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London Calling -- For Congo, Columbo, Sri Lanka.... - popmatters

In 1976, Cory Daye recorded a song called "Sunshower" with Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. She was 24. The band were well outside a recording deadline from RCA; when the album was eventually released, the label failed to notify the band.

"Sunshower" has been sampled for almost 20 years now; there's a snatch of its warped Hawaiian guitars and splintered percussion towards the end of A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It?", but like attempts by De La Soul and Doug E. Fresh, it's just dressing. The appropriations always seem piecemeal and placeless: Busta Rhymes' "Take It Off" is slick, but not convincing. Ghostface Killah's "Ghost Showers" attempts to wholly inhabit the song; it swallows him whole. There's simply too much in the original: swooping Hawaiian guitars, child-like chants, ambient noise, guitar barely recognizable in a flood of in reverb. The percussion is so richly syncopated, so densely layered, that it leaves Daye's vocal somehow isolated, exposed, as if shimmering in a cloud of dust. The melody itself sounds free and ungrounded, and takes on an almost atonal quality. The groove is woodlike, organic, pulmonary. Nobody has done anything as remotely convincing, assured, or unique with the same materials. Until M.I.A.'s "Sunshowers".

The difference between the original and M.I.A.'s second single, produced last year by Steve Mackey and Ross Orton, is more than one of genre or period; it is a difference in aesthetics, a difference in the place given to popular culture. The original material itself is gutted. The slightly adrenaline bliss of Davy's chorus sounds highly phased, over-exposed, washed-out at the edges. A percussive bass glissandi, which in the original gracefully eases the song into a final elaboration of the chorus, is ripped out and looped throughout the piece. The groove is a relentless throb that hammers its way throughout the entire song, rattling and lurching between violence and grace. "Sunshowers" erases the spirit of the original as it goes along.

Where Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band brought a wispy lyricism to disco, a feeling of dreamy nostalgia wrapped in their elaborate big band arrangements, M.I.A.'s use of the song is -- like the rest of her material -- a blend of hard unsentimentally and poplike glee. It's a striking contrast: strident political stances sit alongside made-for-ringtone hooks. There's no middle ground on Arular, her debut album. Even the wordplay is taken to a level of abstraction, with playground chants in place of intimacy and wit. There is very little that deals with the minutiae of personal relationships; even "URAQT", a song about betrayal, revolves more around the exchange of postures than of emotions. Relationships are almost transactions. There is no trust in this music.

It's a stance that echoes the details of her life: M.I.A. witnessed at first hand the violence of Sri Lanka's civil war, followed by an abrupt relocation to a neglected council estate on the outskirts of London.

London shapes much of her music. The touch of gleeful -- almost naive -- joy in her sound recalls early British experiments with hip-hop. It is the sound of the Wild Bunch, of Fresh Four's "Wishing on a Star", of Carlton's forgotten The Call Is Strong, where the sing-song lilt of Lovers Rock met the swallowed aggression of dub, where the structure and confidence of American hip-hop met the residual brashness of punk and ska. Though those influences have been replaced in the contemporary sound of London by dancehall, crunk, grime, and American R&B, the aesthetic is the same -- and one unique to London. "The thing that I'm a part of," M.I.A. agrees, "is that I listen to everything. And so do the grime kids. There are grime tunes where Lethal B could rap over a Kylie Minogue backing, because he knows it -- he hears it: he's on a bus, he's in a cab, he's in a Chinese takeaway."

The vocal cadence that is a part of her singing voice -- the rise in intonation at the end of almost every line -- is now near-ubiquitous among Londoners of a certain age. It is not, curiously, part of her speaking voice, which is a fairly cool and unremarkable London accent. "Everybody has access to all kinds of genres of music every day when you wake up. So why not reflect that? It's way more realistic than me saying 'I only hear dancehall when I walk down the street. I only hear dancehall for eight years of my life walking around in this city.' That's wrong. Because that's not the case. Every day I wake up in this city, the cosmopolitan Westernized fast first-world amazing foreign land that's got amazing technology, amazing information access, speedway, highway -- let's not kid ourselves: we do hear everything at once, so whether it's through television, on the radio, on people's CDs, people's cars going past you -- so why not reflect that in what you do?"

While race relations over the last two decades in London have hardly been exemplary -- something M.I.A. knows about at first hand -- the capital's density and diversity have made possible a mixture of cultures that sets it apart from most other Western cities. Even so, M.I.A. sees this process as increasingly under threat. "I knew someone like me could never come out of America, and I knew that I couldn't come out of Sri Lanka either. It was really important to be in Britain to come out the way I did. But at the same time, I just think it's really, really sad that I'm the only person here, when there could be a damn lot more. There could be more people making a crossbreed sound and referencing each other's communities. But there isn't. The Asians do stick to the Asians. The Somalians stick to the Somalians. The Palestinians stick to the Palestianians. The Moroccans stick to the Moroccans. The white kids stick to the white kids. The black kids stick to the black kids. And that's only a new thing that's happening."

Since the late '90s, concerns have been voiced that "economic migrants" are using the UK's asylum system as a backdoor. This argument has increasingly come to drive British political debate (not to mention newspaper sales), intensifying around election cycles despite a fall in the number of people seeking asylum. Since 2001, the debate has taken on an additional overtone of paranoia and "racial profiling" amid fears about international terrorism. Local community workers admit to noticing a correlation between incidents of racial harassment and the intensity of the national debate. Steve Griffin, Deputy Director of Groundwork Merton, a local regeneration agency covering the area in which M.I.A. grew up, notes that, "You get Islamophobia going. There's been more attacks on Asians and more problems for Asians since 9/11 in this country."

