South Asian Soundscapes

Every environment has a distinct sonic landscape, a set of characteristic noises that are unique to that location. It might be the squeak and crunch of a foot on rubbery sand, the rattle and scrape of a ski on a freshly groomed ski slope, or the crisp crack of a branch resonating across an otherwise silent forest – each sound has the ability to transport the hearer to a moment beyond the present, helping to evoke a sense of place.

This is especially true of South Asia, somewhere frequently defined by the assault it performs on every human sense. The first thing most people notice when stepping onto this sub-continent is the hot touch of humidity on their skin, and then the collage of unfamiliar objects and alien situations that flood their vision. Next, an exotic mix of smells raids their nostrils, infused with the tang of spices and the musty sweat of determination, all of which is brought vibrantly to life when the first taste of South Asian cuisine is introduced to their lips.

And then sound washes across the scene like a wave tumbling onto a beach, irrepressibly encroaching from every direction. It is inescapable and totally pervasive, unrelenting in intensity and exhausting as a result. Yet it is one of South Asia’s greatest characteristics, something that no visitor can forget, nor would they ever wish to forego. To those people, the following soundscapes will be familiar, each part of the sub-continent’s complex tapestry of noise.

Traffic Jam (Flickr credit: meg and rahul)

Traffic Jam

A tired engine groans beneath a heavy burden, echoed moments later by another vehicle carrying far more than it was ever designed to bear. Metal scrapes against metal; bumpers rattle across the tarmac. Each pothole induces a muffled thump, accompanied by the aching creak of rusty suspension. A horn bellows, not out of aggression but of acknowledgment. A different horn responds, and then another. And another. Soon, a symphony of horns join together in an unending crescendo.

The traffic moves no faster.

A Banquet

Laughter. High and rhythmic, resounding and sincere, broken only by mouthfuls of curry-soaked chapatti bread. A radio in the corner crackles into life, spitting forth sirens and sitars in a distorted fuzz, elevating the atmosphere to a heightened conviviality. A cascade of chai gurgles while poured, beside pots that bubble and stoves that hiss. Conversation narrows to a single speaker, who holds the stares of all around with an unfamiliar story spoken in familiar tones. Tension builds. Breathes are held. A punch line is delivered.

The group collapse into laugher once more.

Street Hawkers (Flickr credit: mckaysavage)

Street Hawking

Conversation babbles like a stream, a murmured backdrop to an unremarkable day. Men discuss the latest cricket score, making their arguments with heavily exaggerated gestures. A tourist walks past: a customer, an opportunity. Voices rise to sell their wares, renewing final deals and undercutting the competition. Languages merge and arguments flare, an impassioned exchange of offers and counter-offers, of needs and means. A smile indicates it’s all a sport, but in this match both participants are winners.

A deal is struck.

Call to Prayer

The palpable stillness of a silent morning is shattered by a sudden lone wail, cracking against the quietness like a glass smashing against a floor. It twists and turns, rises and falls, never settling for more than a few seconds. It pierces the air and invades every home, luring listeners to its core. Within it can be heard a mélange of emotions: desperation and faith; solemnity and belief; dedication and suffering.

The call to prayer is never ignored.

Images by meg and rahul and mckaysavage


First Impressions of South Asia

I was laying face-down on a stained mattress, my skin soaked with sweat and my face soaked with tears. One thought pressed against the walls of my skull: What am I doing here?

Every one of my senses was overwhelmed and exhausted. In a single short walk from the taxi to my hostel, I’d smelt sugars, spices and various secretions; I’d heard horns and laughter, music and prayer; I’d seen one hundred near-crashes and one thousand near-witnesses; I’d tasted the musk of an air totally drained of its vitality; I’d felt a street full of people stop and stare.

I’d only been in India for three hours, but already it had defeated me.

India (Credit: Alex Plim)

I never thought that England would be that different from South Asia. I went to school with people from Pakistan, ate Indian takeaways every couple of weeks, and would often happen upon a Bollywood film while channel flicking. These experiences shaped my perception of South Asia into something romantic and dazzling, a sub-continent drenched in colour and bursting with life.

I was right, of course: South Asia is bursting with life, but for someone who grew up in the middle of England, that life can seem too copious, too intense, and too overwhelming. It’s impossible to describe just how it feels to step out of the airport in Delhi and into a tussling mass of people, each vying passionately for your attention, desperate to be noticed and given an opportunity to sell their service. The barrage doesn’t diminish until you arrive at the sanctuary of your hostel, and even then you are constantly aware of the activity from which you are separated by only a thin wall.

