“We are able to straddle both cultures in our daily life and this is also something that we are doing with our music." Rishi Rich, Indo-British musician.
But, even more importantly, according to scholars, the present generation of this diaspora are reappropriating as well as creating hybrid cultural forms.
Consider the dance/music form known as Bhangra, which has evolved into the contemporary popular music of South Asian youth raised in the diaspora. Borne out of the immigrant experience in primarily white dominated cultures, this music has been the vanguard for South Asian culture's crossover into the mainstream.
It developed in Indian enclaves of British cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, and London (Southall) during the 1980s, but it draws on elements as disparate as the Punjabi folk genre whose name it shares, the songs of popular Hindi movies, and other musical genres such as reggae, hip hop, and drum & bass. At the same time, the term bhangra continues to describe a folk music of rural, agricultural Punjab, where songs are performed and danced to by men to the accompaniment of the dhol drums.
Bhangra is big globally, especially in the U.K. where the genre rules airwaves and discotheques. It is no surprise then that various international artists are going the bhangra way to find their presence felt on dance floors. Packing some of these rocking tracks is MTV Indian Grooves — Dhol, bhangra and beyond... featuring David Bowie, Dhol Foundation and others artists who have tried working on mixing bhangra with R&B, hip-hop and rock. For instance, techno rhythm and bhangra beats come together to back the traditional vocals in Bhangra Fever by MIDIval PunditZ. Energetic riffs meet the dhol in TDF Meet DCS by Dhol Foundation as also in Dhol Rinse by Asian Dub Foundation and Sonik Gurus' Mo' Bhangra Blues (Instrumental Mix).
Kazanchi, widely thought to be the brains behind the bhangra craze, is credited to be the first to introduce drum machines and Western beats into Indian folk music and to have paved the way for performers like Malkit Singh, who soon became wildly popular in London, and Bally Sagoo. In 1990, Sagoo raised the bar and dropped Wham Bam, essentially a nonstop remix of popular songs spun over bhangra beats. Soon after, in the mid-'90s, Daler Mendhi, a taxi-cab driver from Emeryville, capitalized on the bhangra vibe and pushed the scene back into India and beyond (and became a wealthy man doing it), carving out a space for bhangra outside the dominating Bollywood music industry. Talvin Singh and Asian Dub Foundation took Indian sounds into the London dance clubs and reggae dance halls, respectively.
Today, bhangra is figuring prominently in the system of transplanted artistic traditions that bind South Asian diaspora communities together.
During the last 30 years, Bhangra has enjoyed a surge in popularity worldwide, both in traditional form and as a fusion with other genres. It has come to play an important role in homes, at parties, in clubs, at charitable benefits, at university socials and at festivals.
Which is why dance scholar Sunita Sunder Mukhi observes: “Bhangra is the music of choice at South Asian dance parties or dance fundraisers. The fondness for these types of music is apparently a transnational phenomenon, forming a transnational community of hyphenated Indians, grooving to the beat of the same drummer. Young Indian Americans can dance to this kind of music because its referents, though they are ambiguous -- being neither 'purely' Indian nor wholly non Indian -- are from the urban youth culture. The fusion is very much like them -- Indian yes, American/Western, also, but really young.”
She adds: “Bhangra as a dance form is prevalent throughout second generation Indian American shows, and in the social life of Indian Americans …The energetic beat allows for an exuberant, almost ecstatic, very physical and aerobic dancing. The dance is loud, expressive, rhythmic. The music hastens, and reaches a crescendo, making the body reach a peak of energy and awareness. When dancing the bhangra, one feels very alive, very present, absolutely not erased. Dancing the bhangra with others who are experiencing this self same aliveness allows for the barriers of individuation to dissolve. We all dance together forming one pulsating body of 'amorphous' South Asianness. It enlivens our hybridity kinesthetically.”
Sunder Mukhi notes that “though the Indian lyrics of Bhangra may be in Punjabi, now intermixed with pidgin English, Black English, Indian English, and Hindi film song lyrics, not necessarily understood by all of the diasporic Indians, the beat, some of the instruments, the melodies are identified as generally non white, generically Indian, and specifically of Indian hybridity.”
Bhangra is already crafting the cultural identity of ‘South Asians’ as ultimately diasporic. Today, within the diaspora, bhangra has begun to address issues and concerns that are of special importance to South Asian teenagers growing up in the West.