M.I.A. is outraged by this situation -- and the smothering effect it is having on cultural interaction in London. "I've followed British culture, the underground culture, and musically I feel like I've been a part of different movements that have happened. But for the first time, everything is kinda just quiet, you know? Back when I was sort of walking around there seemed to be more of an identity amongst young people, and there was just stuff happening, and it was real sort of energetic and colorful. And then, it seems like everybody's bogged down by all this immigration stuff, and newspapers are like 'Immigrants go back home!', and for the first time they can say it on the front page without it being politically incorrect. And then with all this terrorism stuff where they're like 'Muslim kids are bad'. There's some weird atmosphere going on. Girls have started wearing yashmacs, and there's divides amongst communities and stuff. And that's when I decided to go, 'Look: the only thing that Britain always ever goes on about, and is proud of going on about, is that it's a cosmopolitan city, and it's multicultural.' So unless everybody starts waking up in England and starts shouting about it, and saying that's a really great thing, you're not even doing what you said you're good at doing in the first place."

Maya Arulpragasam was born in London in 1976. Her father moved to London in 1971 after graduating in Moscow with a master's degree in engineering. His name is sometimes rendered A.R. Arudpragasam, sometimes Arul Pragasam; his nom de guerre is Arular. In January 1975, he was instrumental in founding the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) in Wandsworth. In June of that year, EROS staged demonstrations at the inaugural cricket World Cup, prompting clashes between Sri Lanka's Tamil and Sinhalese supporters, and bringing the conflict in Sri Lanka to international attention for the first time. In March 1976 he was one of three EROS members selected to train for six months in Lebanon with Palestinian militants associated with the Fatah wing of the PLO. He left after three months of training, returning to Sri Lanka with his family. Maya was six months old.

By 1976, Sri Lanka was well on its way to the internecine ethnic violence that would erupt in full a few years later. Following the withdrawal of the British in 1948, and the electoral triumph of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in 1956, the island's Tamil minority was gradually coerced into a position of second-class status; economic discrimination went hand-in-hand with a gradual displacement of Tamils from the education and administrative institutions. A handful of bloody incidents -- on both sides -- eventually tipped the balance in favor of militancy: land grabs, armed attacks, mob violence, and the destruction of symbolic and cultural treasures, sometimes with official connivance. By the early 1980s, more than thirty Tamil militant groups had emerged, of which EROS was one.

In Sri Lanka, Maya and her siblings rarely saw their father. He was introduced to them as an uncle. They temporarily relocated to the outskirts of Chennai (then Madras), where they lived in a derelict house. Her sister contracted typhoid. They returned to Sri Lanka, and remained constantly on the move. She remembers a childhood "inundated with violence": the convent at which she attended school was destroyed during one of the government's aerial bombing campaigns. She watched as some of her friends died. Family members were incarcerated.

In 1986, they fled. Her father remained in Sri Lanka; the rest of the family made it to London. Maya was 11.

They were allocated an apartment in Phipps Bridge Housing Estate, a development in the borough of Merton, which sits the middle of the vast band of conurban sprawl that constitutes outer London. At the time Phipps Bridge consisted of five high-rise tower blocks and ten low-rise buildings. Of the 4,000 residents, about 65 percent were on income support. It was built in 1976, when institutional inertia and hamstrung development budgets continued to license the building of high-rise estates, despite mounting evidence that they anchored social deprivation and institutional neglect.

By the mid-1980s, life on Phipps Bridge was an experience in misery. Sue Johns, a local resident, wrote in a poem of "the piss-filled lift" and "the shells of wrecked cars", of "Fifties design faults holding on / By the skin of their teeth in the eighties". She pictured residents waiting for a long-promised redevelopment "Behind Chubb locks and net curtains". Television cop shows used the estate to film scenes depicting the most run-down, graffiti-stained dead-end estates in the country. It was hardly the perfect environment for an refugee family; Donna Neblett, a longtime resident and now a manager in the community center, remembers: "Police would not come onto the estate; they'd never come by themselves. They'd always be in cars, they'd never get out and walk. It was a very notorious estate. Everything: drug dealers, needles on the floor. Worse things than you can imagine was Phipps Bridge twenty years ago." Maya was placed in special needs education to improve her English. Her mother worked from home as a seamstress. Maya remembers watching as their home was burgled. When her radio was stolen by crack-addicted neighbors, Maya listened to hip-hop from the teenage boy who lived next door.

Maya's family was one of only two Asian families on Phipps Bridge in 1986. The mid-1980s were hardly a golden period in British race relations. Steve Shanley, until recently a housing officer for the estate, insists that despite Phipps Bridge's reputation as a "a fairly tough estate", there were not "any racial tensions or any great problems." The local council records a relatively low number of reported racist incidents. By contrast, Donna Neblett remembers an estate rife with racist sentiment "There were people [living on the estate] that were the leaders of the National Front, so this is where they had their offices and their meetings, in the houses on the estate." The statistics may reflect the tiny proportion of black and ethnic minority residents at the time. "People knew not to come on Phipps if you were from the [black and ethnic minority] community".

