Bhangra, The Beat That Has The World Dancing

You may not have heard of the word "bhangra" but, chances are, you might well have heard the sound. The infectious beat from India has made its way into clubs across the United States. Top rap stars like Jay-Z and Missy Elliot have also infused the Asian rhythm into their music. Rekha Malhotra, better known as the New York-based DJ Rekha, is widely credited for helping to popularize bhangra in this country. She speaks with host Michel Martin about the music style's and its global popularity.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WYCLEF JEAN (Musician): Refugee. Every hip-hop record has a sample right? Do your research. This is where it started right here? Yeah.

MARTIN: You may or may not know the word bhangra, but you have probably heard that beat. The music you're hearing is Basement Bhangra, featuring hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean. The woman behind that anthem is Rekha Malhotra, who records and performs as DJ Rekha. She DJs parties in New York and around the country and hosts a weekly online radio show, "Bhangra and Beyond," on Breakthru Radio.

Bhangra is a genre of music and dance known for its drum beats and lively rhythms. It originally hails from the Indian state of Punjab, but its made its way into clubs across the country and his caught the ear of well-known artists like Missy Elliott, Sean Paul and Jay-Z, who has performed a number of hits with bhangra artist Punjabi MC.

Now it just happens that DJ Rekha is in Washington, D.C. for a huge Indian culture Festival at the Kennedy Center called "Maximum India," and she was nice enough to stop by our studios here in D.C. to share her latest work.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. REKHA MALHOTRA (Host, "Bhangra and Beyond," Breakthru Radio): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now let's right to some of the music. Many of the songs that youve produced have elements of hip-hop or electronic beats. Well just play one just to get us started. Here it is.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: One. One. One. Ah-ha. One. One. One. One. One. One. Ah-ha. Ah-ha. One.

MARTIN: Youre actually pretty well-known and loved by the NPR audience. But for those who dont know your story, can you just tell us how you got involved with both bhangra and hip-hop?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Well, I grew up in New York City in the suburb of New York, Westbury, Long Island, around the time - without revealing too much about my age - when hip-hop was just coming to the fore. Everyone at school had a cousin or somebody that was two degrees away from Run DMC or LL Cool J, who were close to the Queens side of hip-hop. So I was around that music.

And then when I was around 15, my mom brought back a tape from England of this bhangra artist, Malkit Singh, and it kind of blew me away. We weren't really -we didn't really listen to that kind of music at home. We listened to more Bollywood stuff, which is the music from the Hindi film industry. Bhangra is more of a folk music.

And then a few years later after I heard that tape, I heard another, I guess a mash up or a mix by an artist named Bally Sagoo, which sampled pieces of hip-hop, Martin Luther King, all that stuff, with the vocals from this artist and I guess it all just came together for me then and I really liked it.

Next thing I knew, me and my cousins are scraping together our pennies. I was breaking into credit card, started volunteering for parties and here I am today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now people call you the ambassador of bhangra in part because you sort of help people appreciate it in all these different genres, like fusion is another word that people use to just kind of describe what you've put together. How do you think about it?

Ms. MALHOTRA: I guess I just really like the music and I like people to like the music and I like to share the music. So I'm happy to have opportunities to do it. I'm happy there's an audience for it. I have never played this music for somebody who hasn't liked it and thats what it is.

MARTIN: And in fact, what do you think people like about it? It's interesting the way it has really become global.

Ms. MALHOTRA: The music that we're used to listening to in terms of contemporary music is a lot of four on the floor everyone says, one, two, three, four, all electronic beats. And all of - most of the electronic music or the dance music you listen to actually has some a connection to dub music, which comes from Jamaica. So bhangra lends itself to all the styles of music.

It mixes in well rhythmically to all these styles of music. It's very energetic. It just works. I mean it's just a great vibe. I mean I get that feeling in my - when I hear a good hip-hop song or I hear a good bhangra song I get the same smile on my face, so they kind of work together.

MARTIN: Lets play another clip and then you can tell us about it and see if everybody else gets that smile on their face. I bet they do. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Pyaar Baile")

Ms. ZUZUKA PODEROSA: (Singing)(Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: Well, weve got what do have in here, Portuguese, Hindi...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALHOTRA: Yeah.

MARTIN: What else is going on here. A lot going on.

Ms. MALHOTRA: Yeah. Thats a lot going. That track is actually not a bhangra track.

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. MALHOTRA: So I dont just exclusively produce a work with bhangra.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. MALHOTRA: That track is a - it's called "Pyaar Baile." Its I guess it's a cover of the popular Hindi film song from the '70s and I collaborated with my friend Dave Sharma who also produced the previous track we heard and we got two great vocalists. The Hindi vocalist re-sang the original lyrics and the Brazilian vocalists, Zuzuka Poderosa, she wrote original Portuguese rap.

