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An Audio Map to the Geography of M.I.A.’s ‘Kala’

On March 31, 2021

A U.S. passport is among the strongest in the world, granting its citizens access to 185 countries without a visa. Yet the U.S. is also one of the most restrictive places for outsiders, holding a shameful history of exclusion and deportation, in addition to prohibitive immigration processes and outright travel bans. Customs are just another arm of government censorship, a reality the London-raised, Sri Lankan refugee Maya Arulpragasam had long lived and depicted in her music as M.I.A. prior to being prevented from entering the U.S. in 2006.

M.I.A. had called the U.S. home while touring the world in support of her critically acclaimed debut Arular. The record was named after her father, whose ties to political Tamil groups during the Sri Lankan Civil War would help define his daughter’s riotous artistic perspective, and then go on to prevent her from gaining a long-term work visa and subsequent reentry to the country when she tried to return. As a result, M.I.A. was boxed out of both her creative hub and residence in Brooklyn, missing out on the lavish opportunities that come from scoring big with a major label. If a few government officials had acted differently, M.I.A. might have been able to follow through on her intention to record much of her planned sophomore album with Timbaland. Then, she might have charted a path like both Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake as the producer’s muse and maestro, taking a more traditional road to fame in the process.

Instead, M.I.A. made Kala. Rather than wait for clearance to return to work in the U.S., she chose to embark on a globe-trotting free-range recording vacation across several regions and a dozen cities, incorporating the influences of a diverse pool of cultures. Many of these locales were not ones cited in tourist guides or by trip advisors, but rather what some unfortunately referred to as “third world” countries, the kinds ravaged by domestic conflict, economic depression or often both. She brought the residents she encountered directly into pop-up recording studios, keeping their unique musical styles and expressions largely unfiltered even as she weaved them together into her audio travelogue. The result is a vision of a borderless society, one defined by the margins of the world, from Aborginal Australian pre-teens to fishermen on the South Indian coast.

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From the beginning, M.I.A. set out to decolonize pop music, taking to task the global hegemony of Western culture. “The thing is, an American voice, in every shape, form, size, is getting heard on the planet all over the world. If you go to a mud hut in Africa, they are listening to an American voice,” M.I.A. lamented in an interview with Today. Rather than accept this status quo, M.I.A. made her mission statement in direct opposition, to force a conversation where there’s only ever been one side with a megaphone. Arular had used the dominant tools of the time in a fresh way, smashing together genres and stylized sloganeering as a means of diversifying the sounds of the club. With Kala, M.I.A. threw out the rulebook altogether, centering those voices and instruments of individuals traditionally unheard in the music industry. In her own words: “If you’re going to spend $100,000 on a beat from Polow da Don, you might as well give that $100,000 to a whole bunch of people around the planet and try something else.”

Going where no one thought to look, she showed how much richer pop music could be by broadening its participants. The end result of this approach made M.I.A. either an ambassador or a vulture, depending on your perspective, or perhaps which critics you were listening to at the time. But prior to M.I.A., no one had ever pushed the line so far to help us realize the limits of where appreciation becomes appropriation, and her vision for the project has always been more focused on vocalizing unspoken tensions and taboos as opposed to resolving them herself. Kala challenged our assumptions of the meaning of authenticity; to call out M.I.A.’s music as being built on the found sound not of her own culture means simultaneously rethinking the canonization of musical innovators ranging from Madlib to Paul Simon.

What’s unimpeachable about Kala is not M.I.A. as a global ambassador, but her willingness to work beyond the bounds that no one else had attempted to cross. Kala draws from every continent outside of Antarctica (although you could imagine M.I.A. finding some way to make a pop song out of emperor penguin squawks if she had made it out there). Her route took her from South Asia to the Caribbean, all the way to Africa and Australia and, eventually and finally, the U.S. Pulling the threads that make up the album’s patchwork, you can draw out entire subplots of musical history, leaving Kala as something of a Rosetta Stone to understanding the regions in which it was recorded. As an introductory course, we present an audio map of the diversity of samples, source material and perspectives that M.I.A. turned into one of the greatest albums of the 21st century.