Indian Elephant (Credit: Alex Plim)

I spent ten days in India before heading to Nepal, a move I labelled at the time an escape. Here, I found life to be far more manageable, and I was able to process and enjoy what I experienced straight away rather than retrospectively, which was a total contrast to my first impressions of India. Indeed, it wasn’t until I got back to England six months later that I reflected upon my first day on the sub-continent and began to understand how seminal it had been.

I misguidedly placed immediate blame upon India for destroying my preconceptions and shoving me so far beyond my comfort zone, a feeling perpetuated by the ceaselessness of the place. What I should have blamed was my romantic expectations and the ideal I had formulated in my mind, which led directly to an elevated level of anticipation waiting to be realised. The reality of India was not actually any worse than this, it was simply different, which is exactly what creates a culture shock.

South Asia has a way of levelling people, of ignoring presumptions and doing things on its own terms. It forces eyes to open and view the world differently, to see beauty in the smallest things and appreciate what you have, not what you lack. In doing so, it presents a greater challenge than many are ever likely to face, but with it rewards that are everlasting and profound.

Survive the culture shock, and you’ll discover an enthralling part of the world that is impossible not to love.

A Bridge between East and West

I first heard the Sachal Jazz Ensemble on YouTube. Most people did. A group of Pakistani musicians placing their own spin on five and a half minutes of the most popular jazz music ever written is pretty difficult to ignore. At first it was novel, then it was catchy, but always it was unique. If the inevitable comparisons with Marmite were to be made, I was happy to take a piece of toast and spread the Sachal Jazz Ensemble all over it.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who felt this way.

Almost every chair in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was occupied on Tuesday night to see the ensemble play its world premiere performance. It was hardly surprising, given that Sachal’s rendition of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five has received over 340,000 views on YouTube in a single year, which, I’d tender, means it’s already reached more western ears than almost any other sound wave to have emanated from Pakistan.

I’ve become used to the charming humility that many South Asian performers assume, but there was an added dimension to this group’s humbleness. For a long time, during General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorial regime in Pakistan, these musicians had to set down their instruments and concentrate on forms of employment besides music, which would have made a performance at something like Alchemy far beyond any realm of possibility. If anyone could be forgiven for walking on stage with a defiant swagger, therefore, it’s these guys. Yet they didn’t.

Sachal Jazz Ensemble

The ensemble somehow reminded me of the big band I used to play in while at school, albeit the sound they produced was, inevitably, very different. The stage was crammed with performers – I lost count at 25 – and they were all following large manuscripts which, presumably, translated Western notes into the musical language of the East. Each musician concentrated intently on their copy in the same way I used to stare furiously at my own music stand, mindful that if I lost my place I’d likely never again find it, while a conductor stood at the front of the stage with flailing arms, trying to keep everyone in check.

But this was hardly surprising, serving as a constant reminder that despite their tight, balanced, studio-polished sound, this ensemble are very much breaking new ground, doing something incredibly innovative and fresh. And they’re doing it with jazz, no less; not rock, not pop: jazz. I began to wonder whether it would be possible to turn the tables, to interpret South Asian music through a Western mouthpiece, but somehow I doubt it would be done quite so well, a testament to the group’s outstanding ability.

During Jude Kelly’s introduction to Pete Lockett’s concert on Sunday, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director described Alchemy as an exploration of the dialogue and ongoing exchange between English and South Asian cultures, a sentiment that seemed particularly pertinent to this performance. The Sachal Jazz Ensemble have essentially created an entirely new genre of music, building a bridge over which musical enthusiasts can cross from East to West and back, and I hope it’ll be used as a gateway by listeners from both sides to discover music they may otherwise never have heard.

Musical Collabor-Asians

I remember the feeling well. It was like someone had found their way through my eardrums and into my skull, awakening every synapse in my brain and inducing a rush of adrenalin known only to those who have experienced an epiphany through music. I no longer consider Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith’s rendition of ‘Walk This Way’ to be the pinnacle of musical endeavour (I was fourteen at the time…), but the ramifications it had on my musical outlook were profound, and remain so to this day.

