is Tony Kanal. Multitone Records was at one point acquired by BMG given hope for international success, but failed to make it big outside of UK. Achanak is still around. Love the informed bhangra conversation on thess postings.

  23. Hi, Good to see the feedback on this page. Just to point out within the UK Bhangra Music Industry it was bands like Sahotas, DCS, Azaad, Pardesi Music Machine and Achank who experimented using Reggae into their music. However most popular out of them all would have to be the band Sahotas, you could not only hear the Reggae Beat in all their albums but they were the one band that guaranteed a Reggae-Bhangra track in neafrly all their albums. Take for instance the track ‘Akia Smaal’ from the Sahota Beat (1988) album. The track opened up with a Dreadlock Rastafarian chatting! Went on to be popular as the band took the track live on stage at gigs. Later they returned with many Reggae/Ska fused tracks such as, Aaja Aaja Aaja, the Reggae-Boliyaan, Heerie, Yaaran Di Yaari, Maa Da Pyaar. Who can forget ‘Sach’ which proved successful at Bhangra/Reggae ballad at Bhangra gigs. The great thing about it is that the genre’s of ska, Reggae and Bhangra do compliment each other. From Sohan Kailey (Publicist, UK).

  24. okay i’m like a year late here but really glad i found this. very interesting stuff. amardeep – i too grew up on ska music in high school and college and it had a huge impact on me. of course i was the only desi at most of the ska shows i went to in phoenix and tucson, arizona. when i was in college i had a hokie but fun ska band called Turban Jones (i meant it when i said hokie) based in tucson, az. musically there wasn’t much desi influence – it was more along the lines of two-tone stuff and quite horn driven. the guitarist in that band was anoop bhatheja also desi. we didn’t get out of AZ really but we opened up for a lot of the bigger touring ska bands like the toasters, the slackers, etc. oh and we had one song that was in broken hindi and another where the chorus was the lyrics to that old film song “mera jutha hai japaani.” good times… true that outernational isn’t exactly a ska band but the influence is definitely there, as is the desi influence. but not often simultaneously. sounds like a project to me i really haven’t heard any musical fusion of desi music and ska, though plenty of reggae and dancehall. i’m sure many know of funkadesi from chicago who mix indian music with roots reggae – http://myspace.com/funkadesi . but i have to wonder what were all the indian people in jamaica doing when ska was emerging in the 60s? hmmm…

  25. Wow, I’m really late to this one…just came across the article. I’ve been a huge ska fan for a really really long time. And always thought I was the only Indian kid to ever listen to it (until I heard about Tony Kanal). I liked the Skalars back in the day…who knew they had an Indian drummer! There has been a lot of Reggae-influenced and Dancehall-influenced desi music. But it is next to impossible to come across an Indian who’s ever heard of the Skatalites or Hepcat or the Pietasters. Maybe there is some hope after all

  26. I love Sonic Boom Six; I found out about them a few years ago. I’ve noticed how alternative rock music is dominated by white people; it’s really not nice to see when they’re trying to stamp out racism. I got into ska and everyone’s so much more welcoming and accepting.

  27. I used to love listening to the great Bhangra bands from the UK in the late 80′s and early 90′s such as the Sahotas (best albums were first two ones: Sahota beat, and Aaja), DCS, Azaad, Premi, Heera, Anakhi, Achanak, Azmat (Power packed series), Bally Sagoo, Geet Mega Band, Saqi, Safri Boys, Apna Sangeet, Amarjit Sidhu, Johnny Zee, Raga Kaka Winston, The New Pardesi Music Machine, Johnny Zee, Anaamika, XLNC, Ajuba, DJ Jiten, Toofan, etc. In fact, I used Audacity to convert all my favorite songs from cassette to mp3 format and now I can listen to them on my iPod.

    I used to have the Cultural FX tape that I purchased from Calgary, Canada (lived there for 20 years). Sadly, I must have misplaced it, as I cannot find it anywhere. I loved the Boliyaan by Sahotas as well as Gal Puchni by Sahotas as well. I’m trying desperately to track these songs down, but cannot find them anywhere. Any suggestions?

  28. because of bollywood and Punjabi folk singers,

    experimentation is dead in desi music

    80s and 90s were a great time of musical experimentation for desi music

    and I dont mean remixes

    Sahotas were probably the best indian music ever got

    they should reunite and save the planet