South Asia

Kala began in India. Marooned from Brooklyn, M.I.A. decamped to Chennai, the capital city of the Eastern state of Tamil Nadu. She was there to meet up with A.R. Rahman who, at the time, she referred to as the “Timbaland of India,” although that description is almost entirely inaccurate. He is more of its Hans Zimmer in terms of his musical contributions to the country’s cinema (which include certified bangers like “Ramta Jogi” and “Chaiyya Chaiyya”), although he has since made big waves in Hollywood as well, scoring the Danny Boyle films Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. While the two would ultimately collaborate directly on the Oscar-nominated “O...Saya” for the former soundtrack, at the time Rahman simply offered M.I.A. access to his musicians and other contacts in the area while she resided at his vaunted Panchathan Record Inn and AM Studios. That freedom to explore with a wealth of local resources was the genesis of the album, breaking M.I.A. and her primary co-producer Switch out of any preconceived notions they might have had for her sound.

Where you’ll hear the influence of Rahman’s camp most directly is on “Boyz,” which is propelled by a lively ensemble of urumee drums. The instrument — a shoulder slung wooden drum played horizontally — is a staple of Tamil genres, such as urumee melam and gaana, and plays a major role in film music from the region. To direct the 30 participating session musicians, who were already resistant to being led by a woman, M.I.A. had to further overcome a musical language barrier between Indian rhythms and those familiar in Western music. Her workaround was to model the basic rhythms on her Roland TR-505, and then let the musicians translate her planned percussion through their own medium. The result is that urgent four-on-the-floor-like shuffle, which fills out both the lows and mids with their whipping rumble.

She pulls a similar trick on “BirdFlu”, which builds its rhythms around urumee samples from “Thiruvizhannu Vandha”, written by the composer R. P. Patnaik for the Tamil film Jayam. The sound of Indian cinema is used again and again throughout Kala’s Side A. Ilaiyaraaja, among the country’s most prolific and respected composers, did the music for the 1991 Tamil crime drama Thalapathi, and it is his drumwork from the song “Kaattukuyilu” that opens “Bamboo Banga,” as well as the entirety of Kala.

The album’s most significant movie sample, however, is a full-on reimagination of “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” from the worldwide Bollywood smash Disco Dancer. Like M.I.A.’s “Jimmy”, the original is itself actually built from the raw melodic material of another massively popular single, the French disco group Ottawan’s “T'es OK”, which is among France’s best-selling songs of all time. M.I.A. has likened the popularity of the original “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” to the American ubiquity of “Thriller,” proving so pervasive to her own upbringing that she’d made the single her “theme song” back when her mom would hire her out at birthday parties to perform. With “Jimmy,” she again plays the master of ceremonies to the infectious groove, revitalizing it for a third time for contemporary audiences.

Bollywood is, of course, ground zero for those interested in the sounds of the region, yet is also unfortunately often the stopping place in their cultural exploration. While the “foreign” language source material woven into Kala provides welcome reference points for those listeners in-the-know, it’s the selections from regional folk traditions that transforms Kala beyond a pop album into something more of an archival document. Among its most inspired moments is on the intro for “Hussel,” which lifts the chanting of Kerala fishermen pulling their boats out of the water. The beat that follows is meant to conjure images of refugees banging the side of the ship they’d take to smuggle themselves into a new country, yet also serves as the base for a bombastic electro-clash anthem about the grind to “earn” a living.

As such, M.I.A.’s sensibilities were often closer to that of an ethnomusicologist than a musician. She recruited a quartet of neighborhood children who were granted permission from their parents to record the spirited handclaps and chants that accent “BirdFlu,” meanwhile a string specialist was brought in to perform with a handmade instrument fashioned out of coconuts and bamboo sticks on “Jimmy.” Later on “World Town,” the ring of the nadhaswaram, a double-reed wind instrument, is used to recreate the announcement of temples opening up in Sri Lanka, which often awoke M.I.A. during her childhood. These informal slices of neighborhood life give Kala a lived-in, tactile color, grounding them in geographies often unseen but fully realized by what you can hear alone.

The Caribbean

The sessions in India provided M.I.A. and Switch with much of the raw material for what would ultimately become Kala. Yet it was only after venturing from Tamil Nadu into Trinidad that the vision for the album began to cohere. M.I.A. likened Trinidad to a modern take on India’s old-school culture, and credits the amalgamation of influences she saw on the streets as instilling in her a new appreciation for musical fusion. “It was nice to see a new Indian approach to life — like Indian people going Jamaican, and the music that comes out is something totally different and weird,” she said in an interview with FADER in 2007. “India gave me parts, but Trinidad gave me the inspiration to put it together.”

