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From Our Vaults: M.I.A.

The Sri Lankan singer, songwriter and producer speaks about finding her own sound in a strong brew of influences

Lalitha Suhasini Nov 28, 2012
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Photo: Janette Beckman/Courtesy FreeSpirit Music


It’s about five in the evening Chicago time and the dead of the night out here in India. We dial Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., just before she goes into a soundcheck for a concert at the Aragon Ballroom. The London-born Sri Lankan singer-songwriter and visual artist made her debut in 2005 with Arular, a tribute to her late dad, a Tamil Tiger in Sri Lanka. Her second album Kala is yet to be released in India but both records have dynamically changed the equation of conventional hip hop, drawing from a range of sounds including soca, Tamil gaana (street songs) and electronica. Arulpragasam sounds terribly tired when she begins talking, but picks up enthusiasm two minutes into the interview.

Do you write a lot when you’re on the road?

Not really, but I just started this week. Sometimes I have to be provoked. I’m sort of getting engaged and in love, so I’ve been writing some mush. I’ve been running into my room and hiding it before anyone reads it.

When will India become part of your tour plan?

I want to do shows in India. Though my music was too progressive and 10 years ahead of America and ahead of what’s going on in India, it has a lot of Indian influences. The first layer of my second album Kala was recorded in India.

Walking around the streets of  Chennai to record stuff must have been nostalgic considering you were brought up there.

Chennai has changed so much. When I lived there, there was just one tiny primary school where I lived in Saligramam. We lived in hiding in a tiny 12 feet x 12 feet hut. And the main road took us to school. My school doesn’t even exist anymore. Now it’s a Hollywood town. Yeah, but recording there was really interesting. Whenever I spoke to traditional gaana artists from Trivandrum with huge moustaches and wearing lungis, it must have been difficult to look past the girl with blonde bits in her hair. They weren’t used to taking orders from a woman, so I used to tell my brother Sugu to tell them what to do. In their world of music, the only role that a woman plays is probably a singer, so they weren’t used to women producers.

How do you stay in touch with what’s happening in Sri Lanka?

I don’t have that attachment to Sri Lanka. It’s a shame that there’s no strong culture of music there. South India is like my dog pit

Kala is dedicated and named after your mum.What does she think of it?

My mum is really surprised. She’d expected me to do a different kind of music. It was really progressive even for Western music. My mum is actually a bit worried because I have cousins who do Carnatic music and are major sitar, veena and tabla players. When I was a child, I used beg my mum, almost everyday until the age of 10 I remember, to send me to music school. She would slap me sometimes and tell me, “We can’t afford £10 an hour.” So I started hanging around with rappers. 

M.I.A. on the sets of the video shoot for “Bird Flu” from Kala. Photo: Courtesy FreeSpirit Music

Wasn’t it a culture shock after India?

I used to listen to a lot of melam (percussion) when I lived in Tamil Nadu because my house was next to a temple. I also heard a lot of bass-y temple music when I was a kid. Rap music was more like Tamil music. It was beat-driven stuff. Even as a 11-year-old I’d hear bigger drums than what were used in UK. So I’d heard way more complicated rhythms in India.

After you toured with Gwen Stefani, her debut Escape sounded so much like something you would do.

Yeah, there’s this song “Wind It Up.” It’s based on AR Rahman’s “Ottagathai Kattiko” from Gentleman. I emailed a link to XL Records. They made Pharell [Williams] and Gwen Stefani listen to it I think. By the time I finished my February 2006 tour, Gwen Stefani had already made that song. And it was my song. I was really angry. I wanted to re-record the drums. I worked with Sivamani and did the drums.

 Evidently, there are lots of other musicians out  there in the West who are crazy about Indian music.

Timbaland has made a career out of Indian music. I hope people in India know that. He keeps asking me to take him to India and we’re always fighting over who has a bigger Indian music collection. And I got a lot of stuff from my dad and aunts. Lots of Eighties hits ”“ melancholic Indian songs that Timbaland sure doesn’t have in his collection. Kanye [West] too has a lot of respect for the kind of music that I do. And Rihanna does “Paper Planes” at the end of every show of hers.

You’re tripping out on kuduro as well right now.

Yeah, kuduro comes out of Angola ”“ a war torn country where really poor kids make music on shitty PCs, shitty phones and crap samples. It’s really simple. It’s not multi-million dollar stuff. It’s dance tunes invented by a 10-year-old with really simple soap opera lyrics. I like simple stuff. And that’s what I expect from India. I see so many kids on the street playing carrom. If he’s singing, I want to know how he reacted to Spiderman the first time he saw him or maybe the bedtime stories his mother told him. I just want normal shit and you never hear normal stuff from India. I think that the movie industry monopolises music 120 per cent. Five people make music in India and there are a billion people listening to it. I don’t think this promotes individuality. It promotes followers. So I had a dream to set up a label and find kids and nurture it.

The interview was originally published in the July 2008 issue of ROLLING STONE India

M.I.A. will showcase her visual art at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art and will also perform with a group of percussionists from Kerala for the Biennale’s inaugural ceremony on December 12th. Go here for more details on the Kochi Muziris Biennale

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