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Bhangra's DJ Rekha Takes the Dance Floor

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Bhangra's DJ Rekha Takes the Dance Floor

Bhangra's DJ Rekha Takes the Dance Floor

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

From the Punjab to London, Green Point and beyond, Bhangra is the folk music of the Punjab and it's become popular in dance clubs around the world. Rekha Malhotra has been called Bhangra's roving ambassador, and she's recently released a CD. It's called "DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra."

DJ Rekha, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. REKHA MALHOTRA (DJ, "DJ Rekha Present Basement Bhangra"): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So how did a girl from Long Island get into this?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Well, I don't know. I was exposed to this music as a teenager. My mom went to England to go to my cousin's engagement party. She brought back a cassette, I really liked it. And a few years later I heard versions of that kind of music mixed with, like, hip-hop beats by different producers in the U.K. and I got really excited about it. It kind of all just came together.

SIMON: Describe for us, if you could please, what one of these basement parties looks like. Lots of people with their fingers pointed in the air, right?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Right. Kind of, like, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." No, just kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALHOTRA: Actually, you know, the party takes place in lower Manhattan. And our night is very eclectic. We start early, we get a really diverse crowd, we do a dance lesson. Bhangra is a dance as well as a music the same way salsa is. It's a very particular kind of traditional dance but it's evolved as the music has to kind of being a shoulders in the air kind of movement.

It's just a roomful of lots of kinds of people. People who are from Punjab, those who are interested in Indian music and culture, just regular New York partygoers, hip-hop heads, you name it.

SIMON: How do you put a set together?

Ms. MALHOTRA: A DJ set?

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. MALHOTRA: I think it just walk into space with my bag of tricks. I never know what's going to happen because I'm always just trying to respond to the crowd. You know, I definitely know my music, I know what works together, what blends together. I definitely occasionally try some things at home but then I just go with the moment and see what's happening.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to the first track if we could, "Basement Bhangra Anthem."

(Soundbite of song, "Basement Bhangra Anthem")

Mr. WYCLEF JEAN (Musician): (Singing) Every hip-hop record (unintelligible) sampled, right? This is where it started right here. (unintelligible). DJ, (unintelligible) the area…

SIMON: Now, tell us what we're hearing now.

Ms. MALHOTRA: You're hearing the title track for the album. The idea was to create an anthem for the party that people could, you know, jump to.

(Soundbite of song, "Basement Bhangra Anthem")

Mr. JEAN: (Singing) Wyclef Jean, Mr. International.

(Soundbite of song, "Basement Bhangra Anthem")

Mr. JEAN: (Singing) (unintelligible). We've been outside too long. No fighting tonight. (unintelligible). Rekha the first to hit you with the Bhangra…

Ms. MALHOTRA: Wyclef Jean, who intros the track and does a little rap on it, says we've been waiting outside for so long but, you know, then he talks about how I bring people Bhangra.

Mr. BIKRAM SINGH (Musician): Who is it? (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. MALHOTRA: The vocalist is Bikram Singh. He's also from New York.

SIMON: That drum we're hearing. That's the dole(ph), I think it's called?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Yeah. There's several drums going around but the most pronounced drum that you hear is the dole. It's a two-sided drum worn over the neck, hit on by sticks. It's sort of the icon of Bhangra music, and it's the rhythmic element of it.

SIMON: Jay-Z rapped over a song by Punjabi MC. I guess that was 2003. Are you trying to crossover a little bit yourself?

Ms. MALHOTRA: You know, there's a lot of urgency by a lot of Bhangra producers to do collaborations with hip-hop artists. There's almost, like, a sort of a dire need, a lot of the producers I know. Especially those who are trying to break into the States want to duplicate the success of that record. What people don't understand about the Jay-Z/Punjabi MC record is the record was a bonafide universal international hit before Jay-Z even got his hands on it.

You know, my goal is to just make music reach as many people as possible. So if that means crossing then it does but it's about finding an audience that appreciates it.

SIMON: Does London still sort of set the tune for south Asian music?

Ms. MALHOTRA: I think the U.K. at large still has a strong influence. A lot of it is from actually slightly north now, Birmingham, Coventry, which is where Punjabi MC is from and a lot of the earlier Bhangra records were produced, at a famous studio there. I think that because technology is so portable and we can like, you know, make tracks without ever meeting people and transport things over e-mail, that we're seeing music being made in various places.

But there is still something that is about Bhangra today that still comes from the U.K.

SIMON: Let's listen to another track if we could. I'm going to enlist your cooperation in getting the Punjabi phrase. But the translation is something like come, let's dance and sing together.

