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A deep dive into South Asian electronic music

Dhruva Balram presents some of the finest sounds coming out of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

  • Words: Dhruva Balram | Lead image live event photography: boxout.fm Images from Boxout Wednesdays
  • 8 September 2021

The past few years has seen South Asians across the diaspora attempt to control the narrative on how we are perceived and depicted. In attempting this, an aspect of community has formed where people have huddled together under one umbrella. But, as the diaspora continues to have the spotlight of white gaze shone upon it, creatives back home in South Asia are unfortunately left to clamour for a sliver of the same publicity.

The past decade has seen underground scenes bubble ferociously in Pakistan and India while Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal have laid solid foundations down. There are hundreds of compelling artists, labels, producers, DJs and festivals in the region: Dhaka boasts an intriguing DIY electronic music scene while Colombo’s deep house and acid house production is unparalleled; Bangalore is home to Consolidate, one of the best labels in the region while Azadi Records spotlights Kashmiri artists when no one else does. Pakistan’s creative scene may be underfunded but it doesn’t stop its artists from releasing thought-provoking, enthralling music. Nepalese artists have rebuilt their scene after the horrific 2015 earthquake which killed 9,000 people, promoting a space where the rest of South Asian artists can congregate.

Read this next: Welcome to Mixmag's South Asian Series

Making up nearly 25% of the world’s population, countries in South Asia deserve to be spotlighted in their own right. The creatives within the region have insurmountable issues to overcome: from financial disparity to passport and visa hurdles; a lack of infrastructural stability has also ensured there is a vacuum when it comes to who is able to make an impact outside of the region. These issues are underpinned by a massive population and cash flow imbalance which has ensured there is an inequality of labels, artists and radio stations, wherein India, for example, would have many more of each than, say, Bangladesh. The dearth of each in some of these countries speaks to how much work still needs to be put in so that more creatives in these regions can blossom.

Hopefully, by highlighting interesting artists, labels, collectives and radio stations across South Asia, support can be garnered for these grassroots organisations whose footing has been muddied during the pandemic. (Editor’s note: we are aware of the lack of coverage for artists in the Maldives, Afghanistan and Bhutan, please feel free to email us to spotlight your work.)

BANGLADESH

In Bangladesh, a lack of funds for creative spaces has led to poor infrastructure, underpinned by a volatile governmental body which frowns upon nightlife. In the world’s most densely populated country, though, the underground DIY scenes have birthed some of the more intriguing and captivating artists, collectives and labels any one country in South Asia possesses. These artists have been bold and experimental, dismissive of the idea of genre, embracing discomfort and pushing the limits of expression and sounds.

Artists

1. Enayet

Thumping bass pumps through each release from Enayet. Three tracks of pure club-ready heat dominate this record.

2. DHAKAminimal

As their name suggests, they produce minimal tracks full of swirling percussive rhythms and ending up in ceiling-threatening beats. The union of genres throughout their production allows for eight-minute long masterful soundscapes.

3. deepsteel

Noise experimentation runs through the oeuvre of this Dhaka-based group. Filters, LFO bursts and expansive effects shape noises into meaningful compositions.

4. solarein

Soundscape meets drone noise in this producer’s calming production.

5. Anekdote

A stand-out producer from the country, not much is known about them but their hip hop and rap production is exemplary. They’re also able to nimbly skip across genres to flip banging house tunes.

Label:

Akaliko Records

Shedding a spotlight on Bangladesh’s creative scene, Akaliko Records consistently releases the best music coming out of the country.

Check out their Bandcamp

Collective:

Dhaka Electronic Scene

To create a DIY scene as strong as the one Bangladesh possesses, collective unity is crucial. Dhaka Electronic Scene epitomises this: formed in 2012 via a Facebook group, they started with a handful of bedroom music producers before growing in significant numbers. They’ve since held workshops, released tracks and have become the centre-point for music coming out of the country.

Check it out on Facebook

Read this next: 10 South Asian diaspora dance music collectives you need to know

India

With the largest population in the region, India is also the richest country with the means to create stable footing for a thriving underground scene. Cities across India have hosted Mixmag Labs as well as Boiler Rooms and have a host of annual festivals which take place. In turn, a number of their artists - including the likes of Oceantied, Sandunes and Sulk Station - have gone on to gain recognition outside of South Asia. As the country consistently churns out great musicians, labels and collectives, there are still dozens of artists waiting to be discovered.

Artists:

1. Three Oscillators

Whether released under his own name or as Three Oscillators, Brij’s work is singular in that each release is quietly different from the last. Pay attention to his oeuvre and you hear the expansive breadth of his talents.