Racial tensions -- conditions in general -- have eased considerably on Phipps Bridge over the last few years. But the obvious question is how an Asian family might have been placed -- in near-isolation -- in such an environment in the fist place. Local authorities are adamant that they are not in the business of social engineering. According to Steve Shanley, individual requests for location tend to be accommodated, but "one thing that councils make sure of is that they don't proactively put people together. It wouldn't be seen as 'equal opportunities' to find out people's nationalities and think, 'Right, well we'll put them there.'"

One resident guardedly confided a suspicion that "I think basically what they tend to do -- in my experience -- is that's where they'll put [black and ethnic minority residents] anyway. It's normally run-down, notorious, them sort of estates. That's how it used to be. I'm not going to say it's like that now, but I know back then it was. And that's when you... That's all I'm going to say on that."

Maya used the aesthetic template of hip-hop to pull together her range of influences and interests -- at first in the field of visual art. She graduated from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, and a book of her graffiti-influenced artwork was published by independent label Pocko. It caught the eye of Nick Hackworth, who in 2002 established the Alternative Turner Prize to critique the narrow criteria of Britain's leading art prize. Maya was among the six artists shortlisted. Hackworth -- Arts Editor of Dazed and Confused -- was immediately impressed by "the combination of the political content from her Sri Lankan background through the Tamil Tigers, with the kind of street aesthetic." He remembers a boldness of vision that fused well with the improvisational nature of her technique: "She was just spray painting on bits of board, so it was pretty DIY kind of stuff with the actual media, tying in with the spraycan-type aesthetic. So it's kind of rough, ready, and graphically quite powerful, because she doesn't use too many elements; she repeats some of the elements; she keeps it visually quite clean, she doesn't overload the images ... It's about graphic boldness. That was the best thing about it." The work attracted the attention of Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who commissioned an album cover and a tour documentary. It was on tour that she met electro-revivalist Peaches, who first showed her around a Roland 505.

Her visual style is on display on the video for "Galang", her first single. The video was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who notes that "using her artwork as a way to define her and inform people is very important. I mean how many other beautiful singers are performing in front of tanks, burning palm trees, bombs, Molotov cocktails, and helicopters? All of the stencils we made were completely based on her aesthetic, and were meant to be an extension of her. Many of them she either helped us make or made herself."

The video's imagery -- alongside the lyrical content of "Sunshowers" -- has attracted some criticism of her political stance. There are the brightly-colored burning trees, bombs, tanks, Molotov cocktails, London housing estates, and cell phones -- and the video is punctuated by images of a racing tiger, a motif that recurs in her concert visuals and designs. A portrait of a Tamil militant leader appears at one moment.

For some critics, this is simply revolutionary chic: an attempt to commercialize the color and exoticism of distant struggles while safely draining it of any real-world political context. Nick Hackworth is aware of that tendency. "I think it was that unusual combination which I hadn't really seen before in too much stuff. And also -- I suppose it sounds potentially pejorative -- it was slightly exotic, seeing something that dealt with non-English or non-European political problems in that kind of way, visually." There are long-standing European traditions of seeing the "orient" as repository of color, creativity, and vibrancy -- as a nest of cultures alien enough not to have to be inspected for political markers. Other critics are more troubled, arguing from her father's biography and a handful of details (for instance, for a brief period after the December 26 tsunami, her website carried links to an aid organization closely associated with Tamil militants) that she is a closet supporter of terrorism -- in particular, of the Tamil Tigers.

From the early-1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) quickly became the dominant body in Tamil militancy, and Tamil nationalism in general, not least because of the viciousness with which they dispatched rival groups. In April 1986, for example, hundreds of members of rivals TELO (the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation) were killed in a sequence of attacks, despite their being armed, trained, and supported by the Indian government. From 1987 the "Black Tigers" developed suicide bombing as a tactic, their victims including former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandi. UNICEF and Amnsety International have censured them for the forced conscription of child soldiers, including 40 since the December 26 tsunami. They have been accused of murdering civilians in border areas to induce population displacement. The Sri Lankan government, meanwhile, has continued a series of depredations, including extensive -- and sometimes apparently indiscriminate -- aerial bombing campaigns. Over 65,000 people have died; at one point up to 30 percent of the Tamil population was estimated to have fled the island, with over a million people -- from all ethnic groups -- temporarily or permanently displaced. A 1991 report estimated that perhaps ten percent of the population had been displaced. Sri Lanka is one of the most heavily landmined countries in the world.

This is a far cry from the revolutionary panache suggested by M.I.A.'s work. Some of the associative imagery of "Galang" and "Sunshowers" implies a connection to the Palestinian Intifada, the Zapatistas, the Black Panthers, and the anti-Apartheid movement. Some see these as a valid comparisons; Dr. Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam notes, "The LTTE also fights against linguistic, ethnic and class/caste discrimination and oppression. The methods might be open to question, the aim is certainly not." M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of Inside an Elusive Mind, the first biography of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, disagrees, citing the LTTE's murderous reputation. "This does not mean that LTTE has no support; on the contrary it does. It controls vast areas in Sri Lanka's north and rules a de facto Tamil Eelam. But it will be very difficult to say how much of the support it enjoys comes out of genuine respect or genuine fear. The support is real, and so is the fear."

