LM Archives
  7:44 PM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

An Apache from Handsworth

Apache Indian is a reggae star with a difference. Mary McCaughey spoke to the Asian welder who is making sparks fly in the music world

When Apache Indian's first single, 'Move over India', went to Number One in both the Asian and the reggae charts in 1990, it shocked the Asian community, the reggae world and Apache himself. Asians threw tomatoes at him - many considered it offensive for an Asian man to speak in patois and dress up like a homeboy. There was vexation in the Afro-Caribbean community that an Indian could make it on the reggae scene. As for the music press, the hacks dismissed him as a one-hit wonder.

Three years on and Apache has signed a contract worth £250 000 with Island Records for his first album, 'No Reservations' - one of the largest sums paid for a debut album by a black performer. Over the past year, he has worked in Bob Marley's studio in Kingston, Jamaica with Sly Dunbar, reggae's top producer. He has collaborated too with such top reggae performers as Frankie Paul, Maxi Priest and Shabba Ranks. When a DJ on Spectrum Radio promised recently to play Apache's new single, 'Arranged Marriage', only if a thousand people rang the show, the switchboard was jammed for the next hour and a half.

Apache has come a long way from the days when he cut his first single in a cousin's bedroom. When I spoke to him, he was ensconced in one of London's plushest hotels near Marble Arch. And the music press were knocking on his door for an interview. I asked Apache how an Indian lad from Birmingham had become interested in reggae.

'I grew up in Handsworth', he said, 'a very multicultural place. While I came from a very traditional Asian family, I had reggae music around me all the time and it appealed to me very much. I was from a new generation of Asian kids who were brought up alongside black kids, but we had no street culture or heroes to relate to - all we had were videos from India. We were discouraged from talking about things like sex or contraception or arranged marriages.

'The new generation of Asian kids wanted to talk about these things and we wanted a street culture of our own. I believe that 'Move over India' started the ball rolling - now more and more Asian kids are getting into DJing, rapping and reggae music. One of my new songs, 'Time has Come', is about talking about these things. It introduces these subjects to young people on the streets in a simple, humorous and not too political manner.'

Apache has taken the credit for creating an Asian 'street culture'. But surely, I asked him, there must have been a streetwise culture around already for 'Move over India' to be so successful?

'Yes, I believe that the street thing was around then, but there was no popular expression of it before 'Move over India'. Asian kids had already brought the street fashion clothes they had seen their black pals wearing at school - but because of all the prejudices our parents' generation had about black people the clothes stayed in their wardrobes. It took 'Move over India' before the kids had the confidence to wear it.

'The new generation of Asian kids are not as isolated as our parents' generation and not as accepting of what they hear in the media about black people. Our parents had a very negative view about black people, because all they knew about them came from the TV or the newspapers - and it was all about crime and violence. Anything wrong a black person did was on the front page, anything right was on the back page.

'But we grew up with black kids, went to school with them, had black friends. The new generation of Asian kids have a new culture that consists of a lot of different things - an Asian thing, a white thing and a black thing. The Asian thing is still very important to them, but I want to put all these things together to take our culture forward.

'What it needed was somebody to start it off. What it needed was some way of Asians getting recognised, Asians making a noise in some other world other than their own. It didn't have to be reggae - I could have mixed Asian culture with pop culture. I could have made a track with Jason Donovan rather than Maxi Priest. But to set the ball rolling we needed to mix our culture with other cultures.'

Apache's success lies in his ability to mix two styles - bhangra and ragga. Bhangra is the music traditionally played at Punjabi harvest festivals. Given a Westernised drum beat, it became a popular sound with Asian teenagers in the eighties. Ragga is an amalgam of hip hop and reggae; Jamaican ragga performers such as Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton have taken the reggae world by storm over the past few years.

'I mixed reggae and Asian music together', Apache said, 'and it filled a gap for people. Now 90 per cent of bhangra tunes have a ragga element and reggae musicians have started to use traditional Asian instruments such as the tabla. The music industry can see that what I'm doing is new and will be big. International stars such as Frankie Paul do not need to work with me, but they see that I can push reggae to a whole new world - the Asian market - which can only be good for the artists and the industry.

'There are 2.2m Asians in England. If an Asian kid goes into a record shop to buy my record he is likely to buy a Shabba Ranks or a Gregory Isaacs tune also. When I played in Trinidad more than 15 000 turned up to the show, including the largest number of Asians ever seen at a reggae gathering. I do not perform just reggae shows, but white shows and Asian shows.'

Ragga artists such as Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton have been widely criticised for slack (sexist or anti-gay) lyrics. In December, Womad (World Organisation of Music, Arts and Dance) banned Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton from playing at its world music festival in Brighton. On Channel 4's The Word, a row broke out when the presenters took umbrage at Shabba Ranks's apparent endorsement of Banton's anti-gay lyrics. What did Apache make of the controversy?

