Discover London's Asian Music Archives

By Kate Smith | 18 March 2008
A highly decorated Indian classical instrument with bulbous shell

19th century teak and ivory surinder from the Punjab. Courtesy of the V&A (not currently on display).

Can museums do Asian music? If they can, is it a sanitized, simplified account, or can they bring life to the traditional and convey the politics and vibe of recent diaspora developments like the re-creation of Bhangra?

Club Kali it usually isn’t, but some are stretching the boundaries of what museums traditionally do into serious performance and interactives-for-adults, hoping to convey soul as well as fact. Meanwhile archiving has preserved some surprising things. Sitting in a vault in London, we found the singing voice of India from a hundred years ago.

Voices in the vaults

The British Sound Archive holdings include many of the famous names of the Asian Music Scene from Ravi Shankar to Asian Dub Foundation. But the earliest music is on wax cylinders. It was recorded for the Madras Museum by K Rangachari and Edgar Thurston between 1905 -10 and consist of songs and instrumental music from Southern India. There’s a second collection of wax cylinders recorded in the Tarai jungle between India and Nepal. For these the details are lost in history.

Cylinders are immensely fragile, but some have been played and digitized, like this 1911 Shanai duet. It’s tempting to fantasise about some DJ sampling them and grooving along with her great-grandad. Anyone can go the British Sound Archive, but you need to make an appointment .


Young Asian musicians in colourful traditional clothes posing with their instruments against a white background.

Soumik Datta and Gurdain Rayatt, two of UK's brightest young talents in Indian Classical music, are playing at the Darbar festival, supported by the V&A and Horniman museum. Courtesy of Darbar Arts Culture Heritage.

There’s a scattering of Asian instruments on display across the capital, but in some places you can listen as well as look.

The Horniman’s large new exhibition Utsavam covers the whole Indian continent – from Buddhist music played at the borders of Tibet to instrument makers from the Punjab and the music of fishing communities in Assam. Modern instruments appear besides films made bythe museum of these communities playing music. You can also see plainer 19th century instruments – flutes and drums – belonging to ‘outcastes’ who had contact with Victorian Christian missionaries.

It’s a great overview, all the same there are limits to how many film clips you’ll want to watch while standing in a museum and there’s not the same immediate connection between sound and individual instrument as in the excellent Music Gallery next door. There, world instruments sit together in a closely-packed hedge – some recognizable, some snake-headed or sprouting myriad tubes like plumbing gone mad. Choose an instrument, find it on a nearby computerized table and hear how it sounds. You might have to fight an eight year old to get your turn though.

Utsavam runs until 2nd November. There are associated events for adults and children throughout the year.

Colourful wooden stringed instrument

Bowed Sindhi Sarangi from the collections at the Asian Music Centre.

The Asian Music Centre have taken interaction a step further. Though they have archives of instruments, the star attraction is an immersive experience where you listen to music while watching quintessentially India scenes on wraparound screens – for instance a raga is backed by images of monsoons. Viram Jasani argues passionately for the Centre’s emphasis on traditional sound. “We are in an ever shrinking environment of globalization with huge mobility of people and an incredible rush for wealth. Traditional cultures are in danger of getting lost in a Western (if not American) perception of music.” He argues that by giving a “very Indian and timeless” experience they give primacy back to the Asian sound which feeds what he sees as more transitory productions of fusion music.

Explore the AMC’s programme here

Live Music

The V&A runs a regular programme of live music – last year they invited many artists from Club Kali into the museum for an evening. They’ll be turning to classical Asian music on Sundays in April and May. Performances mix rare instruments like the Surbahar with tabla and violin.

photo shows old man with long white beard

Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous Bengali poet, painted by W. Fearon Halliday. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

The Nehru Centre programme includes music events. Check out sometime London resident Rabindranath Tagore’s music on 28th March.

The Bhavan Centre runs music workshops as well as performances. It has archives of music played at the centre stretching back to the early 70s.

New way, new life

5 young Asian men standing under a spotlight in a small cell-like space

The SALIDAA digital music archive holds a wealth of contemporary and classical items such as this promotional black and white photograph of Asian Dub Foundation taken at the time of the band's Facts and Fictions album release in 1995. The band members from left to right are, John Ashok Pandit (Pandit G), Deedar Zaman (Master D), Sun -J, Annirudha Das (Dr Das) and Steve Chandrasonic.Copyright: Nation Records. Credit: Willie, Desmond

The South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive (SALIDAA) are an online archive of British-Asian arts. They give a good overview of the major movements in diaspora music from Bollywood influences to the Asian overground. Browse collections like these from Nation Records with record covers, promo photos and ephemera.

The British Film Archive’s free to view film bank, Mediatheque includes many films about the modern British Asian experience amongst its 800 hours of film. Check out Gurinder Chadha’s documentary ‘I’m British But…’ from 1989 which succinctly tells the story of the beginning of the new Bhangra. Chadha’s film opens with a traditional migrant song (sung very catchily from the roof of a Southall shoe shop). Later it’s injected into dance music by a new generation who admit that their knowledge of their parents’ culture is limited but who still want to retain it and fuse it with their own experiences in London or Birmingham.

The Museum in Docklands Thursday Late on April 3rd is dedicated to a celebration of 15 years of the Asian music scene in East London (it’s been 15 years since local rappers Asian Dub Foundation first formed). Join vocalists, music critics and DJs for a trip down (recent) memory lane.

two tabla drums in a museum case

A tabla drum donated to Redbridge Museum by Gurusoundz, an Asian music shop in Ilford.

Recording the record shops

Three London museums are working on collecting stories from the Asian music scene from the last 50 years. Redbridge Museum is planning a project with Guru Soundz who they previously filmed in 2005. Curator Gerard Greene says “The idea is to look at traditional music but also to chart the changes in contemporary Asian music as it's been influenced by other urban sounds and it in turn has moved into the mainstream.”

Gunnersbury Park museum has been recording oral histories of Southall record shops. The results may be shown at the Horniman later in the year, or you can arrange to see it at Gunnersbury Park by phoning Vanda Foster on 020 8992 1612. The launch of 'For the Record: the social life of Indian vinyl in Southall' is on 5th April at 1.30pm atthe Small Mansion of Gunnersbury Park Museum. There will be old style realvinyl playing, presentations and refreshments. You can find details of the documentary film and the archive by downloading the booklet about the project here.

As an interviewee at the Swadhinata Trust recalls ‘In our days we had to run from record shops to record shops, we had to travel all the way to Southall just to track down a record. Milfa (Bengali record shop) had a record company and they used to keep records of Runa Laila. For us it was going around and finding these materials. Nowadays, you sit in front of a computer and you get it easily. It has no value, it is disposable.’

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