M.I.A.'s stance, inevitably, is more complicated -- and conflicted -- than critics suggest, not least because of family involvement. Her father's group, EROS, reached a working arrangement with the LTTE as the other groups were being eliminated. When Arular returned to Sri Lanka in 1976, he was apparently in close contact with Prabhakaran; according to some sources, EROS established a training camp at a farm in Kannady which was used by the LTTE. Arular and Prabhakaran are reported to have shared bomb-making knowledge, equipment, and chemicals. According to M.R. Narayan Swamy, "Arular was never in LTTE. Yes, he was with EROS in the early stages, but he left it but kept in touch with most of the actors in the militancy scene." Arular's official biography -- which is to say, the one that appears on the jackets of his books -- insists that he now writes history, and has mediated between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. In any event, relations between M.I.A. and her father, whom she has referred to as "insane", are not close. She has not seen him since 1995. Arular is titled in an apparent attempt to bait him, citing her mother's complaint that "the only thing he ever gave you was your name". She has doggedly refused his request to change it.

What's more, if tiger imagery does predominate M.I.A.'s vision of the world, it's not necessarily advocacy. The overdominant LTTE imagery -- if indeed it is that -- does accurately reflect the totalitarian hegemony that the LTTE and Prabhakaran exercise over the northern part of the island, and Tamil nationalism as a whole. The tiger, as a symbol, has been associated with Tamil nationalism for centuries; her use of it does not necessarily signal support for LTTE, though the gesture may be somewhat naive.

But it's an issue that goes to the heart of her identity as an artist. She sees herself not as a individual, but a spokesperson. "In the beginning they told me [in England] that being an artist was about being an individual and reflecting society. And in Sri Lanka I was brought up with a different value system, which was that you talk for other people, and it's always 'we'. It's never 'me'. You never think selfishly. Nobody cares, nobody wants to hear what your particular opinion is. It's the opinions of thousands that count." Hence the urgency: "It's too soon for me to get censored before people know what I'm talking about. There's so much confusion about what I stand for and what I'm saying that that's the whole point: there have to be discussions; there has to be people talking, and there has to be young people talking about politics if they want. They have to have a chance to hear different opinions. And that's really what it's about."

There's a personal edge to this, of course: Maya was personally caught up in Sri Lanka's violence, and she's aware of the impetus that experience gave her. But the instinct is deeply intertwined with an instinct to represent others. "I feel the reason why I'm really like outspoken and stuff is because all of these things were inflicted upon me, and I never went and caused any trouble, you know? I just feel like I was kind of skipping along in some country and somebody decides to drop a bomb and shake up my life and then it's all been survival from then on. And that's the reality for thousands -- and millions -- of people today. Why should I get censored for talking about a life that half the time I didn't choose to live?"

Given the extent to which her viewpoint is grounded in personal experience, what is impressive about the maturity of her songwriting is her ability to write convincingly in the third person. "Sunshowers", for instance, outlines -- with some economy -- the fate of a victim of racial profiling who is not a clear stand-in for either herself or her father.

There's a sense, too, that western critics (such as they are) are simply missing the point when they object to the sense of indiscriminate violence in her music. Violence is not often represented in Western popular music; where it is it tends to be -- as in gangsta rap, say, or death metal -- ritualized at source and translated into a marketable commodity. Violence in the western popular imagination is abstract, organized, refined. In much of the developing world, Sri Lanka in particular, the experience of the last few decades has been one of arbitrary, unannounced, and spectacular slaughter. M.I.A.'s music and politics might sound like an assault without coherence or strategy; that doesn't necessarily mean they lack realism.

Ruben Fleischer, who directed "Galang", thinks "the principle idea behind M.I.A.'s artwork is to have pretty heavy/political ideas, but to present them in a poppy candy-coated wrapper. So someone might buy her painting because it is pretty to the eye, and not necessarily consider that it is a rebellious image that she is presenting. However, after they've had it for a while, they might start to think -- why do I have a pink tank on my wall?

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NoiseUp - MIA

M.I.A is like a breath of skunked out air to London's musical mind right now. With the battle bashment of her first release, 'Sunshowers', and the barest electro ragga oozing from 'Galang', it's her deadpan delivery that pulls her from the pack.

But the plot thickens - though her acronym stands for Missing In Acton, M.I.A is far from your average west London gyal. Real name Maya Arulpragasam, she was born in Sri Lanka 28 years ago. Her father was committed to the Tamil Tigers independence movement and after civil war broke out in 1983 between the Tamils and Sinhalas factions, she was forced to flee to London with her mother and two siblings. Maya hasn't seen her dad since but if you expect her to be a bitter girl making dark music, think again...

How has experiencing war as a kid affected your outlook?

"I just tend to think about 'we' and my community and all that kind of naff stuff. You have to stick together when you're being herded in your hundreds to catch a bus to the next town. When you're hungry, everybody looks out for each other. So there's still a part of me that wants to have that sense of belonging. Generally though, it makes you practical. Whatever happens, I know nothing can hold me down because I'm prepared for how bad it can get."

How did you cope moving to London aged 10?

"It was a shock in terms of what aspects of your personality get developed. In Sri Lanka you have to be quiet, decent and tamed as a female. That's how you get judged. Here you have to fight for your corner; it's okay to be outspoken and explore your individuality."

You studied fine art and film at Central Saint Martins, during which time you met Peaches, Pulp's Steve Mackey and Justine Frischmann from Elastica. Is that when you first started making music?