2. Nate08

The Mumbai-based producer had his name scattered across dozens of artists’ work before delving into putting out his own. With a handful of releases under his belt now, the session musician is on course for his breakout moment.

3. Noni-mouse

With a soft voice, noni-mouse’s vocals meld perfectly into the trip hop production she’s become renowned for over the past year. Incisive lyrics married with deep introspection underpinned by exemplary production make this Mumbai-based artist one to watch.

4. Pardafash

One of the more intriguing producers in India, Pardafash is yet to release anything full-length but both her DJ sets as well as her releases arrest listeners' attention almost instantly.

5. Babloo babylon

Nothing is known about this enigmatic artist who plays with a mask, yet off the back of a few tracks, he’s managed to play across several festivals in India and stream worldwide on Boiler Room.

6. Yung Raj

Through his club-ready ‘Stepping Stoned’ series, Yung Raj has carved his own path as a peerless producer in the country.

7. FILM

Working under several monikers, FILM’s work floats across genres with ease while rooted in the dark smokey rooms. His music could fit neatly across the European club circuit.

8. Eashwar Subramanian

Sitting as a polar opposite to the many club tracks in the Indian underground space is Eashwar Subramanian’s ambient music which feels like a balm amongst the chaos of today.

Labels:

Consolidate

By far the most creative and alluring of all labels releasing music in South Asia today, Bangalore-based Consolidate also boast an unrivalled roster of talent in Aniruddh Menon, Disco Puppet, _RHL, Pardafash, Blindnight, Aerate Sound and many more.

Azadi Records

Azadi Records is bold, confrontational and take no prisoners. Its one of the few outlets that releases Kashmiri artists. Over the past few years, its roster of hip hop artists, including Seedhe Maut, Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Tienas, have won the label multiple awards and heralded a new coming of Indian hip hop. With razor-sharp political commentary, crisp videos and hefty production, Azadi Records are just getting started.

Collectives:

jwala

jwala are a group of young bedroom producers who came together in 2017 to form a community. Four years later, they’re still one of the most exciting collectives around with each of their compilations highly anticipated.

Coven Code

Based in New Delhi, Coven Code is India’s first non-male collective. Promoting art, music and freedom, they’ve become an inclusive space for non-males to find community. Starting out in March 2018, Coven Code began with 19 members and their numbers quietly grew while they continued to shake up the status quo and the Indian nightlife industry.

Check them out on Mixcloud and Instagram

Radio station:

boxout.fm

Founded in April 2017, boxout.fm has gone on to become India’s premiere underground online community radio station. Running 24/7, they also throw weekly events, festivals and continue to showcase the depths of talent South Asia offers

Read this next: How classic cars and soundsystems connect Southall residents to their Indian roots

The Lab Mumbai

Mixmag headed out to India to showcase some of the finest talents in the region from further afield, spanning trippy techno, soaring electronica, banging house, rowdy drum 'n' bass, and more. Check out some highlights below and more on MixmagTV.

NEPAL

With less than 30 million people and one major city, Nepal’s dance music scene is virtually non-existent. Kathmandu is dotted with nightclubs but they pump out drum 'n' bass, dubstep and mainstream club-heavy music. It caters to tourists and locals alike with the underground experimental artists scurrying away in the corners of the country. Though each of their artists add new colours to the Nepalese palette, they haven’t garnered the traction any of their neighbours have. Despite this, they boast a handful of artists who deserve to be illuminated.

Artists:

1. Ranzen Jha

The unofficial godfather of the Nepalese scene, Ranzen Jha’s sound is rooted in ‘90s DnB and Dubstep but his mixes effortlessly span genres showcasing the depth of his crates and the longevity of his time in the scene.

2. YNZN.P

One of the most exciting names to come out of Nepal in recent years, YNZN.P’s work has been lauded across South Asia, getting him booked at multiple festivals and played across several radio shows. His latest single even found its way onto Indian label Consolidate’s latest compilation.

3. Foeseal

Foeseal’s blend of glitch and tire hop is viscous and dense. He wears multiple sashes in his production, ably delivering on each with aplomb.

4. Phatcowlee

Rajan Shrestha’s work as Phatcowlee slips under the radar, but the artist is consistently one of the best producers in South Asia. His work is an agile blend of jazz, rock, house, bass underpinned with distinct improvisatory modes of expression. One listen to his music and it’s easy to fall in love with it.