Now consider the following:
Bhangra ring-tones can be downloaded to mobile phones, and bhangra dolls are bought, sold, and collected on eBay.
In Britain and Australia, bhangra dance classes are now being taught in place of more established aerobic routines. Punjabi MC even received an MTV Europe award for Best Dance Act in 2003.
So ubiquitous is bhangra internationally that it has spawned its own fitness craze with the most popular proponent being a 30-year old American-born Indian fitness instructor named Sarina Jain, who has her own workout video and teaches a bhangra workout daily at the New York Sports Club in Manhattan. In her “Masala Bhangra Workout,” Jain has successfully fused dance routines utilizing her knowledge of bhangra, Indian classical dance, salsa, hip-hop, and other dance forms. She has become the first South Asian fitness icon to introduce Indian dance to fitness enthusiasts everywhere, and make major headlines in news media in the US and throughout the world.
Canada even has its own transatlantic bhangra superstar: Indian born, Vancouver raised Jazzy B, also known as Jaswinder Singh Bains, who debuted in 1992 and has gone on to a big career, selling over 55,000 copies of his second album, Folk and Funky. Now living in the U.K., Jazzy B is credited with pushing the form to new places, as well as popularizing it with mainstream audiences.
A recent song by the group Bhangra Knights was used in a highly successful advertising campaign for Peugeot automobiles. The advertisement became so popular that the full song from Bhangra Knights was listed as one of the most popular songs in Britain, and ranked highly on popular music charts across the world.
On January 20th and 21st 2006, Vancouver transformed into the “City of Bhangra” with North America’s premiere Bhangra event, the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration (VIBC). The 2-day festival took place at locations across Downtown Vancouver, and featured dance and dhol drum demonstrations, live music and dancing, main-stage performances, a photo art exhibit, and the much anticipated, VIBC Bhangra Competition. “Bhangra events take place across the world, but this is the first time Vancouver hosted an event of this caliber and size,” Sukhi Ghuman, Public Relations Chair of the VIBC Society said.
BhangraNation is the name of the most prestigious Bhangra event held in Toronto every year with Bhangra bands from the world over competing for the first position. A Punjabi folk dance competition conducted in a diasporic location, with participation from groups from the homeland and the diaspora, might well serve as a metaphor for the collectivities clustered around Bhangra performance in real and virtual places.
South Asian student groups at George Washington University, Harvard, MIT, Tufts, the University of Massachusetts, Tufts, Northeastern, Cornell, Boston University, UCLA and elsewhere host annual "Bhangra Blowout" intercollegiate dance competitions, which have become a big part of performing arts tradition in American campuses.
This April marks the ninth anniversary of Basement Bhangra, a monthly celebration at the Manhattan nightclub Sounds of Brazil, known as SOBs. Started by the DJ Rekha Malhotra, who is known for mixing hip-hop tracks with South Asian beats, the event has popularized the lively Punjabi folk music and dance known as bhangra in New York and beyond. Bhangra music is now Britain’s major Asian export, accounting for huge sales across the world notably in other parts of the scattered South Asian diaspora. A large industry supports this music with some thirty or so record labels, PR companies, radio programs, magazines, and so on, not to mention an abundance of weekly gigs in all the UK’s major cities.
‘The Rough Guide To Bhangra’ marks a milestone in the history of bhangra by bringing together, for the first time ever, most of the key artists and labels onto one CD. Every track is a classic, no padding, no ‘fillers’, just hit after hit. World Music Network will release The Rough Guide To Bhangra Dance, DJ Ritu’s new contribution to help spread the joy of bhangra to a new audience, on 20 February 2006. The new album features the talents of Ravi Bal, Aman Hayer, Malkit Singh, Juggy D and Indy Sagu.
DJ Ritu is a club promoter and radio presenter. Co-founder of Outcaste Records (and responsible for signing Nitin Sawhney), she has worked for the BBC since 1993 and currently runs three London club nights - Club Kali (which has been running for ten years), Kuch Kuch (five years) and Hoppa (five years). A specialist in Asian, Arabic, Turkish and Western music, her twenty-year career has seen her perform all over the world, both with and without her bands, The Asian Equation and Sister India, in her own personal mission to spread Asian sounds.