"It just happened by accident. I was around a lot of musicians and figured out that music is really about having a certain spirit. I was often sitting around saying to those guys 'Man, you should sing it like this or that'. I was so full of opinions that eventually I gave it a go."

How have your roots influenced your sound?

"I wanted to document Sri Lankan youth culture at university so I went back to make a film and there was no youth there - they were part of the Tigers, in prison or dead. Coming back here it didn't seem there were any artists who reflected the society we lived in. Life's not so black and white that girls sing about love and boys and shaking ass, and boys chat about killing someone for drugs. I wanted to hear something else."

Tell us about 'Sunshowers' and 'Galang'.

"'Sunshowers' is about how in the news the world is being divided into good and evil with this axis of evil and terrorism thing, so the song is asking: how can we talk about gun culture and other issues while Blair is preaching that if someone hits us, we should hit back twice as hard? And 'Galang' is just London living, the way I grew up on an estate and how it used to be."

What can we expect from your debut album, 'Arular'?

"I've been inspired by underground music from around the world so it's like a sketchbook of all these marginal sounds. I'm more English now than Sri Lankan but the next phase is to make music from all over in a London way. The US produce all this generic hip hop and R&B but we've got sophisticated ears."

Any words of wisdom for aspiring artists?

"Just be you. Don't try to copy whoever's gone before. Have the confidence to pinpoint who you are and be honest about it. That's the biggest advice I could give."

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Rebel rapper is raw and ready to party


The walls of Amoeba Music on Haight Street may be plastered with the faces of dead souls like Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious, but on Saturday, the store's small corner stage was all about the face of the future. And at the moment that belongs to a Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., a 28- year-old rapper whose family narrowly escaped civil war in Sri Lanka only so she could grow up in one of south London's racially fractured housing projects.

With a father who was a member of the notorious Tamil Tiger rebels and a debut album, "Arular," that prominently features images of rifles and bombs on the sleeve, M.I.A.'s street credibility is about eight notches above 50 Cent's. But it's her music -- a crude collision of primitive keyboards, cracked dancehall rhythms and deep slang -- that really makes her hardcore. "I'm bongo with my lingo/ Beat it like a wing you/ Can't stereotype my thing yo," she sings in "Sunshowers" before delivering the sober kicker: "Like PLO/ We don't surrender."

The Amoeba appearance -- part of the music store's Magnificent Seven concert series, in which club-level acts are playing free, all-ages shows through the summer to celebrate the location's seventh anniversary -- offered a taste of M.I.A.'s gig with LCD Soundsystem later that evening at the Fillmore. But to the 900 people who crammed the aisles and pressed up against the racks of CDs and LPs, it was enough.

Backed by Philadelphia-based DJ Diplo, who co-produced her album, and a dynamic sidekick named Cherry, it was almost like watching an old Salt-N-Pepa video come to life. M.I.A., wearing a gaudy sequin-covered sweater, dipped her shoulders and swerved her hips around in old school hip-hop moves, while her enormous smile betrayed the land mines in her songs. "I've got the bombs to make you blow/ I've got the beats to make you bang," she sang on "Pull Up the People."

Even the songs that traded politics for off-the-wall poetics sounded volatile: "Blaze to blaze, galang galang galanga/ Purple haze, galang galang galanga," M.I.A. barked on her signature hit, "Galang," over a sinister but jarring playground beat as the crowd leaped up and down.

The music was so bare, the melodies so minimal, M.I.A.'s voice so blatantly limited, it was hard to believe the 40-minute set actually came together as well as it did. Then again, those are the very elements all those tattered faces on the wall used to change the world. She was in good company.

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review from Dusted magazine:

By now, the word about M.I.A. has reached a fever pitch. Every major magazine has signed on for a feature, the blogosphere is aflame, industry insiders are agape and hot DJs from Miami to Seattle have been caning her beats for months. All that is left, it seems, is to sit back and watch if M.I.A. is accepted or rejected by the mainstream American public.

If this is your first encounter with M.I.A., let's have a summary. She's a Tamil (a Sri Lankan minority), and her father is an outlaw freedom fighter (named "Arular"). She's a gifted visual artist but was versed in music via N.W.A. (as a child), then Peaches (on tour in 2002), and now producers like Richard X and Pulp's Steve Mackey. Her real name is Maya Arulpragasam, her lyrics can be incendiary, and she's pretty fine looking, too.

What's more remarkable than her fascinating biography is her bold music. Like her life story, there's hardly anything like it. Roughed out on a Roland MC 505, it's basic and bombastic and bomb-tastic. When polished by producers, it burns clubs down. It's a blaring, drum-machine driven mish-mash of, well, all sorts of shit: dancehall, Asian beat, old school hip hop, baile funk and grime. It's music from the Gulf of Mexico, the Bay of Bengal and the North Sea. Or, better, it's Ragga meets Ghettotech meets Bollywood Breaks. It's the kind of cultural cornucopia that could be, and should be, the defining sound of 2005. But will it? (Honestly, it is becoming hard to wait.)

