Written by:
Ansar Ahmed Ullah

The underground Bengali music scene of the 80s and 90s: a story largely untold

Read time:
3 minutes

The underground Bengali music scene of the 80s and 90s: a story largely untold

By the late 1980s, the rise of British Asian underground music was in full force. The British Asian youth of the time grew up in an environment of racial violence and political struggle for self-identity, which culminated in a new underground music scene which combined dance music with the music of their parent’s generation.

While drawing strength from street culture and Asian roots, they took pride in their music as something they they could claim it as their own - neither white music nor music imported from the Indian subcontinent. The artists who emerged from this period became some of the greatest Asian artists Britain has seen. Some of these - ADF (Asian Dub Foundation), Joi, State of Bengal and Osmani Soundz - are of Bengali origin and are among the true pioneers of the Asian underground scene.

These days Shoreditch is a popular and fashionable area of London, dotted with clubs and bars playing contemporary dance music. Perhaps lesser known is that this area got public exposure from, now well-established, Asian artists who brought attention to the area through the Asian Underground scene.

From 1992, Joi played at the Bass Clef club every Thursday night, attracting nearly every credible artist of its time. Joi is a dance music outfit of DJs and musicians of Bengali origin, initially started by brothers Farook and Haroon Shamsher. From Orbital to the KLF, Goldie to Bjork, Joi established themselves as legendary founders of what became known as the Asian Underground. In December 2006, Farook Shamsher, one half of the brother duo, was awarded the prestigious UK Asian Music Award 2006 for 'Commitment To The Scene', in recognition for their seminal work of those early days and his long-standing work in the Asian music scene.

In an interview with the Swadhinata Trust in 2006, one of Joi’s members, Hasan Ismail, said:

“It’s because we had an ideal as well. Obviously growing up all our life in London, we enjoyed the Western side of going out and listening to English music, but we also had our Bengali identity which everyone needed to keep, which we were very proud of. So we decided to mix both kinds of cultures together and still keep both kind of identities and lifestyles - and show it through our music.”

The Bass Clef later became known as the Blue Note, where Talvin Singh ran his legendary club night Anokha. Just like theatres and music halls, the Asian Underground club nights slowly faded from this area, but its legacy shaped the streets of modern-day Shoreditch, where thousands flock every night for its host of bars, restaurants and cafes.

Whirl Y Gig, one of the longest running world dance clubs, played at Shoreditch Town Hall from 1991 – to 1996, playing a wide range of music, primarily world and dance fusions, from heavy dub and funky tribal beats to tropical house and uplifting global trance, from Africa to Europe to the Middle East and Asia.

The crew continued their global journey pushing abstract, experimental and electric sounds in an interactive environment which saw it rise the ranks from the Blue Note to Fabric.

What made this scene special was how cultural activism happened in parallel with political activism. While these pioneering artists were not seen as political activists themselves, their political stance is implied in their names. Osmani Soundz is named after Commander of Bengali freedom fighters, Joi is named after Bangladesh’s national slogan ‘Joi Bangla’, State of Bengal is self-explanatory as are ADF’s lyrics.

In the face of racism and violence, Asian youth movements of the 70s, 80s and 90s shaped East London to be the area it is now celebrated to be today. We must ensure their stories are told and remembered as the cultural pioneers they were and continue to be.

Ansar Ahmed Ullah is a community activist who has lived and worked in the East End of London since the 1980s. He has worked as a youth, social and community worker and has been an active anti-racist campaigner. Ansar is currently a research student at the Queen Mary University of London studying community activism.

Photo by York Tillyer: Joi at Dogstar Brixton

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