'Buju Banton said when he was interviewed on The Word that he was sorry if he offended people in different worlds, but he was talking about what was going on in his country - Jamaica. Jamaica is a very, very poor country. And anything they can do to make some money they will do. And if it means making a song with slack lyrics rather than killing someone for a meal or some dollars, what's better to do? You make money there through music or crime. Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks are making a very successful living from music. In Jamaica young people like to listen to slack lyrics. Therefore these lyrics make money.

'It's a shame that The Word disrespected these artists who are the biggest thing in reggae at the moment. However it's good to see the media taking an interest in reggae at last - ragga has been around for a long time but ignored by the media. So even if it is controversy that sells, any publicity can only be good for reggae.'

'No Reservation' is released on Island Records on 25 January

The new wave of vampire films has been used as a metaphor for the age of Aids. But Andrew Tate thinks vampirism and moralism don't mix

Dracula's unsafe sex

Nineteen ninety-three has been acclaimed as the year of the vampire. Some 10 vampire films are due to be released this year, most notably Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, just out in Britain. We are also promised a lesbian vampire, a hip-hop vampire, as well as Adam Ant donning the fangs. And it isn't only Hollywood that is seemingly obsessed by Dracula. In the same week that Bram Stoker's Dracula was the highest grossing film in the USA, Anne Rice's vampire novel The Body Thief was Number One in the fiction bestsellers list. In Britain Faber has just published a new collection of vampire stories. Even the BBC got in on the act with its much-hyped The Vampyr - a Soap Opera mini-series over the Christmas holiday period.

For many critics the new fascination with vampires is the product of the age of Aids. Frank Rich, the New York Times drama critic, has dubbed it 'the new blood culture'. America, he has written 'has awakened to the fact that the most insidious post-Cold War enemy is a virus'. He adds that 'Aids, after all, actually does to the bloodstream what communists and other radicals were once only rumoured to do the nation's water supply'.

Coppola himself has made the link between Dracula and Aids, and the script of his film plays up to this theme. 'Blood is too precious a thing in these times', says Dracula, who leaves his victim, an English maiden named Lucy, with what her doctor calls a 'disease of the blood unknown to all medical theory'. A blood specialist likens Lucy's ailment to venereal disease and calls it a threat to the 'ethics and ideals' of humanity.

The Aids panic may have given new meaning to the vampire myth (though it is worth remembering that vampires never really went away - there were nine vampire films in 1970, and the works of Anne Rice and Stephen King have been popular for two decades and more). But the vampire is too ambiguous a creature to play a straightforward morality role in the 1990s.

For a start, the vampire myth is not really part of the horror genre. From Frankenstein's creation to the Alien, cinematic monsters have invoked terror by the horrors they have visited upon their victims. Vampires on the other hand seduce rather than destroy. The images of vampirism are implicitly those of sexual seduction. The victims (male and female) swoon when bitten.

The vampire prefers to operate at night and is weakened (or killed) by daylight. And, as every child knows, vampires can be kept at bay with garlic or crucifixes. Strong light, bad breath and Jesus are clearly bad for the sex drive. Vampires are largely portrayed as part monster, part lover - in some films it is the victim that seduces the vampire. Dracula is just too charming to be simply a plague carrier.

If the vampire is an ambiguous figure, this ambiguity is accentuated by today's sexual mores. Coppola's scriptwriter, James V Hart, has likened the film to 'Gone with the Wind with sex and violence'. Yet the film contains nothing like the excess of Bram Stoker's Victorian novel on which it is based, nor does it have the shock value of the original.

What gave Bram Stoker's vampire its impact was the sense of good and evil which existed in his society. By transgressing the line between the two, Stoker's Dracula became a dark, demonic figure. Today we have a far more flexible notion of good and evil. And however hard the Aids moralists may try, they cannot impart the same moral shock to the act of sexual seduction in the 1990s as Stoker was able to in the 1890s.

The modern version of the vampire is much more sympathetic than Stoker's monster: most modern vampires appear either as lovers, as in films such as Near Dark, or as figures of fun (think of the Addams Family or The Rocky Horror Picture Show). In Stoker's original book, Lucy, after being bitten by Dracula, is finally saved by the forces of Victorian propriety, who restore 'the Thing' to 'sweetness and purity': literally from vamp to virgin. The same scene in Coppola's film is more problematic. Not only is Lucy more fun as a vamp, but her nemesis, Van Helsing, is played by Anthony 'Hannibal Lecter' Hopkins. As a result, Lucy's pursuers appear as darker figures than she does, and far more malicious than Stoker ever intended.