And so Dave and I had done a gig together in Brazil many years ago. He's a percussionist as well as a producer, and we came back and we were working on stuff, wed just go into the studio and try to come up with ideas and we were so inspired that these things just came together. It took us a long time to actually finish the darn thing, but thats what it was and I really like that style of dance music. I like anything that makes people dance.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with DJ Rekha. Shes a critically acclaimed DJ and producer who has helped popularize South Asian music in the United States. Shes also founder of the popular Basement Bhangra Party in New York City.

Its my understanding and I could be wrong about this, not being an expert, but it's my understanding that as a folk music and dance, bhangra has mostly been danced by men. Is that right?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And so I'm just wondering have you ever gotten any resistance from, you know, that side of the cultural equation as just saying this is really not for you.

Ms. MALHOTRA: Sure. I mean theres a lot of debate around certain aspects of bhangra. Bhangra, if one would technically break it down, it is a male folk dance. It is a very specific rhythm, actually. So what is considered bhangra today is one of many rhythms, not exactly the bhangra rhythm. But as language evolves, culture moves forward, things start to mean other things. So bhangra has become sort of a ubiquitous term to describe a certain style of music and it's definitely a battleground for tradition versus modernity.

So in the United States what we've seen, which is very unique to North America, is the emergence of bhangra dance teams on college campuses. In fact, D.C. is the host of Bhangra Blowout every year, which has been going on for 17 years or so. And what's interesting to look at those dances over time is they're basically, some of them are inventing tradition.

Each year - and I've gone, you know, sporadically - they try to get more and more traditional and for you in radio land, I've got finger quotes up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALHOTRA: And the tradition is sometimes invented. So I haven't necessarily been personally challenged on the maleness of it, but more about like the, oh, that's not real music. That's not where it should be. It was like this. You mixed stuff. I mean to me once you record something tradition goes out the window.

Indian music, South Asian music was never meant to be recorded. It was meant to be experienced live. So once you enter the recording technology in the equation, that's the first step of changing things. So music and culture keeps moving. There's no point in time where bhangra was traditional and it was there and then all of the sudden it changed.

So the word bhangra has an interesting history and how it got used and how it came to represent Punjab, how it got further used in the UK. Someone made an album called "Bhangra Fever" all of the sudden Punjabi music started being called bhangra and so on and so forth. And even in the parlance of music writing and stuff, people call everything bhangra that has a South Asian sound to it and it may or may not be so.

MARTIN: DJ Rekha, do you have a PhD on the side? Are you kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALHOTRA: No, I do not.

MARTIN: Is there like by day youre like by night a hot DJ Rekha by day like PhD anthropologists, ethnomusicologist.

Ms. MALHOTRA: No.

MARTIN: Is that a secret that I think you're hiding?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Now I do teach part-time at NYU. A shout out to Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, aka ReMu, but, you know.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that lesson and breaking it down.

But before I let you go, I mentioned that you're in town for the Kennedy Centers Maximum India Festival which runs through March 20th. And it's a global Festival. I mean there are all manner of genre of, you know, art, dance and music. Some of it's from what many people consider the kind of classical Indian dance from some traditions and I don't want to say to you all the way sort of to you.

I am curious about your thoughts about being included in this festival. I mean on the one hand you are American. I mean you couldn't be any more American really, if you don't mind my saying so. So what is your thought about being part of this festival?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Its always great to be amongst talented folks. If festivals are the way that people draw audiences, for me it's exciting because I don't get to play a lot of shows that are free and for all ages. So the fact that I get to do that and they often come through cultural events, I'm happy. I'm just glad to be a part of something thats this big. Whats great about the festival is that it went to the efforts to bring people in internationally.

Some of the highlights of the festival for me are Raghu Dixit Project, also my buddy Punjabi MC is also playing. So thats some of the more contemporary stuff or stuff that sort of mixes contemporary old and new.

And also the film series is really exciting. They've got really great filmmakers, Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi. On literature side Suketu Mehta, who is also writing a book on New York now. So if it was the only thing that was ever going to get programmed, sure. But its not. Its the beginning I hope.

MARTIN: Rekha Malhotra records and performs as DJ Rekha, is a critically acclaimed producer and the founder of Basement Bhangra, the monthly dance party in New York City. She's in town for the Kennedy Center's Maximum India Festival which runs through March 20th, and she was kind enough to join us at our studios here in Washington, D.C.

And if you like the music you heard, you can check out her weekly online radio show "Bhangra and Beyond" on Breakthru Radio.

DJ, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MALHOTRA: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Weve been outside too long. No fighting now. They're wrong. Make it the first to hit y'all with the bhangra. She got me hypnotized the way she's dancing to the bhangra. With my (unintelligible) when I came to the bhangra. (Unintelligible) to the bhangra. Hold up, put your drinks in the air. I'm here. The bhangra got me Bollywood (unintelligible) fluid in the air. (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.