Musical collaborations represent a fascinating marriage of minds, a blending of influences and ideas that might otherwise never be merged. Perhaps most interestingly of all, however, they often combine disparate cultures, and in doing so introduce audiences to things they may never otherwise have encountered. In this sense, musical collaborations have the ability not only to create innovative forms of art, but to abolish social barriers and reach further than a piece of music ordinarily might.

It is this principle that makes the collaborative projects at this year’s Alchemy, of which there are many, particularly exciting. These events present accessible introductions to South Asian culture, and consequently have the potential to capture new audiences and forge fresh paths of musical discovery. If you’d like to do some background listening to make the most of the Alchemy concerts, check out the following tracks:

Norwegian Wood (Flickr credit: Marxchivist)

‘Norwegian Wood’ – The Beatles

You’ll struggle to find anything about the musical confluence between India and the West that does not mention ‘Norwegian Wood’, track number 2 on The Beatles’ 1965 album, Rubber Soul. This song is often credited with the first use of a sitar on a popular music track, heralding a genre that became known as Raga Rock. Although it represents a collaboration of ideas rather than musicians, it was the beginning of a musical journey for George Harrison and The Beatles that would thrust Indian music to the forefront of the world stage.

‘Ragas in Minor Scale’ Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass

The same journey turned Ravi Shankar, a virtuosic sitar player from Varanasi, into a household name, and he remains to this day possibly the most famous India musician ever to have graced Western ears. His collaboration with Philip Glass in 1990, on the album Passages, is an excellent gateway to both artist’s works, with the track ‘Ragas in a Minor Scale’ offering a particularly dazzling display of what can be done on a sitar. It’s also well worth checking out Shankar’s work with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he is almost as famously associated as The Beatles.

Sitar (Flickr credit: Noel Feans)


Shakti combined the formidable talents of John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain, along with a smattering of other outstanding musicians, in a group that infused Indian music with jazz, and in doing so became one of the first musical projects to be labelled World Fusion. ‘Joy’ is the opening track on the group’s eponymous first album, and is an electrifying example of what can happen when experts from the East meet the best from the West. Pursue any of the musical strands that comprise this group and you will not be disappointed.

‘O…Saya’A. R. Rahman and M.I.A.

When Slumdog Millionaire was released in 2008, it placed a spotlight on Indian culture that could be traced from its spectacular visual displays through to its groundbreaking soundtrack. ‘O…Saya’ was one of the film’s most popular songs, written by Indian composer A. R Rahman and M.I.A., a British artist of Sri Lankan descent. It represents a modern take on musical collaboration, for it was composed via email and is notable for the plethora of cultural influences that can be heard throughout its three and a half minute duration.

‘Take Five’Sachal Jazz Orchestra

Another example of a collaboration of ideas rather than musicians, the Sachal Jazz Orchestra made international headlines last year when a video of their rendition of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ went viral. Originally from Pakistan, this group explore Bossa Nova and Jazz standards using South Asian instruments, and performed their world premiere at Alchemy on 17th April. Upon hearing the group, Brubeck himself summed up the magic of musical collaborations when he said ‘East is East, and West is West, but through music the twain meet’.

Images by Marxchivist and Noel Feans

Pete Lockett: the Key to Indian Music

I’ve long been fascinated with the vastness of the planet and the number of people on it, with the idea that over 7 billion people are going about their daily lives, compiling experiences and memories, emotions and thoughts, and that I will cross paths with only the smallest number of them. Even greater is my fascination with the human beings I have met, with the personalities I’ve interacted with and the lives I’ve briefly shared.

I think about Rafik, the auto-rickshaw driver who showed me around Jaipur; Julian, the grinning Bolivian who guided me into the Amazon Jungle; Govinda, the affable Nepalese trekker who walked me up and down the foothills of the Himalayas. I think about the short time I spent with each of them, and the fact that they’re still out there, living in those places and doing the very same things, while I’m sitting here at my desk in London.

On Sunday night, the roles were reversed.


Before introducing the 9 musicians from rural Rajasthan to a keen audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, renowned percussionist Pete Lockett described the journey you’d have to take to visit one of their villages. First, you’d spend 9 or 10 hours on a plane flying from London to Delhi, where you’d then have to board a train or bus to Jaipur, a trip that could take anything upwards of 4 hours. Once in the Pink City, you’d have to find another bus – this one smaller and much less frequent – to take you out into the desert, and eventually, after 5 hours or more, to one of these musicians’ villages.

