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Concert Review: M.I.A. Brings Diversity to Paradise Rock

Sri Lankan Pop Artist Fills Sound and Lyrics With Immigrant Experiences

By Mirat Shah

M.I.A.

Paradise Rock Club, Boston

Sept. 23, 2005

There is absolutely no doubt about it — Maya Arulpragasam, alias M.I.A., represents the face of music of the future, as was readily apparent at her performance last Friday at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. The diversity — not just of her music, but also of her background and of her audience — was amazing.

Understanding the origins of Arulpragasam’s music requires knowing about her traumatic past. Her father was a member of the Tamil Tigers, a militant rebel group opposing the government of Sri Lanka in an ongoing civil war. Because of her father’s role in the war, living in one place was so dangerous that her family moved around Sri Lanka and India for much of her childhood. Her family eventually fled, and Arulpragasam immigrated to England at age 11.

The influences of these different places and people were rich fodder for Arulpragasam’s artistic soul. She first tried to synthesize them as an aspiring painter and graffiti artist; a book of her work titled M.I.A. was published. Her alias, M.I.A., is an outgrowth of this. She realized she liked expressing herself through singing much better and has stuck with making music ever since.

Just as M.I.A. combines disparate influences to make her music, she unites a disparate array of people who appreciate her music. Her show was attended by distinct populations of rap and hip-hop fans who liked her sound, indie rock snobs attracted to her uniqueness, scholarly types interested in her history, and immigrants who related to her experience. If not for M.I.A., these people would never be found in the same place or acknowledge that they enjoy the same type of music. Instead, everyone swayed, bopped, shouted, and danced unashamedly to the music.

Most impressive is the diversity of M.I.A.’s music. She combines rap lyrics, hip-hop sensibility, African sounding backbeats, English samples, and Indian ditties to create a coherent, authentic sound. Her song “Sunshowers” opens with a bongo drum, leading into M.I.A. rapping in her sing-song voice; it also features a sample from a popular 70s English song as the chorus. This melody was especially impressive live because instead of sampling the 70s song, M.I.A.’s sidekick and back-up dancer sang the chorus in a beautiful soprano, wowing the crowd. When M.I.A. chants “To Congo/To Columbo/ Can’t stereotype my thing yo,” she is exactly right.

While her music was impressive, her charisma carried the night. The chanting, sing-along nature of her music is meant to be heard live with a participatory experience. M.I.A. did not disappoint. She regularly thrust her microphone into the crowd, laughed at the audience’s antics, made everyone yell with her, and seemed to be having the time of her life. By the end of the night, everyone loved not only her music, but also her. When M.I.A. explained, drawing on her immigrant experiences, why she licensed her song “Galang” to Honda, which would usually be cause for denigration in the music world, the audience (indie rock fans included) roared its approval. Her exceptional life experiences have made her a figure of wisdom and respect, allowing her simultaneously to be ghetto fabulous and a role model, no easy feat.

M.I.A.’s sound is truly that of the future because she uses the uniqueness of her life and music to proclaim universal messages. She acts as an advocate, discussing the difficulty of the immigrant experience, approving of strong women, supporting personal independence, and giving voice to resistance movements worldwide. In “Sunshowers” she sings, “Like PLO, I don’t surrendo.”

My only criticism of M.I.A.’s performance was its brevity, with her appearance lasting barely 40 minutes; however, she is a new artist with a shallow pool of material. One can only hope she stays on the scene for years to come, entertaining and surprising us, and providing longer concerts for us to enjoy in the future.