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Evolving Means Ignoring Boundaries

22 January 2016 | 2:07 pm | Anthony Carew

"I hate that idea of people policing music; you get that in hip hop, y'know 'It's not real hip hop.' I don't get that idea."

Following David Bowie's recent death, the music world was united by stories from artists who were fans of Bowie, or who crossed paths with him. Asian Dub Foundation leader Steve 'Chandrasonic' Savale has both. "The mid-'70s was when I first started buying records, and Space Oddity was one of the first," says the 52-year-old. "1976 felt like a real Year Zero to me. I discovered [George] Orwell, Philip K Dick, and The Man Who Fell To Earth. At 11, I was too young to go see [the film], but I read the book, with Bowie on the cover. When Bowie died, I suddenly remembered that period so clearly; it was like my lift-off into culture. His death really triggered feelings from those pre-teen years that I'd forgotten about. I wasn't into him in the '80s and '90s, and when he was coming to see [Asian Dub Foundation] and bigging us up, the band's attitude was ambivalent, really; I was the only one who was a fan. But, we eventually played our score to La Haine at his Meltdown Festival, which was a great honour."

Asian Dub Foundation have put out nine albums, on which they've collaborated with icons like Chuck D and Sinead O'Connor, but they've become especially well known for their live scores to films. They've soundtracked Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle Of Algiers and George Lucas' THX 1138, but, 15 years after its debut at the Barbican in London, they're still performing their soundtrack to Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine. In 2011, it was revived in the wake of the London riots, for an on-the-ground public performance. "The local MPs tried to stop it, but it was a great night," Savale recalls. "To play it not just in a housing estate, but in that housing estate — Broadwater Farm, which if you know anything about London history, you know that it has been the centre of an insurrection a number of times — it was really something else."

Savale grew up in London, in a working-class, mixed-race family that "played Little Richard 78s and Indian classical music in equal measures". Melting of cultures and genres came naturally to Savale, who cut his teeth on post-punk, PiL, hip hop, dub-reggae, and Sly Stone. "I've never really understood genre," Savale sighs. "I hate that idea of people policing music; you get that in hip hop, y'know 'It's not real hip hop.' I don't get that idea; that means you don't want your music to change or evolve in any way."

Asian Dub Foundation has, in turn, drawn from bhangra, dancehall, drum'n'bass, and anything else they see fit. "In the band, we take in a hell of a lot, and it feels quite normal to us, but sometimes I'm made to see that it's not normal for other people," Savale offers. One such incident came in 2014, when a singer, Madh, performed Flyover on Italian X Factor. "He had a great voice, but whatever transliterated version of the lyrics he was singing were complete gibberish," Savale laughs. "The judges are going 'This is a brave choice, a song by Asian Dub Foundation, what they do, mixing all these genres, is really difficult.' And it's not! Maybe it's hard if you're an X Factor judge, but to me our music isn't built on complexity, it's really raw, basic stuff."

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