Specifically, she drew inspiration from the style of chutney soca popular in the region, which blended Indian musical elements and Hindi lyrics with the Afro-carribean styles of calypso and soca (Drupatee Ramgoonai’s “(Roll Up the Tassa) Mr. Bissessar” is a prime formative example). Across Kala, M.I.A. creates her own hybrid genres by mixing one country’s rhythms with another’s melodies, a technique essential to the creation of album highlights like “Boyz,” “World Town” and the bonus track “Big Branch.” Beyond embodying the music’s unique genealogy, you can hear the soca roots in the swinging tempo of “Boyz,” a song that first began in India but would not be complete until M.I.A. made it to her next destination. In Jamaica, she was so inspired by the culture on the streets that she dedicated some of the lyrics to “Boyz” as a tribute. She further went on to film the song’s iconic music video in the country, using it to highlight dance crews from the region. As she continued her travels, she became increasingly adamant about directly showcasing local talents, giving them first-person space within the album’s runtime and corresponding media.


There is no better example of M.I.A. ceding the album directly to its influences than on “Mango Pickle Down River.” While in Australia, M.I.A. would discover the Wilcannia Mob, a rap group of Aboriginal schoolboys, and affix onto their 2002 single “Down River” two short verses mirroring the structure and fidelity of the original recording. Initially intended for a mixtape, the song ultimately received enough positive attention to warrant M.I.A. putting it on Kala. That the resulting remix doesn’t interrupt the album’s momentum while sitting at its dead center speaks to how much the group’s double-dutch style (further exemplified by the lyrics to their single “Barkandji Boys”, audio for which appears to be impossible to find online) resembled itself the approach M.I.A. first caught attention for on Arular.

West Africa

Across her travels, M.I.A. would continue to find kindred musical spirits within the local communities. Among the most informative influences for Kala was that of kuduro, an Angolan dance music defined by its uptempo carnivalesque atmosphere and polyphonic rhythms. Like hip-hop in the U.S., it can be considered as much a lifestyle as it is a technical genre, something M.I.A. recognized in how kids made their beats out of whatever technology they had at their disposal: cell phones at the genre’s onset, and eventually new generations of digital audio workstations over time. The music’s emphasis on making the most of your surrounding resources helped affirm her own instincts. In contrast to worrying about the pitch of her vocals while working in professional recording studios, she trusted during her travels that the most important aspect of her sound was its immediacy.

She was drawn to Angola by the work of DJ Znobia, who’s free-roaming and boundary-crossing style — as heard on tracks like the simultaneously tough and delicate “Tarrachuda” and the G-Funk-meets-flamenco lilt of “Abazomba” — can clearly be heard echoed in Kala’s own genre-splicing. Yet their aspiration to work together was delayed by a sudden motorcycle accident, which put the DJ in a month-long coma. Fortunately, he soon recovered, returned to music and was eventually able to collaborate with M.I.A. on their 2008 single with Portugal’s Buraka Som Sistema, “Sound of Kuduro,” which then made it onto a deluxe edition of Kala.

In the meantime, M.I.A. instead found herself up north in Liberia, going to the country to learn about the rehabilitation of child soldiers into society. Seeing the ravages of the war on the country, M.I.A. packaged details of their daily life into anthemic quotables on “20 Dollar,” which centers around the cost of buying AK-47s in the country. Her goal was not simply to pay witness to the damage, but to celebrate their resilience, planning to shoot a music video for “World Town” with the Liberian children that unfortunately went unrealized.

North America

Eventually, M.I.A. was able to return from her exile-imposed worldwide retreat to finish recording Kala in the U.S., as she once intended. Except that, after taking musical inspiration from Angolan street music, Sri Lankan temples and former child soldiers, she inevitably found the experience of working at Timbaland’s upscale, chef-adorned Virginia Beach studio to be sterile. The collaboration between the pair revealed itself to be ill-fitting with M.I.A.’s new ethos.

“When I went into the studio [in the States], I didn’t know what it was — there was just something in my being that wouldn’t do it,” she explained in the FADER interview. “I wasn’t coming into the game like that anyway, like a puppet pop singer — like, with the right beats, I’m going to be Gwen Stefani!”

Granted, “Come Around,” the sole remnant of the Timbaland sessions that ended up on the album, was no facsimile of the chart-seeking idols of the time. The song boasts one of M.I.A.’s stickiest tongue-twisters, laid out over a rickety loop that could have, in another life, easily ended up on one of Missy Eliott’s early 2000s full-lengths. Yet, it’s still the least appealing cut from the album, somehow sounding out of place on a tracklist defined by its internal nonconformity. The song is the only time the spotlight is on the singer at the expense of the source material. The result comes across like a record executive’s vision of M.I.A., playing into her perceived image by pairing her over a sample from another recent dance track by a European-based artist of South Asian descent. The surface-level comparison is clear, but M.I.A.’s personal connection isn’t, which leaves for a relatively hollow impression (an ignorant Timbaland verse didn’t help matters).

Within the States, she found a more compatible producer in Blaqstarr, a figure in the Baltimore club scene without reliable contact info, whom M.I.A. had to bail out of jail to work with. At that point, Blaqstarr’s signature was his music’s kinetic bounce, exemplified by the heart-racing pace and vocal bursts of “Hands Up Thumbs Down,” a song M.I.A. and Switch sampled on “World Town.” Yet their face-to-face collaboration instead resulted in “The Turn,” a woozy ballad that slowed down the more bustling elements of Blaqstarr’s sound into something more syrupy. The two would ultimately revisit Blaqstarr’s higher BPM for future collaborations, including on her next album ΛΛ Λ Y Λ and much of 2016’s AIM, but at the time the unexpected result pleased M.I.A., who said in an interview with Exclaim, “I went into the Baltimore club lab and came out with a ballad, and I was like, ‘I think the album’s on the right track.’”

M.I.A. drew not only from contemporary American scenes to round out Kala, but further mined the sounds of the country’s past. In a number of cases, the singer lifted hooks directly up from the American rock underground. A drunken interpolation of the Pixies’ 1988 hit “Where Is My Mind?” serves as the chorus of “20 Dollar.” She flipped Jonathan Richman’s lyrics on The Modern Lover’s 1976 track “Roadrunner” for the refrain to “Bangoo Banga.” “XR2,” her ode to the early ’90s London rave scene, is ironically built between a pair of short samples of American soul singles, Sweet Linda Divine’s “I’ll Say It Again” and Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It).” The primary focus of M.I.A.’s melting pot melodies is often on the Asian and African reference points. A true globalist, however, she does much of her most insightful work reinterpreting established entries from the Western canon that her music is often juxtaposed against.

The U.K.

Prior to calling Brooklyn home, M.I.A. built her artistry in west London. Yet, she explicitly wanted to avoid recording in the U.K. for Kala as she did for Arular, believing it would lead to an LP too similar to her debut. But while she jetted off in all other directions, the influence of her partial-English upbringing still found its way back to the album. “20 Dollar” owes its fervent oomph to English rock heroes New Order and their massive hit “Blue Monday,” and while Afrikan Boy’s “Hussel” verse fixes in on his Nigerian upbringing, the tenor of his jagged drawl is distinctly of his lineage within grime. Most notably, “Paper Planes,” the top-10 single that propelled M.I.A. from a critic-bait curiosity to an A-list public figure, takes its instrumental from the Clash’s Combat Rock track “Straight to Hell,” adorning the sample with the melody from Wreckx-n-Effect’s multi-platinum single “Rump Shaker” and a pair of sound effects that would be familiar to the hard-working and misunderstood immigrants M.I.A. collectively embodies on the track — gunshots and cash registers.

The song flips the script on malignant stereotypes, playing up bigoted fears of drugs trades and terrorism while turning class signifiers of the immigrant lifestyle into its own brand of cool. “No one on the corner has swagger like us,” she claimed, and relative to every other song “Paper Planes” passed on its way toward the top of the charts, she was indisputably right. Not since Kala has anything quite so imaginative, or the polar opposite of the rest of the mainstream, made such a lasting impression on the popular consciousness. Similar to Yellow Magic Orchestra, the legendary genre-fluid Japanese ensemble that is among the closest precedents to M.I.A., she set out both to pay tribute to and subvert the fascination in the West with “exotica” — a genre of music more defined by what it doesn’t sound like (i.e., European) than what it actually does.

Notable to Kala is that almost all of its live instrumentation was recorded directly by native musicians of non-white countries; the only white voices heard on the record come from samples. Where a producer like Timbaland has long been lauded for simply repurposing Middle Eastern sounds for Western audiences, his work rarely invites you to appreciate their roots or explore further (and may actively avoid compensating their originators). M.I.A holds a similar crate-digging ethos as many of our most celebrated contemporary producers, but presented the methodology in reverse. She made the British and American songbooks sound as foreign as the “world” music she had sought to map to specific geographies. So while Kala’s one-of-a-kind recording strategy ultimately didn’t lead to M.I.A’s desired revolution in the global artistic order, the album achieved something almost conceptually grander: to render that order irrelevant.

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Pranav Trewn

Pranav Trewn is a general enthusiast and enthusiastic generalist, as well as a music writer from California who splits his time between recording Run The Jewels covers with his best friend and striving to become a regular at his local sandwich shop.

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