The problem for modern vampire-slayers is that they appear more as parental party-poopers than as the guardians of society's morals and well-being. In the end, in Coppola's film, Mina (Winona Ryder) still prefers the aged Count (Gary Oldman) for 'unsafe vampire sex' to Harker, her legal clerk of a husband, even if Harker is played by Keanu Reeves - and most of us would probably make the same choice too.

The working class is now getting the Arthur Negus treatment, reckons Andrew Calcutt

Miners and museum pieces

hadn't watched Coronation Street for years, until I had the flu a few weeks ago. Flicking the channels, I heard the familiar theme tune and stayed to watch what turned out to be a comedy programme.

'Corrie is a joke' may not be news to you. But it took me by surprise. When Tony Warren's pilot episodes topped the ratings more than 30 years ago, the whole point was that the characters in Coronation Street were there to be taken seriously.

In the early days, Len Fairclough was a hard man's hard man. Elsie Tanner was better looking than Princess Margaret, and her affairs were just as traumatic. Of course there were touches of humour: miser Tatlock and dragon Sharples spring to mind. But what was new about Coronation Street was its straightforward dramatisation of Northern working class characters, without sneering at or patronising them. The novel assumption behind the programme was that the life of the working class was no longer a laughing matter.

Until the Coronation Street era, working class characters had appeared in British films and television as Dickensian villains and lackeys, Cockney cameos or music hall turns from 'oop North'. Today, these old images seem to be making a comeback - even on Corrie. In the recent episode I saw, most of the roles seemed like latter-day versions of the crude personae adopted by George Formby, Gracie Fields and Barbara Windsor (Bet Lynch is a sophisticated exception: she knows she's a caricature and revels in it).

I don't want to sound as sanctimonious as Lord Rees-Mogg, the chair of the Broadcasting Standards Council who criticised Corrie for being out of date and having an unrepresentative ethnic mix. Granada's riposte to Rees-Mogg was to the effect that Coronation Street provides entertainment, not actualité. Fair comment. Coronation Street is indeed entertaining, and it is not the cause of any kind of stereotyping: class, racial or otherwise.

But Coronation Street is not immune from the wider trend towards caricaturing the working class. In the new wave of sitcoms, beginning with Birds of a Feather, the working class only seems to exist on the criminal fringes of society. Although Corrie still carries its original theme tune, of the same sixties vintage as kitchen-sink drama and campaigning documentaries such as Cathy Come Home, its characterisation has inevitably been influenced by the revival of the notion that the working class is either laughable, or criminal, or both.

This revival has been facilitated by the declining social influence of the working class in recent years. A class without influence invites parody - and worse.

Worse came with last October's miners' dispute. You might have thought the dispute was about pit closures and the future of the working class. For the media it was about the preservation of Britain's cultural heritage.

Stubble and coal dust; dejected expression; white skin against the grime; white teeth and the whites of his eyes; a hard hat and stooping shoulders: these were some of the elements which made up the image of The Miner 1992--an image largely based on archive photographs from the forties or fifties. In their mind's eye, various sections of British society arranged the component parts in different ways.

Dissident Tory backbenchers viewed The Miner as the embodiment of sturdy British stock, a worthy recipient of their patronage. The last remaining liberal commentators saw in the face of The Miner the memory of their high hopes for social engineering in the postwar period. The Labour front bench associated The Miner with the nationalisation of the pits and Labour's high watermark in 1945. Bishops looked at The Miner, and thought of the feeding of the five thousand. Union leaders saw The Miner as the bedrock of the power they have lost. For left-wing activists, The Miner meant flying pickets, now grounded.

The middle classes connected the days of coal with the age of steam: boys in caps and short trousers, Dixon of Dock Green and 'you've never had it so good'. Many working class people shared their affection for the days when life seemed less precarious. All interpretations of The Miner evoked the past; and they all assumed that the working class is a victim - a largely passive object which stoically withstands the pressures brought to bear upon it.

Commentators on the miners' dispute used the same tone of voice as David Attenborough talking about an endangered species. A crocodile of journalists went on safari in pit villages. They waited until closing time before filming in miners' clubs, so as to capture the beery animal in full flow. Dirty realist reporters wrote about brass band concerts as an example of local exotica. And, as if to confirm the historical authenticity of their subject, photographers took most of their shots in black and white. The miners were treated like exhibits on the Antiques Roadshow.

Nowadays the chattering classes openly laugh at the working class, or they cover it with sentiment. And when neither of these seems appropriate, they simply vent their spleen - as, for example, in The Tattooed Jungle, the recent video-nasty on Channel 4. Writer Tony Parsons repeated some old fairy tales about the great unwashed, except that his bogeymen were dressed in shell suits and his witches in high heels and lycra. Poor Tony! He thinks he's hip, but he's more like hip replacement.

Tory backbenchers described the miners as the salt of the earth. Tony Parsons called the working class the scum of the earth. The common theme among the new definitions is that today's working class lacks the power to stop other people describing it however they like.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk