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Spice Rack: South Asian electronic music's response to Covid-19

In the second instalment of Spice Rack, a new bi-monthly column on underground music from South Asia and its diaspora, Dhruva Balram highlights music released during, and in some cases in response to, the pandemic, as well as initiatives set up in support of Covid-19 relief efforts across the subcontinent

At the time of writing this edition of Spice Rack, the seven-day average of Covid-19 positive cases in India is 175,167. Some predictions are that the true number is four times higher. Over the past two months, the world has watched the country be gripped in a horrific second wave. It has been difficult to compartmentalise art in South Asia within the framework of a pandemic that thrives on disastrous infrastructure — which the region possesses plenty of due to decade-long governmental decay.

Over the last year, tourists flocked to India and the wealthier classes flew around the country watching DJs and artists, including Sven Väth and Charlotte de Witte, perform in clubs, mini-festivals and beaches. It has also been disheartening to hear of wealthy MCs, DJs, musicians and artists reportedly hoarding oxygen cylinders and to witness them uploading surreal Instagram stories from private estates and swimming pools far from the horrors unfolding in lower socio-economic areas of the country. The insidious behaviours which have gripped the scene for so long have unfortunately stuck. Lots of DJs — South Asian and foreign alike — have remained silent as hundreds of thousands have burnt in cemeteries across the country. For so many, this moment may seem temporary, like a hurdle they have to overcome before their next trip overseas. For many in the scene, allyship has become a performance.

What has been encouraging to witness has been the wider community coming together where and when they can. Featuring some of the biggest names in Indian dance music, including Arjun Vagale, Ankytrixx, BLOT!, Kohra and Murthovic, ’S O S’ was a 14-track charity compilation which raised funds towards Covid relief. Featuring minimal techno, four-to-the-floor dance tracks and leftfield excursions, the compilation was thoughtfully curated to appease a wide base. Within 24 hours, they had reportedly raised over £1,000 — a landmark achievement.

Several other organisations stepped up as well: Indian music distribution platform OK Listen! donated the fees paid by artists; 11-track compilation ‘We The People’ had pulsating rhythms warped around club-ready tracks; ‘Kerelief’, six tracks of natural atmospheric recordings meant to serve a relaxing purpose against the crisis unfolding around people, was released; Mumbai-based artist Abhi Meer offered the entirety of his discography at a discount, with all proceeds donated; label WAVLNGTH teamed up with to host four hours of curated radio in support of Covid-19 relief efforts in India.

Meanwhile, ran a mammoth 72-hour radio fundraiser featuring 100 artists, both local and international, with names such as Violet, DJ Seinfeld, UMFANG, Manara, Leon Vynehall sitting alongside local South Asian talents. Managing to raise $11,473, the fundraiser was a massive success.

Previously, the community has watched more quietly — when Kashmiris’ rights were revoked, when Muslims are killed for practising their faith, when casteist atrocities happen weekly. The same fervour with which the community has risen at this moment must be carried into the next six months, into the next year, and the years after that. Despite everything we witnessed, the last two months have been underpinned with hope. We must continue to move with it as, sometimes, that’s all we have.

Below, you'll find a selection of South Asian music released during, and in some cases in response to, the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Irradon (featuring D.80)’ [Self-released]

“‘Irradon’ will likely be played in clubs across South Asia for years to come.”

‘Free Safoora Zargar’ [Self-released]

“‘Free Safoora Zargar’ epitomises the anger the producer feels living under an inept, dysfunctional government.”

‘BFF’ [Azadi Records]

“‘BFF’ showcases Noni Mouse’s singular ability and production within South Asia.”

‘Van Turbo’ [Jugaar Records]

“On ‘Van Turbo’, Rudoh underpins breakbeat and hip-hop with fast-paced liquid drums.”

Seedhe Maut
‘Namastute’ [Azadi Records]

“Here, New Delhi-based rap duo Seedhe Maut pack entire discographies’ worth of energy into 120 seconds.”

‘Guacamole’ [Krunk Kulture]

“With each release, Fopchu keep raising their ceiling.”

Catman Mu
‘Vacation Candy (w/ Arsalan)’ [Self-released]

“Karachi-based producer Catman Mu’s version of dream-pop is idiosyncratically his.”

Arushi Jain
‘Zid’ [ Recordings]

“Jain is sure to live up to the hype of becoming a bona fide star of the underground.”

Three Oscillators
‘Hypnagogia’ [Qilla Records]

“With too few releases over the last few years, Three Oscillators makes up for it here.”

‘MASALA CHIPS’ [Self-released]

“saadaan is a talent everyone should be watching over the next year.”