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State Of Bengal: The Legacy Of Sam Zaman

On 19 May this year music producer and DJ Saifullah "Sam" Zaman, known better by his musical identity State of Bengal, died of an apparent cardiac arrest, aged 50.

His premature demise has understandably left a wake of disbelief and grief amongst his contemporaries and disciples from the UK and South Asian circuits. After UK based mag Nada Brahma reported the news, the Internet was flooded with musicians from all over the world (by no means limited only to the South Asian community) mourning his passing and remembering the legacy he had created in his years pushing the sound of his culture.

It’s nerve racking to write about a man who’s done so much for music. We can’t provide a personal account - Nerm’s heartfelt tribute for Zaman (which you can and should read here) on Rolling Stone India does that job better than we could ever hope. The best way to honour him, from our perspective as listeners and detached learners, would be to document and spread the knowledge of his work to people who might not be aware of his mountainous contributions and role in the evolution and progress of South Asian sounds.

Though originally of Bangladeshi descent, Sam Zaman was born in Karachi, Pakistan and lived in Ankara, Amman and Dhaka before moving to London at the age of 8. So it comes as no surprise that his musical influences have been many and varied. The story goes that State of Bengal was birthed after Zaman made a trip to Noakhali in Bangladesh where he met with traditional musicians and dancers from the region. Formed in 1987 and originally a trio that included his brother Deedar Zaman who was later associated with the Asian Dub Foundation and rapper MC Mustaq, State Of Bengal abandoned the done-to-death cliched Asian tunes and went back in time in search of his roots, to the classical, folk and traditional music that started it all. In Nerm’s words: ‘It was Sam’s music that made people openly cry on the dance floor. With a new sound; a combination of UK Underground dance music and Eastern promise, that, as diametrically opposed to blinging Bhangra and overbaked Bollywood, was finally, mercifully what we all craved.’

State of Bengal had a fair number of hits but he was probably most well known for iconic tunes like "Flight IC408” and the laid back “Chittagong Chill”, both released in 1997 compilation 'Anokha – Soundz of the Asian Underground' - an album that stands the test of time today. Together with Mercury award winning musician and pioneering figure in the Asian Underground, Talvin Singh, State of Bengal began the soon to be legendary ’Anokha’ club nights. It was at these electrically charged events, pumping out sitar and tabla injected drum and bass beats, that it is said that the Asian Underground was truly propelled, and where the sounds of South Asia, recreated for the modern day, were discovered by ravers and people in the music industry.

By now a regular at the scene, Sam Zaman was soon discovered by singer/producer/Icelandic pixie queen Bjork at one of the ‘Anoka’ nights after he played a remix of her track ‘Hunter’. She assisted State of Bengal in signing on to the same label as her - One Little Indian Records, through which Sam released his acclaimed debut album ‘Visual Audio’ - a landmark moment for the movement of the Asian breaks sound.

In the years that followed, Sam Zaman spread the sounds rooted in his culture to the West in ways that had never been explored before, touring and collaborating with people like sitar innovator Ananda Shankar and remixing for the likes of Massive Attack, M.S.I., Bjork, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and many more. He also started a club night called CHILLISOLO - which pushed unheard talent from the forward thinking underground scene to the throngs on a monthly basis.

Again, we have to look back at Nerm’s tribute to try and understand Sam Zaman’s real impact. State of Bengal contributed to more than the reinvention of bass music. He changed the culture that surrounded it and the way it integrated the South Asian community into the musical DNA of the UK.

“It helped push back against decades of racial aggression and restored an overwhelming sense of pride in our shared culture. It fundamentally altered everything – the way we dressed, the way we danced, who we fucked [he’d hate me saying that]. Like any movement, there were many sources, but it could easily be said that a lot of it sprung directly from the one-off, self-produced, acetate vinyls of Sam Zaman.”

Our initial approach to this was to draw a picture of his life and contributions to music as an objective third party, but it’s difficult to stay unaffected by the iconic producers legacy. Sam Zaman isn’t an entity you can ignore. His history demands our attention and his contributions to music (and by default – the South Asian musical community, not restricted to the UK) are the kind that will be archived for generations to come. It is a fact that State of Bengal’s music was far ahead of its time, and when South Asian contemporary music makes its inevitable ascent onto a global platform (and it will - whether decades or just a couple of years later), Sam Zaman’s name should and will be amongst the first documented in its history.

Words: Diya Gupta

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09 June 2015

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