Get Real (Multitone)
R U Ready (Multitone)
What Is Bhangra? (I.R.S.)
Deep Into Jungle Territory (Multitone)
Because the United States is a nation of immigrants–possessing a vibrant culture built from assimilation and cross-pollination–we tend to assume it’s the only melting pot on the planet. While it’s certainly true that no other country has such a diverse ethnic population, cultures continue to clash and blend all over the world. Immigrants bring their indigenous culture with them, and it gets diluted, lost, or willingly subverted by younger generations trying to fit into their new home. Their music is no exception.
The Indian presence in mainstream England has become increasingly visible, and Indian influence in popular music is growing as well, most notably via the ascendence of bhangra.
Traditionally bhangra was the music of harvest festivals in Punjab, the northwest region of India before it was divided to create Pakistan in 1947. The heartbeat of the strictly percussive music was supplied by the dhol, a large two-headed, wooden-barrel drum beaten with a heavy stick in patterns that were said to reflect the movements of a reaper with a scythe. Their main crop was hemp–bhang–from which the music takes its name. Some 200 years ago the music ceased to be associated with harvest. The dholak, a smaller, tapered two-headed drum played with the fingers and capable of more intricate rhythms, replaced the cumbersome dhol, and eventually other native melodic instruments were incorporated. Still, the music was virtually unheard outside the region until the 70s, when second- and third-generation immigrants brought it to England.
The group Alaap was the first to achieve notoriety for modern bhangra, but their recognition was exclusively within the Indian community. Their early recordings were dominated by hypnotic rhythms played on the dholak and gorgeous, sinewy melodic lines on the violin and Indian instruments like the alghoza–a duct flute–and harmonium. But they also leavened traditional material with a striking pop sensibility. The music quickly grew popular within the community, becoming a staple of daytime dance clubs that were established as an alternative to the dominant white and Afro-Caribbean nightclubs from which the Indian population felt alienated. Before long, the youth embraced bhangra as pop music. Ever since synthesizers and standard drum kits became common, the music has ravenously absorbed all sorts of evolving dance club styles–hip-hop, house, techno, and most prominently, dancehall. Bhangra’s transformation is analogous to the fusion of traditional Arabic music and modern disco that marks Algerian rai.
England’s Indian community has produced a number of successful artists working in various pop idioms: Sheila Chandra’s stately mix of pop and strains of Indian classical music, Cornerstone’s stridently aggressive agit-pop, and Fun-da-mental’s politically charged rap-rock hybrid, to name a few. The most successful artist, dancehall rapper Apache Indian, is viewed as the popular face of bhangra, but his music, with the exception of some tabla wafting through it now and then, is far removed from bhangra. Much borrowing goes on between the Jamaican and Indian immigrant communities, and Apache Indian represents the blurring of racial boundaries almost to a fault–it’s difficult to differentiate his work from more traditional dancehall toasters. A compilation titled The Bhangra Dimension (Multitone) explores the link between the two styles.
In the last few years bhangra has reached beyond England, attaining moderate popularity in places like Japan and Canada (a country with its own bhangra scene). Undercover (Multitone), an innocuous, watered-down dancehall pop version of bhangra, was recently released by Canada’s Indian Lion.
The Safri Boys are currently England’s most popular bhangra act, and after listening to their new album Get Real it’s obvious why. While accepting technology and nonbhangra instruments like saxophone, their music retains rudiments of more traditional bhangra. The astonishing vocals of Balwinder Safri, all sung in Punjabi, serve as the album’s primary focus. Melodically and rhythmically complex, his singing weaves through a dense fabric of infectious polyrhythms and lush, intoxicating textures. Dholak rhythms are fleshed out by bits of reggae and house, but the combination of musical director Harjinder Boparai’s assured, ambitious writing and Safri’s soulful singing firmly grounds the album as the vanguard of mainstream bhangra.
XLNC, a group that introduced a number of Chicagoans to bhangra last summer at a spirited Navy Pier performance, employ an approach that’s less pure than that of the Safri Boys. On R U Ready the terrific Punjabi singing of Harbhajan Singh Talwar is offset by the smooth, pop-inflected English vocals of Dave Singh. I’m not sure whether the English is an aesthetic choice or a commercial concession, but I find that it diminishes the power of their music. Indian languages are innately rhythmic, and their natural percussiveness provides a thrilling interaction with this percussion-heavy music. Whereas Talwar’s alliterative displays interact and contrast excitingly with the music, Singh’s English vocals seem lifeless–draped like a wet noodle over the beats. Otherwise XLNC also root their sound in traditional bhangra, but their instrumentation is more spare than that of the Safri Boys.
Multitone Records is the biggest, most established bhangra label in England, but Nachural Records, started by Ninder Johal, the tabla player for the group Achanak, serves as a more enthusiastic exponent of less traditional fusions. What Is Bhangra? compiles a number of these more outward crossover attempts. It has plenty of English singing and rapping, club rhythms, a heavy dancehall influence, and pop slickness. Produced largely for teenage consumers, the music collected here borrows from trendy nightclub fads and doesn’t appear to have much staying power. The most compelling track is “Hass Hogia,” a Punjabi-sung tune by Sahotas, who have a full-length album forthcoming on I.R.S. that will also include “Hass Hogia” (disappointingly the rest of the album is sung entirely in English).
Perhaps the most promising merger bhangra has made of late is with jungle, a ferocious outgrowth of techno that pumps at a dizzying 160 beats per minute. Jungle has been used to remix everything from Method Man to Stevie Wonder, and its flexibility has allowed it to impact a broad musical milieu; it’s hotter than hell in the UK. Deep Into Jungle Territory offers a delirious rhythmic mother lode, an already dense array of traditional Indian beats crashing into pummeling, chunky sheets of blatantly nonhuman percussion. While the tracks on this collection initially seem a long way from traditional bhangra, it actually serves as the core for these frenzied dance explorations. Sardara Gill’s wiggy “Apna Sangeet Sings Apna Sangeet” remixes vocal lines by his group, Apna Sangeet, into a masterful conflation of dancehall chants, Run-D.M.C. samples, wahwah guitar, unidentifiable sound effects, heavy metal riffs, and hyper-frenetic rhythms. Certainly the most radical twist bhangra has yet made, Deep Into Jungle Territory makes a strong case for the music’s stylistic elasticity.
Much like the rock music that has been proclaimed dead only to be reborn a year or two later, bhangra is a thriving genre that, much like its creators, depends on adapting to survive. It’s grown beyond its identification with one culture, exuding a broad appeal. Of course, despite America’s patchwork population, anything that’s not sung in our language doesn’t have a chance of making it unless it’s assimilated into something more familiar. Wait and see.