Arular is framed by three strong singles. The No. 1 best being "Sunshowers,

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review from Tiny Mix Tapes

Oh M.I.A., where do I begin? By now almost all of you have heard the name (hell, she was in my sister's Teen Vogue) and heard her story recounted ad nauseam. You've heard about how she moved from Sri Lanka to India due to the Tamil rebellion (that her father was a prominent figure of) and how she moved back to Sri Lanka before finally ending up in London to attend Middlesex University and Central Saint Marie's School of Art. You've heard about how one of the best singles of the new millennium, "Galang," was only the second song she ever wrote, and about how hard her sound is to classify. You've heard about all of that because just in the past few months Ms. Maya Arulpragasam has been the recipient of more media attention than most artists receive their entire careers. She's been built up on a foundation largely laid by the burgeoning blog scene, and now it's time to see if more mainstream media will solidify that foundation or tear it to the ground.

Following in the blazing path torn through the music world by Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol.1 comes Mya's debut long player, Arular. To say that this record was "anticipated" is an understatement; in fact, reports state that there was a notable surge in the number of overactive saliva glands that doctors had to treat (my appointment is tomorrow, 3-ish). But it wasn't even just the music that people were holding their breaths for; it was the curiosity of what was going to happen once the record came out. But we'll get to that in a bit. For now, let's focus on the sounds.

And what glorious sounds they are. Arular is filled with banging beats that reverberate in your skull, as well as M.I.A.'s double-dubbed vocals that send your head spinning into a stereo frenzy. When in "Bucky Done Gun," M.I.A. shouts "New York/ quiet down/ I need to make a sound" before the furious horns kick in, she succeeds in making the city that never sleeps shut the fuck up, just so she can do her thing. I can't think of a single person in recent memory who comes off with so much attitude and swagger and is actually believable; like if you don't pay attention she just might smack you across the face. From the English lesson of opener "Ba-na-na" and the day-glo "Sunshowers" to the bombast of "Galang" and the hostage scenario played out in "Amazon," M.I.A. creates one of the most singular artistic statements of the past five years, deftly combing elements of pop, reggae, hip-hop, dancehall, and whatever the fuck else she feels like throwing into a track. The only problem with this album is the difficulty you're going to have explaining what the hell it sounds like to your friends after they hear you raving about it.

It's this combination of styles that may be Arular's downfall. It's still to be seen whether people outside of Criticville and Blogland are ready for such a forward-thinking mishmash of genres and sounds. It'd be nice to think that we might one day see an M.I.A. track sandwiched on the charts between Missy and Outkast, but it's still too early to tell what the final fate of this little slice of brilliance will be. If she never crosses that bridge to pop success though, we'll always have a home for her on this side.

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M.I.A.: Rebel Muse

Maya Arulpragasam grew up dodging political bullets. As M.I.A., she shoots back, armed with peppery raps and Diplo-matic beats. Racists and fascists beware.

The day before the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A, received a message from her estranged father. "He emailed me like,

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some pre-picked quotes from village voice:

# They were asking me to comment on really heavy world issues, like what I thought about America, globalization, President Bush. I had to wonder, "Why me?"

# If I represent anything, it's what it's like to be a civilian caught up in a war.

# My mum brought me up going, "Ah Gandhi, he's such a nonviolent man. You turn the other cheek, huh." And then now it seems like what President Bush is teaching us is if somebody steps to you, you just kill him. Don't even ask any questions. Just take him out. He's the biggest bloody 50 Cent he is.

# I really felt like I needed to know what I wanted to tell my kids

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from Nirali Magazine, October 2004


"I salt and pepper my mango," sing-songs 28-year-old Maya Arulpragasam at the beginning of her infectious, dancehall-inspired song, "Sunshowers." A remix of "Sunshowers" is the second track on the London-based artist's debut single featuring the even more pulsating "Galang," released in the United States on September 28. The song's drum-pattern beat is catchy, quirky, crazy

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Maya has also had a book of her artwork published, here's a sample:

book details:

"From a long-forgotten region of endemic conflict comes a project to challenge your ethical core. The art of warfare is sprawled across these pages transforming bloodshed into beauty and raising the phoenix of forbidden expression.

The real war is in us!"



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M.I.A. drops dance bomb

Sri Lanka-born singer shakes things up

M.I.A. is the Anglo-friendly pseudonym of Sri Lanka-born Londoner Maya Arulpragasam. Her music is a stunning mix of hip-hop, ragga, dance and electronica. The mix, with the young woman's unrelentingly political lyrics, bears more than a passing influence from no-wave bands like Gang of Four; the beats are erratic, spitting and shifting in ways that should keep potential dancers jumping, jerking and losing their balance.

Lyrically, M.I.A. could be mistaken for a rabble-rouser, a potential threat to national security. While she chants such liberal mantra as "Pull up the people/Pull up the poor," almost every song includes references to shooting guns, setting off bombs, making things go pop, pop, boom. She sings, "I'm a fighter, nice nice fighter," but it isn't exactly obvious whose side she's "fighting" for.

She suggests that "Every gun in battle is a son and daughter too," and there are several references to ways in which physical conflict is absurd, so we might assume that she is a soldier for peace

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In a class of her own

The freshest voice to hit underground music belongs to a woman who spent her childhood in Sri Lanka and teen years in London, and has experienced war, poverty and racism

After weeks of waiting, and five straight days of phone calls, much back and forth, "just checking in" (me), and "things are really tight" (them), I finally get M.I.A. on the phone.


You won't be asking that question for long. Not if there is any justice. Not if there is an ounce of dignity in the music biz.

