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World Music Features

M.I.A.

M.I.A.

By Derek Beres
Published December 20, 2005

The 27-year-old Sri Lankan born Maya Arulpragasam has been whipping up critical praises as the reigning superstar of electro-clash, an updated version of ’80s synth-rock that incorporates hip-hop, R&B and punk into its mix.

"All I’m trying to say is you can make music really cheaply, you don’t have to have a formal education, and anyone can do it. To be a singer you don’t have to sing like Beyonce, to be a rapper you don’t have to be like Jay-Z. There’s no rules. If I stand for anything I’d rather stand for non-formula. They never worked for me.”
           Something is certainly working for Maya Arulpragasam, a 27-year-old former Sri Lankan refugee now known as the artist/performer M.I.A. The press has latched onto this hip-hopping electro-clasher for her rather intriguing upbringing. The daughter of a high-ranking Tamil Tiger rebel leader, Arulpragasam fled Sri Lanka as a child, was constantly relocated around India, and was first introduced to her father as an uncle to protect him from police interrogations. The first decade of her life was spent in transit until relocating to London, where she was launched into a whole new kind of dangerous terrain: white suburbia.

            Life unfolded creatively for the youngster, however, attending Central Saint Martins Art School to study fine art, film and video. It seemed to be the path for her until a public presentation, M.I.A. (originally meaning Missing in Acton), featured her spray-painted and stenciled renderings of Tamil memories. Nominated for the Turner Prize, the collection was republished as a monographic series and her images used on the cover of one of Britpop band Elastica’s records. This led to an extensive American tour with the band where she met electro-clash artist Peaches and was introduced to the Roland MC-505 sequencing machine. The rest is, well, you know that story.

            As a genre, electro-clash is notable for its accessibility and sonic messiness – a kind of nuevo-punk rock -- and Arulpragasam was tutored by the scene’s superstar. In electro-clash, broken beats and abstract rhythms filter through thick walls of synthesized white noise, while long, resonant drones are punctured by blaring, sharp punctuation, and singers don’t necessarily sing. Electro-clash is mutated ’80s synth-pop with headier production and more interesting sounds, and to be proficient here is daunting.

            On M.I.A.’s debut, Arular (XL Recordings), that challenge is met head-on. Splitting production duties with Mississippi-born (and Philadelphia resident) DJ Diplo, Arulpragasam threw whatever made noise into the mix:

“With ‘Amazon,’ that beat was made out of really random stuff, like the earrings I had on that day. I wrote it just before I went to India to shoot our video, and I was DAT-ing [Digital Audio Tape] stuff in the jungle. That was my art school days coming through. It was like going to do an experimental film, where people just bang pots to make sounds. It would drive me mad when people added really obscure abstract sound to films and thinking they were going to get away with it. Musically I really wanted to open it up, so whatever would make a sound co