Pete spent 20 years visiting India before he made the journey himself, but when finally he did, he unearthed a musical world untouched by the West, free from the vices of fame and fortune, and thus preserved with an authenticity that he found irresistibly captivating. Naturally, he collaborated, and with the support of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation built a number of musical relationships which, ultimately, is what brought us all to Alchemy.


They walked onto to the stage with palpable pride, apparently unaware that the privilege they felt to be playing in London paled in comparison to the privilege the audience felt in being able to witness a performance by 9 musicians who’ve barely set eyes beyond rural India. Their reserve, grace and measured movements only added to their charm, giving way to a raw intensity when they began playing their instruments. It was instantly mesmerising, and intensely evocative.

Lockett, who began the concert with a virtuosic solo performance demonstrating the full breadth of colours that can be painted by the percussion family, held the group together without once stifling the performance, adroitly blending traditional Indian rhythms and sounds with other musical flavours, from the clave pulse of samba to the dizzying scales of Tim Garland’s saxophone. At times, the dazzling diversity of musicianship meant it was difficult to know where to focus one’s attention.

Overall, the evening was a glorious exemplification of how music can transcend cultural boundaries, paying scarce regard to differences in language, tradition or place. It was fantastic to see a group of performers from such a broad variety of backgrounds play together, and to do so with a joy that was infectious, but even greater was the opportunity to peer directly into a new corner of the world. Those musicians will now travel from the heart of London back to the depths of Rajasthan, to a life far removed from our own, but for the briefest of moments our paths met, and that’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Cardinal Cuisine in South Asia

Whether you realise it or not, you’re probably already a bit of an expert when it comes to South Asian cuisine. Every time you look at an Indian takeaway menu, or decide to sprinkle some spice into your evening meal and make a curry, you’re exploring the textures and tastes familiar to almost everyone who calls the sub-continent Home.

Of course, it is Indian cuisine with which we are most familiar, so much so that Chicken Tikka Masala is often said to be our national dish. India’s own national dish is not so easy to pinpoint, however, for its sheer size means that foodstuffs and flavours vary from north to south, east to west, making impossible any comprehensive classification.

Like any country, India is a magnet that attracts ideas and influences from beyond its borders, blending elements of other sub-continental cultures into its own varied heritage. Similarly, South Asia itself is a cultural patchwork that stretches across several million square kilometres of the Earth’s crust, sharing with its neighbours and within itself in a perpetual exchange of customs and traditions.

An idea of how this affects the sub-continent’s vast culinary breadth can be ascertained by focussing on its geographical extremities, the cardinal points that are South Asia’s cultural gateways. In the same way that Chicken Tikka Masala embodies the cultural kinship between England and India, the national dishes of South Asia’s outlying countries help to paint of picture not only of South Asian cuisine, but of the broad cultural relationships that unify each country within the sub-continent’s borders.

Vindaloo (Flickr credit: Jeffrey_Allen)

North: Dal Bhat

Dal Bhat is more than a national dish in Nepal: it is a national diet. Eaten twice a day, seven days a week, it is fundamentally simple (lentil soup with rice), but offers almost limitless variations in the form of Tarkari, small vegetable side dishes that vary from meal to meal. Because it’s such a ubiquitous dish, and kitchens always have it on the go, the Nepalese treat it with something of an all-you-can-eat attitude, and it’s common to ask for extra portions until your hunger is sated.

What to order: Tarka Dal, a classic lentil dish available in every decent curry house.

South: Garudiya

Unlike most of South Asia’s constituent nations, the Maldives don’t have neighbours with whom to exchange cultural quirks, but that doesn’t mean they are any less influenced by what goes on beyond their borders. Garudiya is a fish broth that boils Maldivian food down to its rawest fundamentals: fish (the most popular of which is Skipjack Tuna) and rice, best served with a side of crystalline waters and floury white sand. Many dishes also include coconut, just to make sure all the paradisiacal island boxes are ticked.

What to order: anything with fish in it, and try to imagine you’re lying in a hammock. Alternatively, any dish from Kerala, a state in the southwest of India, is likely to be similar to Maldivian cuisine.