Straight out of London, with her formative years spent in war-torn Sri Lanka, teen years as a refugee in London's public housing, and early 20s in art school, comes the freshest voice to hit underground dance music and, potentially, overground pop in recent memory.

She might not be tearing up the sales charts yet (released in March, her debut album Arular, rose to No. 58 on HMV's top 75 this week), but M.I.A. - real name Maya Arulpragasam - has people in a tizzy.

Garnering write-ups in pretty much every music (and many non-music) publication(s) out there - including Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Village Voice - and with ear-to-the-ground music fans everywhere speaking her name in excited whispers, M.I.A. is on a roll.

"Something's going on,"she muses, as she picks up the phone. "You got ahold of me, but there are still four people waiting - we've lost some along the way."

She laughs. "Things are OK. So far so good."

Did she see this coming?

"No, never."

She didn't see it coming when she was 6 months old and her family moved to Sri Lanka, where she, her mom and siblings lived in fear for their lives as her father fought as a member of guerrilla group the Tamil Tigers.

She didn't see it back in England, amid poverty and racism in Mitcham, Surrey. She didn't see it when she put on her first art show at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

She didn't even see it when she had a real record label behind her (London's XL Recordings) and real producers in front of her, ready to work.

"I always felt apologetic about making music," she explains. "When I went into the studio, my first words were always, 'Hi, I'm Maya. I'm really sorry.' And we'd work from there. "It's really strange. It just kind of happened."

Her bashfulness is believable when she speaks of it, with unaffected candour and a chuckle. It's a stretch when hearing her spout sassy, schoolyard-style rhymes on record.

Arular is catchy as heck. It's M.I.A.'s grand entrance as the most original, creative and charismatic vocal talent since Missy Elliott.

Yet people don't know what to do with her. Her music is a video-game electro-clash of distorted dancehall and hip-hop rhythms, while her lyrics reference pop culture and revolution in the same breath.

Hefty U.S. label Interscope (home to Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Black Eyed Peas), which has picked up Arular for distribution in the States, will have to figure out how to package such a huge, prickly talent for U.S. consumption.

"I met Jimmy (Iovine, Interscope co-founder)," M.I.A. recounts. "I went to his house. They're curious - it's really cute - they're looking at me going, 'What are you?' I'm going, 'What are you going to do with me?' "They stare at me a lot. But they help me out.

"They surprise me every time. ... They're giving me a lot of control. I just go, 'Uh, I'm Sri Lankan, I'm not a rapper, I'm not Gwen Stefani.' We'll see what happens."

Elsewhere in the confusion department, MTV is reportedly holding back her Sunshowers video until she takes out the PLO reference ("You wanna go? / You wanna winna war? / Like PLO I don't surrendo") and until she explains what exactly it means to "salt and pepper my mango."

"In Sri Lanka, Mexico and the Caribbean," she explains, "they put salt and pepper on green mangos. When it's warm, they put chili peppers and salt. It's amazing. I used to eat them on the way to school in Sri Lanka." Those looking for a sexual subtext won't find it.

"The other meaning would be that I present an alternative to what already exists in your everyday stereotypical convention."

As M.I.A. sings about power to the people - as she baits Bush and calls to youth to "break that cycle" of consumerism and status quo adherence - she emphasizes that her presence, her access to the platform, is itself the message.

"The act of me making music now," she says, "and not doing it like other people, is more important for people to learn from than what I'm saying in my songs.

"For every kid who died in Sri Lanka or the tsunami, how many of them, if they had access to a 505 (Roland drum machine), might have been amazing? We don't know.

"You can grow up in a mud hut in Sri Lanka, be a refugee with no money living in (public housing), and get to a point where people listen to you. It's a big journey to make. And along the way, if I can say, 'Look, just stop bombing people; call it a day,' then, great."

But let's get back to the music. Between her looks, her lyrical subject matter and her life story, M.I.A. sometimes gets short shrift when it comes to her abilities. Her vocal delivery is a wonder to hear. With mesmerizing fluidity, she evokes both coy girlishness and stoic defiance, not to mention superfly rhythmic timing and melodic instincts.

She surprises at every turn with her word associations, positing herself as a righteous, tireless trickster. Set against stagger-shot rhythms and sonic collage backdrops, it is nothing short of heroic.

M.I.A. manages to incorporate the disparate - at times diametrically opposed - facets of her life into a masterful work of populist pop art. She takes her absent father's life-and-death struggle and London club-culture cool and makes something personal, political and provocative.

It all started - the music, that is - with Peaches. Touring as a videographer for British group Elastica, M.I.A. became fascinated by the brash, sex-talking, Toronto-bred electro star, who performed nightly in the opening slot.

"I realized you can make a loud noise all by yourself," she says. Peaches taught her the ins and outs of her Roland MC-505 and M.I.A. was on her way.

She started making music in her bedroom and, the story goes, got her break by walking into the office of neighbourhood label XL with the line, "I heard you've been looking for me."

She hooked up with producers Steve Mackay (of Pulp) and Rob Orton, with whom she fine-tuned her introductory hits Galang and Sunshowers.

Seeking further production help led her to Philadelphia DJ Diplo, in whom she found a kindred spirit. Diplo produced just one track on Arular - the Theme from Rocky-sampling Bucky Done Gun.

More importantly, he produced the underground-rattling bootleg mix Piracy Funds Terrorism, on which M.I.A.'s vocals are laid over and among a globetrotting throwdown of southern crunk hip-hop, dancehall reggae, '80s pop and Brazilian baile funk.

