Bhangra Heats Up: Tradition Meets Technology

“I will never be treated as an American,” declares 25-year-old Harpreet “Sunny” Singh in Desi Remix Chicago Style, Balvinder Kaur Dhenjan’s recent documentary about the music scene in Chicago’s Indian community. “I will always be treated as a foreigner. When I realized that, I found out about my music and my culture. I use it as a way to express myself.”

Singh, who lives in Milwaukee but commutes here every weekend, is half of T.S. Soundz, a two-man DJ team and one of three acts profiled in Dhenjan’s movie (“T” is for Singh’s partner, Manpreet “Tony” Talwar). Desi Remix focuses on their battle to balance issues of cultural identity with attempts to attract more diverse audiences, but Singh admits the duo started as a lark. He and Talwar, computer-science students who struck up a friendship at a dance party, spent much of their free time watching Indian “Bollywood” films, the majority of which are musicals, and in 1991 hit upon the idea of mixing the floridly catchy sound-track melodies with Chicago house rhythms. “We were going to mix some stuff and try to sell it to our friends for pizza money,” says Singh.

T.S. Soundz soon developed a style akin to British bhangra, the popular music of England’s Indian immigrant community, which revamped traditional drum-based Punjabi harvest music by way of contemporary styles like dancehall and hip-hop. Bhangra is mostly performed by bands; Singh and Talwar are strictly remix artists. But with more than a dozen cassette releases and several CDs, they’re gaining a reputation on the international underground and in the last several months have performed to crowds of nearly 1,500 in New York and Los Angeles. “Our friends have been surprised when they see our CDs in Toronto, New York, and even London,” says Singh.

The pair met the London-born and -bred Dhenjan in 1993, shortly after she moved to Chicago. Dhenjan, 29, had come to the United States with her husband, whom she married after a two-week romance, in 1991. They lived in New York initially, then came to Chicago, where she studies at the School of the Art Institute. Although she’d earned a degree in chemistry in England, she was interested in film and video, and had shot a 12-minute short about Indian women while in New York. She says she decided to make Desi Remix to get a sense of how the Indian community in Chicago compared to those in New York and London. “On Devon Avenue I discovered that there was a bunch of music made by people here, which surprised me because in New York there wasn’t,” she says. Singh and Talwar introduced Dhenjan to musicians and fans in the community. “T.S. Soundz definitely had an edge and they seemed animated from the start,” she recalls. “I began hanging out with them and I decided to start shooting stuff.”

Dhenjan’s examination of the music scene captures the complexity of the larger Indian immigrant experience, in terms of dealing with both racism and cultural identity. Also featured are Rahul Sharma, who leads an Indian-funk fusion band called Funkadesi, and Mini Basati, who performs more traditional Punjabi music, mostly at weddings and other social events. Their ideas about their place in American society are as disparate as their music.

After receiving several grants for the project, Dhenjan spent a year and a half shooting and another six months editing. The 46-minute video was completed in January and premiered this spring at Chicago’s Asian American Film Festival. It has elicited strong reactions from within the Indian community and from some of the subjects themselves. Sharma, Basati, and members of the religious community have objected to the unrepentantly militant tone taken by Jay Rehal, a former member of T.S. Soundz who tells Dhenjan, “I don’t like white people.” Dhenjan says most of Chicago’s Indians seek smooth assimilation, and view Rehal’s comment as a negative reflection on the community.

Rehal’s anger is understandable; at ten, he watched a swastika burn in his family’s front yard, and during the Iranian hostage crisis, he was harassed by ignorant schoolmates. In the video 19-year-old Basati, whose parents are very traditional and had to be consulted before she could participate, claims she’s never experienced racism in America, while Sharma takes a rather presidential “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. “As soon as I open my mouth and start talking about racial stuff, people don’t like me,” he admits.

The one concern common to the subjects and the maker of Desi Remix, however, is ethnic identity. Dhenjan sees the loss of culture as a real threat here. Whereas England’s Indian community is predominantly working class, she says, in Chicago there’s substantially more wealth, which tends to accelerate and ease assimilation. “The Indian community here is very lame,” she says. “They’re too busy making money to care about their culture.”

Desi Remix Chicago Style will be shown Friday at 8 PM at Chicago Filmmakers; T.S. Soundz, who spin weekly at Indian dance parties, make a rare aboveground appearance October 19 at Subterranean in Wicker Park.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Balvinder Dhenjan photos by Lloyd DeGrane.