Stuart Jeffries on why Asian Dub Foundation composed an opera about Libyan dictator

What inspired Asian Dub Foundation to compose an opera about the famous Libyan dictator? Stuart Jeffries finds out

Can an opera about the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy really be a good idea? There are precedents: in John Adams' Nixon in China, for instance, Mao duets with the American president. Evita's husband was a despot. Hitler is name-checked in Mel Brooks's The Producers. And let's not forget Trey Parker's film Team America: World Police, in which a puppet North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, sings a torch song about how lonely it is at the top - which it probably is.

But until now, no one has risked making an opera that puts a dictator centre stage, still less while he is alive. This autumn, the Asian Dub Foundation will remedy that with Gaddafi: the Opera, co-written with the playwright Shan Khan, and currently in rehearsal.

The opera is a huge gamble for English National Opera, who are staging it at London's Coliseum - not just because of its incendiary subject matter, but also because of the experimental nature of the music. It's not often the venerable opera house plays host to an alternative electronica collective like Asian Dub Foundation, who specialise in breakbeat, dub, bangla and ragga. More challengingly, the opera will feature Egyptian and Libyan musicians alongside the ENO orchestra - who may well find the Arabic orchestrations that ADF are planning more demanding than an umpteenth run through Rigoletto.

The opera starts with Gadafy's coup d'état in 1969, when he was 28 years old, and follows his career right through to March 2004, when Tony Blair visited his tent for tea, thereby endorsing a man reviled by the west for more than three decades. But will it include topical showstoppers along the lines of "I'm gonna wash Saddam right outta my hair", or "Nasser, he's my baby. No sir, don't mean maybe"?

Probably not - not least because all the music will be original. ADF's Steve Chandra Savale (nicknamed Chandrasonic, because he used to tune all the strings of his guitar to one note and then play the instrument with a knife) is guarded about the details. He says the opera will deal with all the controversies surrounding the Libyan leader, including the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher during a demonstration outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984, Ronald Reagan's bombing of Tripoli in 1986, the Lockerbie disaster of 1988, and Libya's bankrolling of the IRA.

"I thought it would be interesting to do an anti-musical," Savale explains. "Most musicals are just glorified karaoke or too nice, too mainstream. This will be anything but mainstream. It's about a modern political myth. Gadafy's like Ziggy Stardust in reverse." How so? "Instead of a messianic pop star, you have this captivating man who took a great deal, in terms of his cult of personality, from Nasser [the west-defying Egyptian president]. He was and is an immensely seductive person, who isn't really a fundamentalist, conservative or a socialist but is taken for all those things.

"And the story has everything - oil, terrorism, women bodyguards. [Gadafy] draws on his own Bedouin heritage as well as Marx, Rousseau and the Koran to create an idealistic revolution. Did you know," Savale asks, peering earnestly through his straying locks, "that there is a day of revenge in Libya for the attempted genocide by the Italians?" I didn't. After the interview, though, I find out that last year, to mark the 94th anniversary of Italy's invasion, anyone trying to dial into the country heard a recorded message saying: "International communications are interrupted until 6pm to denounce the odious crimes committed by the Italians against the Libyan people."

What drew Savale to Gadafy as a subject? "He'd been thinking about it for years," says John Pandit (aka Pandit G), the group's DJ . "We'd be sitting on a tour bus at 4am in Bosnia and he'd be thinking about it, working out which one of us to cast in the lead role." That part has now been taken by JC-001, a 40-year-old Irish-Asian poet-rapper who once held the record for the world's fastest rap.

"What really drew me to Gadafy," says Savale, "was the fact that western petrol addiction gives him more importance than he would have had otherwise. In a sense, the west created the demon." The discovery of oil in 1959 took Libya, which had overthrown Italian rule eight years previously, from being one of the world's poorest countries to being one of the most wealthy - if wealth is measured in terms of GDP per capita.