"We wanted to put together something that reflected the sounds I've come through, and that I listened to in the making of the album. And to show that I wasn't completely crazy, that my stuff was relatable to different styles."

The two are now an item and Diplo is accompanying M.I.A. as her tour DJ. But she denies rumours that they are engaged. In terms of where she's at, and where to go from here, M.I.A. leaves things open.

"(Arular) is a yardstick," she says. "You could have nothing, get a four-track recorder for 100 pounds, two tapes for 50P each and borrow a drum machine that costs 600 pounds, and see how far you can get with it.

"In terms of the creative, there's so much more I need to explore. This first album is really about discovery, finding out about music, starting from scratch. Now I've got to a point where every other thing I'm going to do will count."

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Reggae Riddims and the Sound of London Grit

(What Music Do I Listen To?)

By M.I.A.

IN 1986, 10-year-old Maya Arulpragasam and her family fled the civil

war in Sri Lanka and settled in England. She learned English about

the time she discovered another language: hip-hop, the perfect

vernacular for describing life as a refugee in a squalid housing

estate in South London. Now 28, she performs as M.I.A., for "Missing

in Acton," a nod both to her London borough, Acton, and to the

guerrilla spirit of her lyrics. After releasing two singles, the

dancehall-inflected "Galang" and "Sunshowers," last year, XL Records

will release M.I.A.'s much-anticipated first album, "Arular," in

February. This week, she will play benefit shows at the Knitting

Factory's Los Angeles (Feb. 3) and New York (Feb. 5) locations to

raise money for tsunami relief in Sri Lanka. Joel Topcik recently

spoke to Ms. Arulpragasam about what she's listening to right now

and why.

'Bad Gal Riddim'

"Dancehall producers come up with a new 'riddim,' or beat track,

every week or so, and send it to different artists. Everybody does

their own version of the new beat, and it becomes a

compilation. 'Bad Gal Riddim' (Madhouse Records) is the newest to

come out. It has a little bounce to it. 'Right There,' by Spice and

Toi, is the most fun song I've heard all week. When dancehall got

big a couple years back, a lot of girls got pushed out. Now they're

getting back into it. I'm not even sure it's out yet - I heard it on

pirate radio, which is where I get most of my music. The pirate

D.J.'s are always six months ahead of everyone else."

Ivy Queen

"I'm a big fan of Ivy Queen. She's probably the biggest reggaeton

star. Reggaeton is the sound coming out of Puerto Rico that's really

huge in America now. Dancehall is much more stripped down, but

reggaeton has a Caribbean sound - steel drums and different tempos.

Ivy Queen and the dancehall rapper Sasha did a Spanish reggaeton

remix of 'Dat Sexy Body' (VP Records) that represents a kind of

unity between dancehall and reggaeton."

Baile Funk

"This is where my mind has been recently. 'Baile funk' ('funk ball')

is basically Brazilian kids in the favelas (ghettos) going crazy,

screaming the dirtiest lyrics over Clash songs and electronic music

that sounds like Kraftwerk. They take Miami bass beats, really basic

drum loops, heavy bass - I can only describe it as 'booty music' -

and produce something so fierce and angry that reflects the absolute

chaos around them. Diplo (half of the Philadelphia D.J.-duo

Hollertronix) put out 'Favela on Blast: Rio Baile Funk '04'

(available at www.hollertronix.com), a compilation of the best ones

he found when he went to Brazil."

Jim Jones, the Diplomats

"Jim Jones has so much charisma and more attitude than most rappers

put together. 'Crunk Muzik' (from 'Diplomatic Immunity 2' on Koch

Records), with Cam'ron and Juelz Santana, is the best song to come

out of the Diplomats crew. Such a powerful beat - and you can't tell

what the chorus is, it's like 32 bars long. Rappers are like Rod

Stewart now; they're like a bunch of Liberaces with their gold rims.

The Diplomats are just a little bit off key from what others are

doing. They seem to be experimenting the most, and they have a real

fight mentality. It's the guerilla side of hip-hop."

Lethal Bizzle

"I love Lethal Bizzle's 'Forward Riddim Remix' of 'Pow!'

(Relentless). It's a grime record that reflects the London streets

in the most aggressive way possible. People call grime the new punk -

electronic, minimal beats and mad bass lines. The remix makes

the 'pow!' lyric from the original into the hook of the song, and it

has so much energy. There are like 20 M.C.'s from around London on

this track. It's just wicked. I live in a place with Somali

refugees, Polish people, a lot of Arabic people, and this song is

blaring out of every single car. It's what's empowering them now.

It's like when you first hear Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power.' It

makes you feel so good when you walk down the street listening to



"Ce'Cile hasn't had a really big hit yet. But she's strong and

consistent, and she's not afraid to experiment. I thought it was

brave for her to work with the producer Jacques Lu Cont on 'Na Na Na

Na,' from the 'Two Culture Clash' CD (Wall of Sound). It most

reflects what I like in a sound. It's minimal - just vocal and beat -

with a synth-y drum loop. There are almost no changes at all - when

the chorus comes in, Lu Cont just brings in an extra snare and

pitches it up and then back down again. It's brilliant. It came out

after my first single, 'Galang,' and it was good to know there was

something else out there for the kind of music I want to do. If

something like this could get on mainstream radio, it would be so


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