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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

XX marks the spot for the Ska Vengers, an Indian band intent on world domination

We meet the Indian band the Ska Vengers who are setting the global stage alight with their sharp lyrics and political protest.
The Ska Vengers, from left: Taru Dalmia, Samara Chopra, Stefan Kaye, Chaitanya Bhalla, Tony Guinard, Nikhil Vasudevan. Courtesy Supreet Bagri.
The Ska Vengers, from left: Taru Dalmia, Samara Chopra, Stefan Kaye, Chaitanya Bhalla, Tony Guinard, Nikhil Vasudevan. Courtesy Supreet Bagri.

‘It was like being in an ashram, nice gardens and everything.” The keyboardist and bandleader for New Delhi ska/reggae/punk band the Ska Vengers, Stefan Kaye is telling me about the three weeks he spent in the capital’s infamous Tihar Jail for a visa violation. We’re talking at Antisocial – Mumbai’s new underground music venue – a few hours before a gig to launch the band’s second record XX, which was released on July 1.

Kaye has just spent the day attending a legal hearing in the Delhi High Court, before rushing to Mumbai on an evening flight. Quite understandably, he’s not amused at the Kafkaesque machinations of the Indian justice system. But his mood quickly lightens when the conversation shifts back to the Ska Vengers and the new album, XX

A native of Croydon in South London who grew up listening to the Clash, Buzzcocks and Killing Joke, Kaye strikes me as a figure straight out of the 80s UK post-punk milieu. His approach to music blends punk’s DIY ethic with that era’s pick‘n’mix pastiche approach to sound. Kaye – who moved to India 10 years ago “for the weather and the cultural diversity” – and drummer Nikhil Vasudevan founded the Ska Vengers in 2008 with guitarist Raghav ‘Diggy’ Dang (later replaced by Chaitanya Bhalla), bassist Tony Guinard and vocalists Samara Chopra and Taru Dalmia.

The band, along with a horn section, spent the next few years playing gigs and working on their self-titled debut LP, which came out in 2012. That record lays out the Ska Vengers blueprint – uptempo ska and reggae mixed with dub, punk, jazz and local folk, while Chopra’s sultry jazz vocals are juxtaposed with Dalmia’s urgent patois, with lyrics that explore radical politics and relationships.

The political content comes largely from Dalmia and Chopra’s engagement with the Indian left. A Jawaharlal Nehru University and London's School of Oriental and African Studies graduate who grew up steeped in 90s hip-hop, reggae and dancehall culture, Dalmia comes across as an erudite young man equally at ease discussing Jamaican sound engineer King Tubby or the Black Panthers.

During a childhood spent in Germany and the United States, he developed a strong political consciousness inspired by his experience of everyday racism and prejudice, as well as the militant anti-colonialism of Jamaica’s Rastafari movement. 

“The American economy is sustained by death,” he says, referring to the US penal system which, in 2008, held 24.7 per cent of the world’s prisoners. “I know people who got incarcerated and I also saw this thuggish persona that people assumed because it gave them a sense of dignity and power. You see these things, they disturb you; you don’t know what you do with it.”

When his family moved to India in 1999, Dalmia saw the same dynamics of class violence playing out in New Delhi, except this time he was part of the enabling upper class. Not wanting to be “on the wrong side of history”, as he puts it, he chose to channel his disaffection into music and activism.

Despite coming from a very different musical background than Kaye (“I mean punk is white, you know; I was more into black music”), the two – along with the rest of the band – share an increasingly unfashionable belief in music as an instrument for change. So, it’s no surprise that at a time when Dalits and Muslims are being lynched by vigilantes for eating beef, and the environment ministry is working with big business to erode tribal rights, the Ska Vengers give us one of the most urgent, defiant and politically sharp records to come out of India’s independent music scene. 

Opener Kick Up a Rumpus sets the tone, oozing menace and swagger as Dalmia sneers at shoe brands and special economic zones, while aligning the band with anti-capitalist crusaders like Chhattisgarh tribal activist Soni Sori. “My sound will mash up flesh, break up bone,” he challenges, as Bhalla’s aggressive guitars and Vasudevan’s drums rampage all over the track.

Frank Brazil tells the story of Udham Singh, an Indian revolutionary who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, lieutenant governor of the Punjab, in London in 1940 when O’Dwyer was 75. Singh had witnessed the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Its counterpart is the title track, which places the “encounter killing” of Kishenji – a popular leader of the long-running Maoist insurgency against the Indian state – on the same axis as the British colonial government’s actions against freedom fighters Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad in 1931. Singh was famously executed in Central Jail Lahore, and his body was then secretly cremated by the British authorities. A wounded Azad, surrounded by police and having declared that he would never be captured alive, used his last bullet to commit suicide. The two tracks also repudiate the Hindu right’s attempts to appropriate these secular, anti-communal, left-leaning revolutionaries.

Then there’s 011, a spy film theme song filtered through the wildly divergent visions of S D Burman and hardcore punk, which positions India’s grassroots resistance against the might of the Indian intelligence and security apparatus. Even the flippant, tongue-in-cheek Shut Your Mouth – written by Chopra and collaborator Talia Bentson – with its put-down of “You little boys with your big egos”, is open to political interpretation. “Today there’s a voice that speaks with a disproportionate loudness, you can’t get away from it,” Dalmia says. 

Backing up the agitprop rhetoric is some of the most interesting music to come out of India. While the debut album was much more straightforward ska, the music on XX frequently adds jazz, dub, punk rock and psychedelic elements to the mix.

Kaye spent many hours in the studio experimenting with sonic textures and exotic sounds (there’s even a vacuum cleaner in there somewhere), resulting in a rich, heavily-detailed sound.

The incredibly catchy Jail Mein – partly influenced by Kaye’s jail experience – is a reworking of a song by “roughneck” Bangladeshi singer Pothik Nobi, who himself borrowed the tune from 1930s freedom fighters. Dalmia’s lyrics refer to the Indian state’s tendency to throw any dissidents into jail, set to sinister carnivalesque music and a delicious heavy metal guitar riff.

One highlight is their 10-minute magnum opus Afro-Fantasy, which calls out the president of India while weaving a brilliant musical tapestry of jazz, psychedelia, La Monte Young-style minimalism and even a little prog rock. 

The band is currently in the UK for a 14-date tour, including sets at Bestival, BoomTown Fair and the Secret Garden Party. At the Riverside Festival, they will play alongside reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Undertones. It’s the natural next step for a band that has its sights set on a global, international audience. “I’m very excited, man,” says Dalmia. “It’s a mammoth tour to pull off with six guys from India playing in the UK but I’m pumped and I look forward to representing our sound in the UK.” 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who writes about music, protest culture and politics.