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You are in: London > London Local > Your Stories > Articles > Discovering London's Asian Music Archives

19th century teak and ivory surinder

Discovering London's Asian Music Archives

The 1990s saw an explosion of Asian underground music. It's now 15 years since the East London rappers, Asian Dub Foundation first formed.

It may seem unusual for a museum to be tracking such recent popular culture - but there's a surprising amount of Asian music to be found in London museums. 

Some have moved away from the display cases approach in favour of something a little more dynamic. 

Community groups - like the London Bengali organisation, The Swadhinata Trust - are recording and interviewing musicians to make sure the history is not forgotten.

The Asian scene in London has seen rapid change.  The 'Blue Note' - the Shoreditch venue that was once a highlight of the Asian music scene is now a restaurant, and a succession of trends have brought Asian music into the mainstream. 

Sonia Mehta is a management consultant at ADFED (the education wing of Asian Dub Foundation). She argues that the popularisation of Asian music has been a mixed blessing; early club music meant that Asian people were seen: "not only as the immigrant, curry eating, cornershop selling, sponsored servants of the West, but fresh, exciting and all dancing; lapping up culture and directing the process of old meets new and somewhere in between". 

A flood of funding followed, but eventually dried up leaving behind a much more commercialised scene. 

Recording the record shops

Three London museums are working on collecting stories from the Asian music scene from the last 50 years.  Gunnersbury Park museum has been recording oral histories of Southall record shops. For the Record: the social life of Indian vinyl in Southall is launching on 5th April at the museum with old style real vinyl playing.  After the event you'll be able to hear the music and interviews in their archive.

A tabla drum donated to Redbridge Museum

Redbridge Museum is planning a project with Guru Soundz who they previously filmed in 2005. Curator Gerard Greene says: “The idea is to look at traditional music but also to chart the changes in contemporary Asian music as it's been influenced by other urban sounds and it in turn has moved into the mainstream.”  They are hoping to have an exhibition and events in 2009

Technology as well as culture has rapidly changed the London Asian music scene.  As an interviewee at the Swadhinata Trust recalls: "In our days we had to run from record shop to record shop, we had to travel all the way to Southall just to track down a record. Milfa (Bengali record shop) had a record company and they used to keep records of Runa Laila. For us it was going around and finding these materials. Nowadays, you sit in front of a computer and you get it easily. It has no value, it is disposable."

The London and Birmingham story

The South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive (SALIDAA) are an online archive of British-Asian arts. They give a good overview of the major movements in diaspora music from Bollywood influences to the Asian overground. Browse collections from the likes of Nation Records too.

The British Film Archive’s free to view film bank, Mediatheque, includes many films about the modern British Asian experience amongst its 800 hours of film. Check out Gurinder Chadha’s documentary, ‘I’m British But…’ from 1989 which succinctly tells the story of the beginning of a  new kind of Bhangra and how it evolved in UK cities. Chadha’s film opens with a traditional migrant song (sung very catchily from the roof of a Southall shoe shop). Later it’s injected into dance music by a new generation who admit that their knowledge of their parents’ culture is limited but who still want to retain it and fuse it with their own experiences in London or Birmingham.


The Horniman Museum’s large new exhibition, Utsavam  covers the whole Indian continent – from Buddhist music played at the borders of Tibet to instrument makers from the Punjab and the music of fishing communities in Assam. Modern instruments appear besides films made by the museum of these communities playing music. You can also see plainer 19th century instruments – flutes and drums – belonging to ‘outcastes’ who had contact with Victorian Christian missionaries.

It’s a great overview, all the same there are limits to how many film clips you’ll want to watch while standing in a museum and there’s not the same immediate connection between sound and individual instrument as in the excellent Music Gallery next door. There, world instruments sit together in a closely-packed hedge – some recognizable, some snake-headed or sprouting myriad tubes like plumbing gone mad. Choose an instrument, find it on a nearby computerized table and hear how it sounds. You might have to fight an eight year old to get your turn though.

Soumik Datta and Gurdain Rayatt

Utsavam runs until 2nd November.

The Asian Music Centre is a new West London home of Asian Music Circuit, the leading promoter of traditional Asian sound in the UK.  It's both a museum, an archive and a performance space.  The star attraction is an immersive experience where you listen to music while watching quintessentially India scenes on wraparound screens – for instance a raga is backed by images of monsoons. AMC's Viram Jasani argues passionately for the Centre’s emphasis on traditional sound:

“We are in an ever shrinking environment of globalization with huge mobility of people and an incredible rush for wealth. Traditional cultures are in danger of getting lost in a Western (if not American) perception of music.”

He argues that by giving a “very Indian and timeless” experience they give primacy back to the Asian sound which feeds what he sees as more transitory productions of fusion music.

Live Music

The V&A museum runs a regular programme of live music – last year they invited many artists from Club Kali into the museum for an evening. They’ll be turning to classical Asian music on Sundays in April and May. Performances mix rare instruments like the Surbahar with tabla and violin.

The Nehru Centre is the cultural wing of the High Commission of India.  They are adept at grabbing many Indian artists, authors and musicians passing through London and persuading them to perform.  The result is a very busy programme with many events each week.

The Bhavan Centre is an institute offering Indian arts and culture with hundreds of branches in India.  The London branch was the first to be opened overseas.  It has an art gallery, runs music workshops and holds live performances. It has archives of music played at the centre stretching back to the early 70s.

Asian Dub Foundation

Voices in the vaults

There are a few remarkable old recordings held in London. The British Sound Archive  includes many of the famous names of the Asian Music Scene from Ravi Shankar to Asian Dub Foundation. But the earliest music is on wax cylinders. It was recorded for the Madras Museum by K Rangachari and Edgar Thurston between 1905 -10 and consist of songs and instrumental music from Southern India.

Cylinders are immensely fragile, but some have been played and digitized, like the 1911 Shahnai duet that can heard by clicking on the link to it on the right hand side of this page.

It’s tempting to fantasise about some DJ sampling them and grooving along with her great-grandad.

Listening to the champions of many different forms of Asian music, it's clear that the London picture is complex: there's a creative tension between traditional and modern, cutting edge and commercialised which is sometimes fruitful, and sometimes closes down potential talent.  Sonia Mehta argues passionately for continuing to support the new and edgy: "We don’t all want to sound the same, nor do we want to be exotic, nor do we want to have to prove ourselves at every juncture just to be put in a box. Invest in the process and the rest will fall into place."

Use the links up on the right hand side of this page to find out more about some of the institutions mentioned in this article.

Kate Smith is a journalist and former editor of the UntoldLondon website.

last updated: 04/04/2008 at 17:52
created: 01/04/2008

You are in: London > London Local > Your Stories > Articles > Discovering London's Asian Music Archives

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