Savale says ADF's opera will be serious in tone, up until the final scene: Blair's visit. "That will be shot through with satire, just because it was such a weird moment. He was the demon and suddenly he's our friend."

However, even with its satirical moments, the opera will not stop Asian Dub Foundation being pigeonholed as an earnest agitprop band. "But that's not what we do," argues Savale. "If it was just about politics, we would be writing articles or books that no one would read. We don't expunge the hedonism from our music."

"You should have heard our sound system in Geneva," says Pandit, who turned down an MBE for services to the music industry because of its colonialist connotations. "We certainly didn't expunge the hedonism that night."

Still, politics have coursed through the collective's work for 13 years. Their first concert, in 1994, was a benefit for Quddus Ali, an Asian teenager left brain-damaged after an attack by white youths in Tower Hamlets, east London. They later recorded a song, in part about this attack, called TH9 (TH standing for Tower Hamlets, 9 standing for the number of band members). It included the lines: "Some fascists in Brick Lane looking for a fight/ Police doing nothing/ One rule for black/ One rule for white." Their 1998 single Free Satpal Ram called for the release from jail of an Asian man convicted of murdering a white man in a Birmingham restaurant in 1986. Ram, who claimed he had acted in self-defence in the face of a racist attack, spent 15 years in jail before his release in 2002. The group's last album, Tank, dealt with their opposition to the Iraq war.

Recently, ADF have diversified into writing live soundtracks for political films such as Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995) and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966), which includes scenes of the French torturing Algerians. "That proved timely," says Pandit. "We performed it just as the details were coming out about torture at Abu Ghraib."

No doubt it was this background that encouraged writer-director Neil Biswas to ask ADF to write a soundtrack for his forthcoming Channel 4 drama, Bradford Riots. Biswas's film dramatises events in Bradford in July 2001, when an anti-racist demonstration in the city centre was followed by a night of rioting, during which white racists attacked Asian youths. More than 200 police were injured; £27m damage was caused; the city's already poor race relations record was further damaged; and Asian faith in the police was lost.

Biswas's film focuses on Karim, a young Muslim who returns home from university and gets caught up in the riots. He witnesses white racists beat up a friend while the police look on. When he throws a rock at the police, it's as freighted a moment of street violence as the point when Mookie unleashes a Brooklyn race riot in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Biswas's point is that, even if Karim does the wrong thing, it is worth understanding why. "It's skewed towards the Asian viewpoint, certainly, but I don't think that's a bad thing," says Pandit.

"We were particularly keen to work on this," says Savale, "because we sensed that the Bradford riots had become a forgotten incident. Two months later, 9/11 happened."

What were they trying to do with the Bradford Riots soundtrack? "You have to find the rhythm of the scene," says Savale. "That's the key. So in one scene just before Karim throws a rock, there's a bangla rhythm in there, and heavy metal to give the emotion. Each character has a musical identity." Like a Wagnerian lietmotif? "Maybe," says Steve, "but I don't know anything about opera." (This, given his current project, is surprising.) "The easiest bits to write were the actual riot." This comes across: one of the film's most effective scenes, a mounted police chase through the streets of Bradford, is set to a powerful drum'n'bass soundtrack.

Biswas's film fits into a growing body of films about Muslim experience in Britain - Ayub Khan Din's East Is East, Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss, Simon Beaufoy's Yasmin - but neither Savale nor Pandit is Muslim. "We're both Hindu," says Savale, "but in the band there are all kinds: Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Rastafarian."

After the Bradford riots and the life and times of Col Gadafy, Asian Dub Foundation are thinking of turning to something more upbeat for their next project. Pandit says he would entertain other offers: "Tell them we're available for musicals. Only funny, romantic ones, though"

· Bradford Riots will be screened on Channel 4 on May 4. Gaddafi: the Opera is in rep at the Coliseum, London WC2, from September 7. Box office: 0870 145 0200.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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