Pakistan

There is an ever-increasing gap between the mainstream and the underground in Pakistan’s club culture. A strict religious government coupled with decades of violence imposed by Global North countries has repeatedly stunted any possible growth in major cities. For decades, rumours persisted of raves on the beach by the Arabian Sea; now, those rumours are of empty warehouses playing jungle parties and forest raves. The last ten years has allowed the city’s electronic music landscape to take shape and the country’s artists have built a community from the ground up.

Read this next: "A tool for protest": DJs from the Global South are fighting oppression through music

Artists:

1. 6LA8

Ambient, drone and post rock music float while incisive political commentary cuts through the noise. Their music is, for lack of a better word, undefinable. Each album is lengthy but pay attention and their music stays with you for weeks afterwards.

2. Slowspin

Slowspin’s gift is her ethereal voice, which sits atop dreamscape ambient experimental production. It’s a leisurely voice which nestles deeply into each groove. Listen closely and you’ll hear each layer of the track unfurl itself.

3. Natasha Noorani

Natasha Noorani wears many hats. The Lahore-based musician is a festival curator, archivist, DJ, ethnomusicologist, producer, singer-songwriter but is, most importantly, an artist whose recent solo work sees someone finally blossoming into themselves.

4. alif

Plinking synths and candied keys underpin this Karachi-based producer’s work. Toeing the line between nu-disco and synth wave, alif deftly brings the ‘80s into today’s musical context.

5. NAWKSH

One of Pakistan’s most important and revered producers, the enigmatic NAWKSH has mostly gone silent but his lasting legacy remains his timeless music.

6. Asfandyar Khan // TMPST

Wearing either one of his aliases, Asfandyar Khan (AKA TMPST) creates ambient textural tracks and hard-hitting techno. Having been around for over a decade in the scene, he constantly refreshes his sound to evolve alongside his maturity. The tendrils of his influence can be felt in nearly every corner of the industry.

7. Talal Qureshi

For a long time, Talal Qureshi was Pakistan’s best kept secret. In recent years, the rapper, singer, producer and DJ has made his presence felt outside of South Asia through his peerless glitch-pop production. He surprises listeners with each release and his consistent, relentless output is unmatched.

8. Tollcrane

Relentless rib cage-rattling production epitomises the work of Tollcrane. Bursts of techno sit neatly alongside the frenetic fast-paced energy of his music.

Label + Collective:

Forever South Music

As both a collective and a label, the impact Forever South Music had on the industry is still felt today. Founded by Dynoman and Rudoh, the label birthed several seminal producers and showcased what South Asian artists can do; their collaborations with international labels and artists shone a deserved spotlight on them, allowing them to remain timeless despite their limited time in the sun.

Radio Stations:

Karachi Community Radio

With the Forever South Music dissipating over time, Karachi Community Radio filled that hole. They’ve banded the community together again under one umbrella and have put on events, interviewed artists and are re-energising a scene that felt in limbo for a while. KCR’s DIY attitude and relentless energy has created a studio alongside it where they put together audio-visual production, virtual production, AR, XR, projection mapping, holographic and interactive installation services, ensuring that they remain one of the region’s most interesting outfits.

Read this next: Britain's first out Muslim drag queen: Asifa Lahore is a proud clubland pioneer

SRI LANKA

Due to its population and certain governmental leniences, India dominates the discourse when it comes to South Asian art. Pakistan is usually next in the imaginary hierarchy placed upon the region. But, quietly and without a fuss, Sri Lanka has been championing a scene whose artists are rich in talent, determined and have barely scratched the surface of what is possible.

Artists:

1. Sunara

A specialist DJ, Sunara’s ability deserves to be spotlighted. One of South Asia’s brightest talents, Sunara’s ability to skip through genres effortlessly has allowed her to tour internationally and become renowned in South Asia.

2. Asvajit

The founder of Jambutek Recordings has his oeuvre rooted in bass and house music. A stalwart of the scene, he manages to evolve his sound over time to ensure it stays relevant and fresh.

3. Nigel Perera

One the island’s most thrilling producers, Perera’s work seems to not be boxed into any genre as he still finds an able footing. A regular on Jambutek Recordings, he also releases consistently across six other labels.

4. Dinelka Liyanage

An experimental sound artist, Dinenlka’s work is quite undefinable in that the soundscapes and genres he create are wholly his and peerless.

Label:

Jambutek Recordings

Founded in 2014, Jambutek Recordings is an electronic music imprint and artist collective based in Colombo, Sri Lanka which boasts a plethora of Sri Lanka’s most exciting artists. With releases spanning deep, progressive and acid house as well as techno, Jambutek have also released artists from all over the world, including ones in the United Kingdom.

Check out Jambutek Recordings on Bandcamp

Dhruva Balram is a freelance writer and critic, follow him on Twitter

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