DJ Rekha Fusing Native, New Sounds Critically acclaimed DJ Rekha crafted a sound all her own with music that merges the traditional Bhangra music of South Asia with modern-day hip-hop beats. Her debut album is titled, "Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra." She talks with Farai Chideya about her influences and musical journey.
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DJ Rekha Fusing Native, New Sounds

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DJ Rekha Fusing Native, New Sounds

DJ Rekha Fusing Native, New Sounds

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Hip-hop music is inescapable. It's gone from the burnt-out Bronx to Paris, Tokyo, and a host of blingy award shows. It's also found musical traction with the Southasian diaspora.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Bhangra, it blends rap beats with traditional and contemporary South Asian music. It's getting more and more popular in many circles thanks to one woman. 10 years ago, DJ Rekha started a New York club night called Basement Bhangra. Now, she's got an album of the same name. Hey, Rekha.

Ms. DJ REKHA (Music Artist, "Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra"): Hi, Farai. How are you?

CHIDEYA: I am doing great. So let's start out by hearing a little bit of "Snake Charmer" by Panjabi MC. He had a different track that was ultimately sampled by Jay-Z. But here's "Snake Charmer." So we are going to hear a little bit of "Snake Charmer." I just want to ask you to break it down for me. What makes typical Bhangra?

DJ REKHA: There's nothing typical about Bhangra. But Bhangra is essentially a folk music that originally come from Punjab, an area divided by India and Pakistan. And the two most pronounced instruments in that music are the dhol, which is a drum hit on - worn around the neck, hit on by two sticks and the tumbi, which is a stringed instrument. Those are the two most distinctive elements that you hear. And it's the driving force of the drum that people are most familiar with.

CHIDEYA: Is this traditional music or contemporary or a blend?

DJ REKHA: It's really a blend. It's hard to - the word tradition is, I think, very problematic. It comes from a tradition. The music is contemporary, and it's created today. A lot of the vocalists come from India, but the music, aside from what I'm producing, a lot of it is produced in the U.K. So it's really very much a diasporic music, and it's very current.

CHIDEYA: So you've got Wyclef Jean and these other folks on your album. Does that reflect the multi-culturalism that you bring in to this music?

DJ REKHA: Absolutely. I mean, Wyclef on that first record made a lot of sense because he is also, musically, very international and open minded. And we played him the beat, he really liked it and he felt it. And, yeah, it has a universal appeal. It - Bhangra music reaches all over the world. And the whole Indian South Asian sound as we hear in hip-hop today has also penetrated in various arenas.

CHIDEYA: What about your audience? When people go to a Basement Bhangra club night, who did they see in the room?

DJ REKHA: They see everything. They see New York City. The first thing they see is a New York City dance party that is full of many styles, many flavors. We get people in suits, people in kicks(ph), all shades of color and that's what makes it amazing. There is a strong South Asian presence there, but we get a lot of different kinds of people. I mean it's not SOB's, which is in its 25th year, and one of the most diverse New York venues - music venues there is that plays just such a range of music, and it makes such perfect sense for us to be there. So we have a really interesting crowd.

CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit about - there was a TV interview with you that - where your parents were sitting, they were saying mm-hmm, yeah, we didn't know about this whole DJ thing. How did you get started and how did your parents look at it?

DJ REKHA: I got started with my cousins who were living in New York at the time, and we bonded over music. They had grown up in India. We didn't really know each other that well. And, you know, we kind of looked at each other from a distance and didn't have much of a bond. But we start sharing our musical interests, and without thinking about it too much, we just scraped some money together, got some gear, and started playing out.

And one thing led to another, and it just kept going, and we got - we were getting music from England. They ended up moving on and moving back, but I kept it going. And that's how I started. But I really started out - my first wave of gigs were though activist circles and fundraisers in New York.

CHIDEYA: So finally, what's next?

DJ REKHA: The album's next. I'm going to be touring and supporting the album. I'm looking into - I was teaching last semester at NYU, and it's definitely something I want to pursue more. And I…

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Rekha, we got to let you go, but thank you so much.

DJ REKHA: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: DJ Rekha's debut album is called "Basement Bhangra." And she spoke with me from our NPR New York studios.

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