Ms. MALHOTRA: Yes, "Aaja Nachiye Boliyan Paiye."

(Soundbite of song, "Aaja Nachiye Boliyan Paiye")

Ms. GUNJAN (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: I hear a hint of Scotland in it. Am I wrong?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Can you hear the bagpipes underneath?

SIMON: Yeah, very subtle but yeah.

Ms. MALHOTRA: This track is produced by Pops and Rog of Tigerstyle. They're from Glasgow, Scotland. They're two Sikh brothers and they've been making amazing music for many years. When I was putting the album together I wanted to get an exclusive track from them. And I really wanted Gunjan, the vocalist, to sing 'cause I had worked with her before.

Bhangra is, you know, very male-dominated, the lyrics, the production, everything. I wanted to sort of invoke a female voice in there that wasn't just accepting the chorus lines of, like, oohs and aahs.

(Soundbite of song, "Aaja Nachiye Boliyan Paiye")

Ms. GUNJAN: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. MALHOTRA: The idea of the song was it's about a shy guy that's too nervous to speak to the girl but they both know they like each other. And the girl is actually saying, well, come on, you know, I know you like me, why don't you just come and talk to me though.

SIMON: Does this represent sort of an extraordinary sentiment in the world of Bhangra for the girl to say come on, take a step towards me?

Ms. MALHOTRA: I mean, it's a little feminist.

SIMON: Are there still some people that have a hard time accepting a woman in your role?

Ms. MALHOTRA: Sure. There are always people that have a hard time accepting women everywhere in every profession. Definitely. I think there are a lot of haters out there, especially my south Asian male colleagues. Sometimes they don't get it.

SIMON: You mean your fellow DJs or…

Ms. MALHOTRA: Sure. Fellow DJs, fellow event producers. You know, they don't understand I've been able to do what I do.

SIMON: Is there a difference between something you put together there in the basement for a show and what you put on a CD?

Ms. MALHOTRA: The idea, I did the best I could to recreate the experience of basement Bhangra. But I had other consideration for the CD, which were I wanted to definitely use a lot of the artists that had performed at our party. Most of the tracks are licensed. I wanted to use my own material. There's a couple of instrumental tracks, which I've thrown in the middle. And when I actually play them live I play them much longer. But I thought for a listening experience if you're not actually dancing to it then you might be listening to it. It might be too long. So I had to make some considerations like that to make the CD sort of blend and work well together.

SIMON: I've read that you told Andy Rouge(ph) you wanted to make a dance CD not a world music CD.

Ms. MALHOTRA: That's right. I think that, you know, world music is all well and good but it has a very anthropological/voyeuristic, let's look at how these people live context. I just wanted music that was danceable. You put the CD in and throw a party and it takes you through.

(Soundbite of song, "Aaja Nachiye Boliyan Paiye")

SIMON: The cut you used to close the CD. It's a popular Punjabi song, right?

Ms. MALHOTRA: It's a boli(ph). Boli means a verse. A lot of them are just passed on orally so there's actually no author. But they sort of get altered lyrically to the time and the moment. And this is a remix that was done by Bally Sagoo. So it's his version and I end the CD with it.

SIMON: Bally Sagoo's an English producer.

Ms. MALHOTRA: Yeah, he's an English producer. He was very instrumental in connecting the traditional sounds to the more modern sounds. He was in fact very influential in me becoming a DJ 'cause his music was the one, the first music that I heard that was mixed, Bhangra mixed with, like, hip-hop beats. This track was produced in 1990. It still works on the dance floor today.

SIMON: Now, when people hear this of a night, what's it mean?

Ms. MALHOTRA: It usually means I have to go to the bathroom because it's 11 minutes long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALHOTRA: It's kind of my coda song. I often play it at the end. You can get behind the decks and start dancing and it just works. 'Cause it's long, it's slow, it builds up. The vocalist is Malkit Singh, one of my favorite Bhangra singers. It's one of my tricks in my bag. I've played it everywhere in every context.

(Soundbite of song, "Gur Nalon Ishq Mitha")

Mr. MALKIT SINGH (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: DJ Rekha, thanks very much.

Ms. MALHOTRA: Thank you.

SIMON: DJ Rekha speaking with us from New York. Her latest CD, in fact her first, is "DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra."

(Soundbite of music, "Gur Nalon Ishq Mitha")

Mr. M. SINGH: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: And to hear whole songs from DJ Rekha's CD and listen to more interviews with people making waves in music, you can check our music site at NPR.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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