Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Bingo in Swansea

by SASHA FRERE-JONES

Maya Arulpragasam’s World

Issue of 2004-11-22, Posted 2004-11-15

"World music" is a category that does nobody any favors. Entirely disparate performers, like the dapper Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso and the African blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure, get lumped together in American record stores simply because they don’t sing exclusively in English. Also, European and American pop have saturated the world to such an extent that Kylie Minogue and Tupac are now more world music than, say, the Malian singer Oumou Sangare. Finally, most of what you find in the world-music section tends toward the gentle, melodious, and uplifting, as if the world were that way.

The music of Maya Arulpragasam, a twenty-seven-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil who moved to England when she was nine and performs under the name M.I.A., is not like that. Anyone who has trolled through bins on Canal Street for videos of kung-fu movies or reggae mix tapes will recognize M.I.A.’s first single, "Galang" (2003), as an example of actual, on-the-ground world culture: synthetic, cheap, colorful, staticky with power. The beat is shuffling and abrasive, made from what sounds like the by-products of some other, more polite song. It most resembles Jamaican dancehall patterns, but with a twist. Alongside the beat runs a distressed motif that may have been a melody before it was Xeroxed fifteen times. The lyrics combine the exhortations of dancehall ("London calling and speak the slang now, boys say wa, go on girls say wa wa"), the embattled war mentality of American hip-hop ("Fed’s gonna get you pull the strings on your hood / One paranoid youth blazin’ through the hood"), and a scenario that sounds far removed from Leicester Square: "They say river’s gonna run through / work is going to save you / praying you will pull through / suck a dick, he’ll help you / don’t let them get to you / if he’s got one you get two / Backstab your crew sell it out to sell you." The verses are simply stitched together, without dogma, by a chorus that is classic dance-floor doggerel: "Blaze to blaze, galang a lang alanga / Purple haze, galang a lang a langlang."

And then the music stops. We are left with a queasy keyboard peal as a multitrack chorus of Mayas calls out, "Ya ya heeey, woy oy ee he hay yo." It isn’t a pop chorus, or any sound that you’d hear on American radio, even if the station were playing, you know, world music. It’s a voice from a place where kids throw rocks at tanks, where people pull down walls with their bare hands. It could be the sound of a carnival, or a riot.

This year, Arulpragasam began performing live, and, as she was preparing for her first appearance in England, I arranged to meet her in the lobby of a stylish central London hotel. She is small but not fragile. Her hair is long and wavy, and she moves deliberately, confidently. She was wearing a cotton jacket and pants, both imprinted with a pattern that you’d see on pajamas, and carried a handbag of the same fabric and pattern, with the colors inverted. Her lacquered yellow pumps looked, to a New Yorker, like a repurposed cab door. Except for the shoes, every item was made by her or her friends. "That’s just the way of living, with Sri Lankans," she said. "You just make everything. If you want clothes, you make it. If you want a table, you make it."

Arulpragasam said that her mother brought her and her siblings to England in 1986, as hostilities between the ruling Sinhalese and the Tamil minority were ramping up. Her mother is a seamstress—"She sews medals for the Royal Family and world leaders for minimum wage." The family took a flat in Phipps Bridge Estate, a housing project twenty minutes south of London. "We were one of the two Asian families that lived there," Arulpragasam said. "I used to come home from school and see people burgling my house, just walk past with my telly. But it wasn’t as horrible as being in Sri Lanka." Eventually, the family found better housing, and at twenty-two Arulpragasam graduated from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design with a film degree.

In 2001, Justine Frischmann, who leads the rock band Elastica, commissioned Arulpragasam to make a film of the band on tour. Between shows, Arulpragasam began tinkering with an instrument called the Roland MC-505 Groovebox, an all-in-one drum-machine-and-keyboard unit that lets a musician create rough, electronic songs quickly. It suited her pragmatic nature.

M.I.A.’s début album, "Arular," will be released in February. Arulpragasam wrote most of its thirteen tracks at home on the 505 and then fleshed them out with the help of a series of professional producers, including Richard X, Anthony Whiting, and Switch. The over-all effect is like what a politically minded class of fourth graders might do for a term project if they had access to a lot of electronic toys: joyous, spring-heeled, impatient, unafraid to speak out. "Someone like me has never made it on the radio before, ever, or on anyone’s TV," Arulpragasam said. "And the boringest channels I can make it on the better. I want people to listen to me while they’re playing bingo in Swansea.

"Maybe. On the album, Arulpragasam talks about teen-age prostitution, "part-time jobbers in call centers," and "comfort bars." It’s hard to imagine Clear Channel approving "Sunshowers," which blends a small, delightful thump with a melody quote from a seventies song by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. After calling out, "From the Congo to Colombo!"—the Sri Lankan capital—Arulpragasam sings, "Can’t stereotype my thing yo / I salt and pepper my mango," and, later, "Like P.L.O., we don’t surrender." What makes this genuine world music, aside from the references, is the weaving of the political into the fabric of what are still, basically, dance tunes. Any division of life into personal and political halves is absent. Even in "Amazon," where Arulpragasam sings of being "blindfolded under homemade lanterns / somewhere in the Amazon, they’re holding me ransom," she also observes, "Palm trees in the wet smells amazing." In the song’s chorus, she sounds utterly casual, like an American teen-ager calling her mom after getting out of a movie at the multiplex: "Hello, this is M.I.A. / could you please come get me?" In the world, disasters can be everyday events.

M.I.A.’s live show took place on the evening of November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, at a Camden rock club on Chalk Farm Road. Yellow bonfires burned on side streets all over the city. Inside, the crowd was young, scruffy, and nearly all white. Arulpragasam’s British manager duct-taped a banner reproducing M.I.A.’s spray-painted, circular orange-and-green logo to the turntables, which were suspended from the ceiling by chains. The d.j., an American from Philadelphia known as Diplo, played a set of fast, rhythmic Brazilian music called "baile funk"—itself a variation of a dance music from Miami called "bass"—and then began playing Jamaican dancehall songs. The crowd seemed happy but unsure what to do with, or to, the pulsing music. After half an hour of other people’s music, Arulpragasam took the stage with her backup singer, a woman named Cherry, who came to England from the Grenadines.

A stark rhythm started, followed by distorted handclaps, a low thrum, and a tiny cover of metallic bangs and screeches. Arulpragasam appeared in an elaborately embroidered satin jacket, something you might see on Chinese gang members in those pirated kung-fu DVDs. She began to knock her knees together in a bowlegged dance borrowed from Elvis Presley and the Jamaican singer Sean Paul. "Pull up the people, pull up the poor! Pull up the people, pull up the poor!" she sang, squeaking up an octave on the word "people." The beat was flecked with bits of shiny material, as if competing with the holiday fireworks outside. Diplo suddenly began tossing out CDs. People caught them or were hit by them, and began to realize that they should be dancing. When the show ended, Diplo kept d.j.ing, and Maya and her friends stood by the stage, unwilling to stop moving. They didn’t look much like anyone in the club. It didn’t seem to bother them.

The New Yorker magazine

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Posted November 21, 2004