Chillies (Flickr credit: Cobblucas)

East: Ema Datshi

Bhutan’s national dish uses chillies not as a spice but as a vegetable, which means Ema Datshi is way beyond what most palettes can handle. In the brittle climate of the Himalayas, however, heat is exactly what you’re looking for, which is what makes this dish is so popular. It translates directly as chilli cheese – the latter ingredient typically made from the milk of a yak – and, in its most authentic form, this is literally all it is.

What to order: a Vindaloo, just so you know what it feels like to chew on fire.

West: Ghormeh Sabzi

If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that Iran is so far west that some people don’t consider it to be South Asian at all, and this is evident in its cuisine. Ghormeh Sabzi is a Persian dish that makes use of green herbs rather than the spices you’ll find throughout the rest of the sub-continent, and includes kidney beans where you might otherwise find lentils or rice. Nevertheless, it demonstrates why you might come across various Middle Eastern inflections as you move further into South Asia’s culinary landscape.

What to order: Biryani, a popular fried rice dish that was created in Iran before being brought over to India by travellers and merchants.

Come along to our Taste of India food market which takes place across both weekends during Alchemy. Cooking demonstrations, advice from top chefs plus authentic food and fashion from India and South Asia.

Images by Jeffrey_Allen and Cobblucas

Where on Earth is South Asia?

Hands up: who can mark South Asia on a map? I certainly can’t, or at least I couldn’t before I started writing about it. At first I guessed it to be somewhere around Indonesia, but while that is just about the most southerly point in Asia, it’s very much Southeast Asian territory. Surely it’s just anything south of the enormity of China, then? Wrong again.

In truth, it’s a trick question: no one knows exactly where South Asia is, because a formal definition has never been settled upon, and classification thus varies depending on who you ask. Having said this, most commentators do agree on seven core nations: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (you don’t need to know what they do, just that they’re a big authority who really ought to know what their geographical remit is) consider Afghanistan to be South Asian too, while the United Nations, who you’d think would be a veritable source, also add Iran to the mix. Then there’s a host of other organisations who weigh in with their own various ideas of what constitutes South Asia, all of which combines to create more confusion than clarity.

Himalayas (Flickr credit: ilkerender)

The good news is that none of this matters much anyway, because the people of South Asia – wherever that may be – don’t really identify with a geopolitical label. Instead, it is geography that defines their collective identity, or, more specifically, the barrier of mountain ranges that cover Central Asia like a scab, creating a division between land masses that has had a greater influence on the evolution of culture and growth of nations than any governing body.

The amphitheatre of earth that cradles South Asia is formed primarily by the Himalayas, which stretch dominantly across the northern borders of Bhutan, Nepal and India, before crumbling southwards to divide western Pakistan from Afghanistan. They are met at the other end by the northern reaches of the Arakan Mountains, which crawl up the edge of Myanmar and tumble down upon India’s north-eastern annex. Place all of this on a map and South Asia suddenly announces itself like a stone relief.

By all accounts, India is the centrepiece of the sub-continent, both in terms of size and status, which is why it features prominently in Southbank Centre’s Alchemy programme. The world’s seventh largest and second most populous country occupies around three quarters of South Asia’s spread, and packs far more people into its borders than the region’s other nations combined. The closest comparison is made with Pakistan, a country whose GDP was barely over a tenth of India’s last year.

Taj Mahal (Flickr credit: snikrap)

Facts and figures paint just part of the picture, however. South Asian countries are inescapably bound together by their geography, which means they share many cultural similarities, but they are also very much independent nations with individual identities, where Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists coexist, and where a single border might separate tens of distinct languages and divide completely separate currencies.

Equally, it is a region influenced from beyond its vague boundaries, in spite of the great walls of rock that stand in the way like crumples in the world map. I’ve always associated Afghanistan and Pakistan more closely with countries like Turkmenistan and Iran, for instance, while Myanmar, in my mind, is an extension of the familiar backpacking haunt of Southeast Asia, especially now that it’s beginning to open up to visitors.

And we haven’t even touched upon Sri Lanka and the Maldives yet, islands which are dictated more by the tide than by any neighbouring nation, and which present an entirely different cultural landscape to anything else on the sub-continent. They add even more complexity to a melting pot of traditions and life that defies any kind of succinct summarisation or classification, yet manages to captivate and inspire anyone who endeavours to discover it. Perhaps that’s the only way South Asia can really be defined.

Images by ilkerender and snikrap