Volume 4: Number 1, May 1 2000
Fan Mail: A Dossier
As part of this issue’s focus on culture and cultural politics in South
Asia and its diaspora, we solicited our readers to submit brief personal
reflections on cultural figures and works that matter to them. The following
pieces came in response to that invitation. We have called this special
section (only slightly flippantly) “Fan Mail,” because we are conscious
of the variety of ways in which culture and politics intersect in our
experience. Our critical, intellectual, and political responses to art
and culture tend to co-exist and intermingle with emotional, passionate,
or enthusiastic responses. In each of these pieces our contributors write
both as critics and activists and
as fans, telling us why works that matter are also works they love. Or,
in some cases, works that they love to hate!
Chiclete com Masala
By Gautam Premnath
We've all had such moments, when we realize the cultural terrain has shifted while we were looking the other way. Mine came in a Starbucks in Providence, Rhode Island. Waiting in line for an overpriced pound of coffee beans, I emerged from absent-mindedness to discover that in the background someone was singing about Asha Bhosle. Ashaji in Starbucks? It seemed mighty odd back then, in the fall of 1997. It doesn’t seem quite so strange any more—a measure, perhaps, of how rapidly the terrain has continued to shift.
The song was Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha,” and in subsequent months I heard it everywhere: at an academic conference bookfair, over a supermarket PA system, leaking out of headphones and blasting from speakers all over the small New England city where I live. I began to think of it as a kind of anthem for the desi hipness that began to spread over the US mediascape that year. Talvin Singh's dance hit “Jaan” was perhaps even more ubiquitous. But the contrast is striking. “Jaan”’s cool is icy, cerebral, even forbidding. It was the ostensibly “experimental” and “difficult” Cornershop who wrapped their acerbic cultural commentary in the warmest, friendliest, most feel-good of packages.
One key to the velvet-gloved power of “Asha” is its deceptively simple listing of iconic cultural references, ranging from Mohd. Rafi and Bhosle herself to All India Radio and Ferguson receivers. On a first hearing this comes across as mere fresh-off-the-boat nostalgia. But, sung in Tjinder Singh's broad Midlands accent, the song begs the question: whose memories are these? “Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow,” says Singh, but his delivery slyly undermines the prospect of such an easy refuge in the comfort of the past. (That’s brought out more clearly in another Cornershop song, “Funky Days are Back Again,” with its devastating, deadpan observation of the 90s penchant for 70s chic.)
At a time when a studied reverence for the Indian past makes impeccable business sense (witness the incredible success of Bally Sagoo’s disco-fied retreads of classic Hindi film songs, in which present-day playback singers lovingly recreate every nuance and intonation of the original vocals), Cornershop suggest that for diasporic Asians—and the rest of us—it is possible to have a deeply felt relationship with Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar without treating them as objects of fetishistic veneration. Theirs is a world in which a love of filmi tunes and Punjabi expressive culture can co-exist with passions for country music, dub, hiphop, and punk—all influences that color the sonic landscape of their brilliant third album When I Was Born for the 7th Time. Nor is this (like Kula Shaker’s neo-hippy sitar doodling) an eclectic pomo trafficking in cultural difference. Here is a sound that is manifestly shaped by the realities of where they’re from and where they’re at. It’s that palpable sense of engagement that belies the slyness of their lyrics, and adds a whole other dimension to the pleasure I take in their music. The band’s uncompromising public pronouncements have also gone a long way towards clearing a space and creating a community of listeners for their sound within the mainstream of British pop.
In 1960 the Brazilian pop icon Jackson do Pandeiro sang: “I’ll [only] put bebop in my samba / When Uncle Sam plays the tamborim... Then I'll mix Miami with Copacabana / I'll mix chewing gum with banana.” Pandeiro’s “Chiclete com Banana” is as compact a lesson as you are likely to find on the ethics of cultural hybridity in an uneven world. And you can dance to it. Cornershop has learned its lesson well.