Sam Zaman, frontman of the iconic British-Asian band State of Bengal, was a big man. He had a big belly, a big laugh, and a big heart. The music he created was far bigger than all that. Its far-reaching influence is heard till datein American hip-hop to Bollywood songs. His most successful track IC 408, which begins with an Indian Airlines flight announcement (sampled from a Hindi film soundtrack), went on to become a hugely successful anthem. It sold widely and played incessantly across venues around the world.

IC 408 was at the very heart of a paradigmatic cultural shift in the UK of the mid-’90s. It signaled the confidence of a young, vibrant, politically-engaged community of Asian-origin artists who adroitly, and justly, claimed a British-ness through their mixed heritage and the art, literature, and music they created. They celebrated their Asian flavours but rejected the hackneyed exoticisation of their art and identity. They staked a global claim through a bold, new musical idiom. Sam Zaman, a pioneer and instigator, was at the very epicentre of this change stationed at the seminal club Anokha, in London’s East End, fronted by Talvin Singh and managed, promoted by Sweety Kapoor. IC 408 was the anthem of Anokha and the music style that came to be known as Asian Underground, taking its title from the seminal album.

Sam Zaman’s tunes and DJing style caught the attention of Björk, who frequented the club, which had become a rage by then. The bond they formed resulted in a friendship, a remix track, and a live tour. He also signed on to her iconic record label One Little Indian. Several other musicians forged creative bonds with Zaman, including Massive Attack, Tricky, Ronnie Jordan, Cheb i Sabbah, to name a few. A memorable live collaboration with Afrika Bambaata in Anokha harked to Zaman’s own ethic and background (and record collection).

Formerly a teacher, Zaman worked at youth centres, drawing young men away from gangs and putting them behind mics and decks. It was indeed this spirit that runs through his sound – an infectious, untainted joy of the streets, much like that had from uninhibited, shirtless baths in the illicit waters of a gushing fire hydrant. His sound was festooned with that joyous spark. It was cheeky and clever, but having imbibed grim lessons from the school of hard knocks – of race riots, social exclusion, and institution hostility. Marked by attenuated funk guitar parts, on occasion oddly brooding; fragile, beautiful melodies; playful and inventive rhythm sections drawing from soul, funk, reggae, hip-hop, rap and house, but dominated by jungle and drum & bass break beats; his music is often disarming and fun on the surface, hiding beneath, subtle soulful cues drawn from his South Asian and Bengali heritage.

One has to hear the mimetic Elephant Ride to get a glimpse of Zaman’s musical spirit. In an interview with this writer in Washington Square Park in New York in 2000, following a successful gig at The Electric Church, he said the track was inspired by a memory of him with his grandfather atop an elephant in Dhaka. Indeed, it is a slow, big-bottomed, graceful progression trudging along unhurriedly, with delicate ornamental bells and trumpeting musical parts. It was such experiences that made their way into his first solo album, aptly titled Visual Audio (2001). He had earlier collaborated and toured with sitar maverick Ananda Shankar, and in 2002 he joined forces with the Baul folk singer Paban Das. With numerous other remixes, singles, Zaman continued to be musically productive working with a wide range of musicians and singers. In 2007 he released his second solo album Skip-Ij. Subsequently, alongside music work and DJing, Zaman went back to teaching kids and conducting music workshops.

Zaman was born in Karachi and spent part of his childhood in Turkey, Jordan and Bangladesh. He influenced a wide range of people, mentored many successful rappers and musicians, including his brother Deedar, former rapper of the band Asian Dub Foundation. His sound opened the doors for countless others. That will remain an important element of his legacy: it was not all about him – it was as much about those around him. Sam Zaman was a dear friend. His passing is a personal loss. I find solace in his humour, frankness, affection, and eccentricity. His best tunes came from his heart; it was there that he held them.

Sam Zaman is survived by his young son Sage.