Last week, a birthday party for a noted professional athlete was staged in downtown Washington. TV newsers stood near the barriers, breathlessly reporting that the event was so bigand the athlete so prominentthat the promoters had managed to block off the 900 block of F Street NW.
I would have been more impressed if I hadn’t visited the same block a few nights earlierand found it barricaded that time, too. The star was not a basketball player but rather someone those microphone jockeys have probably never heard of: Bally Sagoo.
Actually, most of the people were there not because of Sagoo. It was just another Friday night/Saturday morning on F Street, home to such clubs as Platinum, Volt, and D.C. Live, which may also be called the Spot. (Signs with both names are displayed above the club’s F Street entrance.) Although I’d heard that this scene was bustling, I hadn’t seen it firsthand in years. I’ve spent many hours in the 900 block of F Street, but I can remember being there after midnight only once since December 1995, when the 9:30 Club moved out.
Suburbanites and Washington Post real estate reporters regularly try to tell us that this is a bleak, empty neighborhood desperately in need of “redevelopment”which, of course, means corporate law offices and expense-account steakhouses. (Heck, the block already has one of the latter.) Apparently, they haven’t persuaded the hundreds of people I saw lined up outside Platinum, the Portuguese-speaking club kids who sat near me on a Green Line train from U Street-CardozoI’d just seen Burning Airlines at the Black Cator the perhaps 500 desis who packed into the basement of D.C. Live (or is it the Spot?) to dance to Sagoo’s DJ set.
Desis? The term refers to people who consider themselves natives of India and Pakistan, although they may not have been born there. Desi (pronounced “DAY-see,” not as in Desi Arnaz) has also come to be used as an Indo-American equivalent of “homeboy”or that other hiphop term of endearment that becomes an insult when used by white people. Desi means “Indian,” but it also means “hip.”
A certain subcultural awareness is required simply to recognize Sagoo’s name. A pioneering Brit-Indian remixer, the Birmingham, England-based Sagoo has made 12 albums since 1990’s Wham Bam, but only one of them, 1996’s Rising From the East, was released in the United States. Still, he’s not exactly the most subterranean of “Asian underground” music-makers. I picked up a German pressing of his latest album, Dub of Asia, at Adams Morgan’s Flying Saucer Discs, where it was on display.
Like all the Sagoo albums I’ve heard, Dub of Asia splices Indo-Pakistani melodic motifs into contemporary beats. This time, though, the rhythms are not dance-club frantic. Dub of Asia is really a dub album, albeit one that features Bollywood and qawwali singers (including samples of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) alongside Jamaican dance-hallers such as Jucky Ranks. The album’s sound has little to do with the music Sagoo mixed live, which moved high-speed metallic beatsa bit like a tabla player banging on oil cansover, under, and around snippets of incidental Hindustani vocalese. The sound was more Buzz than Bollywood, or even bhangra.
There weren’t any blondes in the crowd, but neither was there much of the traditional garb seen at local Indian classical-music concerts. (I did spy a few turbans, though.) In his black shirt, earring, and wisp of a goatee, Sagoo suggested an Indian version of a bit player in a De Niro movie. Many of the women wore tight dresses; most of the men looked like American kids, awkwardly dressed up in black pants and fancy shoes. (“No sneakers” is one of the 10 commandments of the F Street dance-club scene.) Some people showed Indian passports to prove they were over 18, but Maryland drivers’ licenses seemed to be more common.
In other words, it was an American crowd. Yet Sagoo’s visit to Washington wasn’t heralded in the Washington City Paperor any other publication I read. I learned about the gig only from www.challo.com, a local Web site that serves the D.C.-area Indo-Pakistani community (which now numbers more than 100,000, according to a report on the site). Sagoo’s appearance was sponsored by another Web site, www.desivibes.com, a local operation that seeks to reach desis throughout the country.
Indian music isn’t the only genre that glides beneath the radar of the city’s mass media. African music is almost as invisible, though acts with American labels or publicists sometimes announce their shows through mainstream publications. (Thione Ballago Seck rated a City Paper ad but not a visa from the U.S. embassy in Senegal, which has postponed his tour for now.) And it’s not just “foreign” music that’s very nearly clandestine: I just co-wrote a book about the city’s punk scene, yet I rarely hear about punk shows that occur in local noncommercial venues. And most go-go clubs don’t report their upcoming lineups to the press, either.
Of course, there’s a difference between punkwhich is subcultural by choiceand ethnic-solidarity music sceneswhich are excluded from the mainstream because of their unfamiliarity. Still, at a time when eclecticism is indispensable to pop music, it seems odd that someone as prominent as Sagoo could slip into D.C. almost unnoticed. After all, the music he mixed at D.C. Live is almost mainstream in Britain and not that different from what I might have heard had I ridden the Green Line a few more stops to Nation. Even the most adventurous pop fans don’t want to spend all their time in the melting pot, but both the local music scene and the media that cover it should be a little more open to the desi vibe. Mark Jenkins
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