Most people seem to talk about the Voodoo Queens by beginning with Mambo Taxi, an all-female garage pop group from Brighton who arrived on the scene circa 1992, when riot grrrl was having its hey day across the sea in the US and the scene was a burgeoning one in Britain. Mambo Taxi’s most famous single was “Prom Queen”, which was put out with an album sleeve designed by their drummer Anjali Bhatia…
Dubbed the “Princess of the Voodoo Beat” by a member of England’s best know riot grrrl band, Huggy Bear, who she drummed for now and then, Anjali had actually grown tired of drumming, picking up the guitar and breaking away from Mambo Taxi to form the band whose name was nevertheless inspired by her skill on the drums: the Voodoo Queens. The Voodoo Queens consisted variously of Anjali’s sister Rajni on keyboards, Anjula and then Mary Deagin on bass, Mambo Taxi bandmate Ella Drouglis on guitar, and Stefania and then Sunny on drums.
The Voodoo Queens were highly influenced by garage rock and the girl groups of the late 50s/early 60s such as the Shangri Las. Early 90s band The Headcoatees, featuring one Holly Golightly, were also inspirations. I recommend checking out the book “Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now!” put out by Black Dog which covers quite thoroughly the British riot grrrl scene, and also delves into discussion about garage rock, girl group and twee influences on riot grrrl, which I think is quite different from the more common focus on post punk bands of the late 70s early 80s such as the Slits and Delta 5.
In terms of being part of what was thought of as the riot grrrl scene in the UK, the Voodoo Queens were not exactly putting out photocopied manifestos of boy/girl revolutions like Huggy Bear, but politically, Voodoo Queens did have a thing or two to say on matters affecting women, the song “Supermodel, Superficial” being one obvious example. In the video for “Indian Filmstar” (below), Anjali is also loud and proud about loving her non-skinny body and encourages the audience of (presumably) mostly girls to eat the chocolate she’s handing out.
As legend has it, the Voodoo Queens first official gig was opening for the band Cornershop when they only had 3 songs to perform, and being discovered by John Peel who said that their performance reminded him of the first time he saw the Slits (Peel was a big fan of the Slits). Following this, they signed to Too Pure records, and released an album “Chocolate Revenge”. After an attempt at forming their own label, Voodoo Records, and putting out a release on it which didn’t do so well, the band broke up in 1994/95. Anjali, following her own lead again, now makes computer based music often used for commercial purposes.
The thing that attracted me to the Voodoo Queens, apart from curiousity to read more about the British riot grrrl scene, was the fact that many members, including the lead singer, were Indian. For someone of Indian descent like myself who is passionately interested in riot grrrl, punk & DIY music, this was an irresistable reason to find out more. How many women of colour, women of South-East Asian descent at that, participated in bands like these during this time? Perhaps many, bands pop up and disappear all the time in DIY scenes, however, not too many that are recognised as “influential”, or at the very least documented, feature women of colour. The problem with focussing on this, of course is that many of the said “women of colour” do not wish to be marked out as such, and indeed, on further investigation I found a book online called “Brimful of Asia: Negotiating ethnicity on the UK music scene” by Rehan Hyder (Ashgate Publishing Ltd: 2004), which stated:
“Anjali felt tension due to the fact that she was often asked to explain herself due to be “asian”: “in a way it would be easier if you didn’t have to ask these questions, if I didn’t have to sit here and answer these questions, it would be easier if I didn’t have to sit here and explain about who I am”.
Easy to see where her irritation arises from, however, not so easy to know what to do as a fan who not only loves the music, but also feels more of a connection due to seeing someone perform who looks a lot more like you than any other woman whose music you love ever has done.
In “Brimful of Asia” she goes on to say:
“I think it shouldn’t take away from the fact that I’m a muscian and a producer and songwriter; but it is part of me and a part of me that goes into the music, its fairly integral, but what is more integral is the music and the sounds that I’m producing and I think that subjects like this have a danger of becoming quite staid and just polemics for the sake of polemics really.”
So perhaps the issue then becomes, who is it that gets to discuss the fact that Anjali Bhatia is Indian? If music journalists used it as a quirky fact to add to their “top 10 things you should know about the Voodoo Queens” or whatever, or if it became the focus for articles written for white people by white people who see it as a topic they probably should discuss because it seems controversial and a bit weird, (polemics for the sake of polemics), the flippancy and borderline racism, not to mention distraction from the artistic efforts of the band seem obvious.
However, I’m writing about this band specifically because I discovered who the band members were. But the thing is, my intention is to pay a small tribute to a band that re-fuelled my passion for riot grrrl & DIY music, a passion that was waning given the fact I was slowly but surely giving in to the hindsight criticisms of riot grrrl, that it was privileged and white and therefore not as revolutionary as it maintained. It made me determined to argue that this kind of statement is in itself racist, because it ignores non-white women’s contribution to this scene.
Voodoo Queens – Supermodel, Superficial
Voodoo Queens – Indian Filmstar