Spotlight: Steve Chandra Savale of Asian Dub Foundation

Steve Chandra Savale speaks to Subi Shah about music for spiritual change and social justice.

Photo: Laurence Sordello

In 1990, a young guitarist called Steve Chandra Savale came across an advertisement in a newspaper which read ‘Black/Asian musicians required for experimental dub noise project.’ He was the only one to reply.

At the time, Savale had no inkling that he would go on to form part of a trailblazing collective, Asian Dub Foundation (ADF), which, along with significant fellow travellers such as Nitin Sawhney, Fun-Da-Mental, Talvin Singh and State of Bengal (the late Saifullah ‘Sam’ Zaman), would define a genre that came to be known as Asian Underground.

ADF was set up by Aniruddha Das (aka Dr Das), John Pandit (aka Panditji) and Deedar Zaman. Several months after meeting the founders, Savale (aka Chandrasonic) was officially asked to join the band – the rest is musical history. In the two subsequent decades ADF have won or been nominated for innumerable awards, including the BBC’s for World Music and the Mercury Music Prize, and still play to packed stadiums across Europe.

I can’t stand the notion that somehow an artist is considered to be more important because they’ve received an award

Perhaps surprisingly, Savale places no weight on such accolades, saying: ‘Personally, I’ve no interest in award culture. I can’t stand the notion that somehow an artist is considered to be more important because they’ve received an award. It has no relevance to the way I see music, whatsoever... As ADF, we are committed to collaborating with both established and new talent.’ Famous collaborators have included Sinead O’Connor and Chuck D of Public Enemy. They also platformed celebrated beatboxing flautist Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee at a time when he was quite unknown. Lee is working again with ADF on a new album, which has been pushed back time and again due to the pandemic, but is expected later this year.

We discuss Savale’s view that music is an instrument for personal spiritual change and also wider social justice.

‘I guess we’re [still] most vocal about immigration and citizenship, as we always were,’ he says. ‘[Current British Home Secretary] Priti Patel has been able to get away with accumulating the most authoritarian and explicitly racist powers a UK government has had since World War Two. We have always tackled issues through our music which we hope encourages action beyond this medium. On 1 January 2021, the day the UK left the EU, our collaboration with comedian Stewart Lee “Comin’ Over Here” was the song that was purchased most in the UK, and all profits went to the Kent Refugee Action Group, an organization right at the cutting edge. The track provided a musical backing to Stewart’s ruthless pillorying of UKIP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and had a resonance similar to our “Free Satpal Ram” campaign back in 1998.’

Satpal Ram was just 20 when he ended up fatally stabbing a white man in a Birmingham restaurant with a pen knife. The man had attempted to glass him in the face during a racially aggravated brawl. Ram underwent a trial that was rife with legal blunders, racist assumptions, misinformation and oversights, where he was prevented from pleading self-defence. He was released after enduring 15 years of incarceration, following a long and sustained campaign by Asian Dub Foundation, Primal Scream and others.

Savale smiles and reveals that he is an avid reader of New Internationalist and recollects my 2016 interview with Noam Chomsky, saying it provoked him to think about the global swing to the Right at the time.

‘The really scary thing is that certain conditions that prefigure a far-right takeover appear to be here,’ he says. ‘In my view, they are as follows. One, the pandering to far-right agendas by mainstream currents, such as the adoption of UKIP’s agenda by the Tories and the reshaping of the Republican party to extreme nationalism. Two, when sections of the Right start to attack mainstream institutions that are usually sacrosanct in traditional conservative discourse – for example, attacks on “elites”, the judiciary, selected corporations and even the police. This false anti-establishment rhetoric is couched in a militancy that resembles the Left and, when combined with nationalism, can appeal to large sections of the working class. And finally, far-right movements are backed by huge sums of money that any genuine Left opposition cannot hope to match.’

Savale tells me that ADF is a continuously evolving project, with issues of immigration, citizenship and racism at its core, due to the shared lived experience of its members. They are on the eve of a UK and France tour when we speak, and Savale laments ‘the headache of Brexit Bureaucracy, limiting access to artists who are vital to musical exploration’. I ask him if anger really is an energy (as the Public Image Limited song goes) and what makes him angry. His reply: ‘Everything.’