At the grand old age of four, Directions in Sound, the annual showcase of Asian Pacific American musicians and video artists, is only an upstart next to the 21st annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAFF), which spawned it. Still, judging from the wide-ranging lineup of performers, the program is doing its best to catch up.
APA punk artists will make a showing at Café Du Nord on the showcase’s first night, March 7, with appearances by New York Cityís Castro, the Bay Area’s From Monument to Masses and Pete the Genius, and Los Angeles’ Piano Drag and Monumental Divide. The second evening’s show at StudioZ.tv brings out South Asian electronic and hip hop underground performers such as New Yorkís Mutiny, with DJs Rekha and Siraiki, and San Francisco’s Dhamaal [AsianWeek’s Best of the APA Bay winner for favorite local DJ crew, (Nov. 15, 2002)], with Maneesh the Twister, Janaka and Mercury Bonez. The Bay Area’s Triple Threat, which includes former Invisibl Skratch Piklz turntablists Shortkut and Apollo, headlines the third night at San Jose’s Agenda Cellar.
Videos such as Soulstice’s “Fall Into You” and Sunday’s Best’s “Don’t Let It Fade” will be screened at StudioZ.tv and Agenda Cellar. The music video and documentary offerings make their way into the festival via the Music Video Asia program and New York filmmaker Vivek Renjen Bald’s documentary Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music, in which Mutiny appears, alongside Talvin Singh and Cornershop.
The schedule looks impressive from afar but get closer and it only gets better. Talks with Maneesh the Twister, a.k.a. Maneesh Kenia, and bassist Sergio Robledo-Maderazo and drummer Francis Choung of From Monument to Masses give you an idea of the spectrum of perspectives contained in the program.
A former college and commercial radio DJ and a onetime regular at Dub Mission at the Elbo Room, Kenia can be tricky to pin down. Last week, he seemed to be spinning off on one task or another: prepping for Dhamaal that night at Club Six in S.F., then performing at the monthly event, which meshes Hindustani classical music upstairs and a modern fusion of traditional and electronic music and turntablism downstairs. After Dhamaal was over, he dropped off the evening’s featured tabla player Karsh Kale at the airport for an early 7 a.m. flight, and then it was finally time to crash at his Haight apartment at 9 a.m., earplugs crammed in because the streets were filled with the sound of musicians participating in Rock Out Against War.
But when at last Kenia settles down to talk, the 31-year-old Texas native dispels any suspicion that you’ve been blown off, with a mixture of easy-going good humor and articulate earnestness. Don’t call his music and events “Asian Underground” à la the UK music movement. He prefers to dub Dhamaal’s sound “Asian Massive,” taking a cue from the world of Jamaican sound systems.
“The UK folks have been there for four or five generations, back to when jungle culture was coming up,” he explains. “Here, Asians are expected to be professionals. There, they were more of a working-class culture and they were doing art, music, punk rock and graffiti. Here in the States, we are a little more sheltered and not allowed to do that. It is coming up in the States — Mutiny and Dhamaal are the only crews doing what we do, though I hear there’s some stuff coming up in other cities.”
When Kenia, Janaka Atugoda, alias Janaka Selecta, and Musa Ahmed, otherwise known as Rhino FX, started Dhamaal as a house party four years ago, they consciously focused on incorporating traditional classical music with modern, noncommercial genres of electronic music, such as drum and bass and breakbeat. At the events, live video DJs blend the visuals while Kenia, Atugoda and turntablist Mercury Bonez (Michael Cheng) do their own dancehall, two-step and nu skool mixes, alongside live tabla and synth dumbek players Adheesh Sathaye, Dhruva Ganesan, Ferhan Najeeb Qureshi and Shabi Farooq in the basement, which they call the “Surya Vault.” Upstairs in the “Azaad Lounge,” Qureshi switches hats and plays live classical music on tabla, with Parag Chordia on sarod.
“We aren’t doing South Asian pop music, not Bollywood or bhangra or Hindi remix, which is basically taking a Dr. Dre rhythm and putting Hindi pop lyrics to it,” Kenia says. “We want to incorporate noncommercial forms of electronic music but at the same time, not a commercial South Asian vibe, which tends to happen at these standard Indian parties, where it’s ‘Sound Factory’ and people are thuggy but all well-dressed. That’s not what we’re about. We didn’t want to do house and because we do a more progressive side of the music, it brings out progressive people.” The group has also produced the music for the SFIAFF trailer and is looking forward to putting out its first album soon.
Angular Indie Rock
On the other side of the musical equation is the Oakland-San Francisco trio From Monument to Masses. As we speak, drummer-sample programmer Choung, bassist Robledo-Maderazo and guitarist Matthew Solberg are busy packing up gear at their East Bay rehearsal space and getting ready to play a show at Gilman Street Project. A recent graduate in film from UC Berkeley, Choung is more than familiar with the festival — in fact, he volunteered for the event when he was working on his degree. The band got involved through Sooyoung Park, of Bay Area band Ee, who was helping to program Directions in Sound. “He knew we were a local band with Asian American members and we speak about political issues as well as Asian American issues. So he thought we were a perfect match,” Choung says.
From Monument to Masses’ music is a sophisticated blend of angular indie rock instrumentals and samples of aural history scraps. “We’re all pretty particularly conscious people,” says Choung, 25. “We use historical samples, remnants of past and present historical movements, just to intrigue people and get them involved. We want to present ideas to get people curious, and if people want to, they can come up and ask questions at the end.”
Bassist Robledo-Maderazo is a high school art teacher in Daly City and works with the League of Filipino Students and other organizations devoted to human rights in the Philippines. From Monument to Masses took its name from an idea about the way history is taught, the 26-year-old S.F. resident says. “The way we learn the history here in the United States and other countries: we tend to focus on individuals, heroes, rather than efforts of groups of people and organizations and masses,” he observes. “And that’s actually reflected in our music itself. We’re a mostly instrumental band because we feel like a lead singer is contradictory to what we’re trying to do with music collectively, and since we don’t have vocals, a lot of stories are told through samples. The samples are taken from peoples’ movements, and it’s a way of giving voice to a movement in history.”
Like Dhamaal, From Monument to Masses started out doing benefits — and they continue to be active. The band’s next performance, at the League of Filipino Students’ Ring the Alarm fundraiser on March 28 in Oakland, will generate money for teenagers to visit the Philippines. And like good activists, they tailor their message to the event. When the band played at Bindlestiff Studio’s PiNoise Pop festival, they mixed in snippets from rallies that the Filipino American audience was familiar with.
“People were chanting back, which is great,” Robledo-Maderazo recalls. “Live, you can hear different guitar loops and tracks, and people think we cheated in studio, but when people come to see us, they’re shocked that we can pull this stuff off.”
From Monument to Masses performs March 7 at Café du Nord, 2170 Market St., San Francisco. Dhamaal appears March 8 at StudioZ.tv, 314 11th St., San Francisco. For more information, call 415-255-4299 or go to www.naatanet.org/festival.