Born in London, raised in Queens and Long Island, Rekha Malhotra (aka DJ Rekha) is one of the pioneers of New York's South Asian music scene. As founder of Basement Bhangra, Bollywood Disco, Beat Bazaar, and co-founder of Mutiny club nights, she has been instrumental in introducing the sounds of Bhangra and British Asian music to North America.
Beginning her DJ career while still a student at Queens College, Rekha was drawn to radio through an interest in community activism. In 1994 she made an appearance on the Radio Bandung newszine, became a regular guest and eventually produced segments for the show. Community radio introduced her to filmmaker Vivek Bald who shared an appreciation for music coming out of the UK on Nation records (i.e. Fun da mental, Asian Dub Foundation). In November of 1997 she co-organized a fundraising event for a documentary Bald was assembling on the Asian presence in UK dance music which grew into a monthly event named for the film: Mutiny.
By that time however, Rekha was already well known for her involvement in another monthly event. In November of 1996, a "Dance India" showcase organized by the Ethnic Folk Arts center paired her with Toronto's Punjabi By Nature, and in February of the following year she opened for the group at SOBs nightclub in Manhattan. The club was so impressed by the hundreds who turned out on a Tuesday night that Rekha and her partner DJ Joy were asked to develop a concept for a regular night. One month later Basement Bhangra (named with respect for the basement parties where she got her start) was launched, with Bally Sagoo headlining.
For her role in creating Basement Bhangra, Rekha has been featured in the Village Voice, the New York Times, the Times of India and the Daily News, in addition to magazines like Billboard, New York, and Stress. Basement Bhangra and it's founder have also attracted extensive TV coverage. Considered by Jane magazine to be "among the genre's most important players in the United States" Rekha has also been pivotal in forging the international network that sustains Bhangra and other contemporary South Asian music. Accordingly her DJ itinerary includes not only New York and numerous cities across the U.S but also Bombay, New Delhi, Montego Bay, Toronto and London.
Having always viewed her involvement with music as inseparable from community activism, Rekha lectures extensively at colleges and institutions about Bhangra and South Asian cultural production. She has given a talk and demo at the Museum of Natural History on hip-hop and the South Asian music scene and has given numerous DJ workshops to youth nationwide. Your Attention Please, is her fundraising project that partners with organizations addressing such issues as human rights, domestic abuse and police brutality and gives her a chance to bring classical, non-dance oriented South Asian music into a club setting.
"Basically, you'll find bhangra wherever there's a South Asian community" says DJ Rekha. "Bhangra doesn't come from India anymore, actually, I think of bhangra as British music."
The success of British bhangra has also led to a debate as to whether it has become diluted, and what role it should play in helping to maintain language and cultural values. The more traditional bhangra artists, even those who live outside India, believe that the music should be used as a vehicle to encourage the younger generation to learn Punjabi, and sustain their interest in Punjabi culture. Too much western influence, they fear, will not only diminish the music but also its ability to become a cultural tool.
Thus, already there are questions about whether bhangra has been diluted, commodified beyond recognition, and whether the exportation back to India of those altered forms will weaken or enrich its roots.
According to graduate student Sandeep K. Varma of the University of Melbourne, who explores bhangra and its impact upon South Asian identity within the ‘new’ global diaspora of second and third generation South Asians, "Bhangra’s major form has become the remix; a diluted and arguably less ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ form of South Asian representation. Bhangra in its popular understanding is now a hybrid of borrowed musical traditions, just as second-generational South Asians create hybrid identities and borrow from multiple cultures, traditions, and nationalities in their creative expressions.”
Varma claims that this is a hybridity akin to Homi Bhabha’s notion of hybridity, one that he believes opens up a ‘third space’ of possibility. Recently in 'Quantum Bhangra: Bhangra Music and Identity in the South Asian Diaspora' Varma used metaphors of quantum mechanics to provide a new theoretical direction for the understanding of bhangra.
What, then, is quantum bhangra? Varma explains it as multiple layers of identity. He says it is the multiplicity of bhangra, created by the South Asian artist and exported by the music industry and transnational cultural networks. "Quantum bhangra is the sum of the unequal halves of a remix, a superpositioned nationality which cannot be pinned down simply by its motion or location. Quantum bhangra is a place where identity is made up of more than one or two factors fused together."
According to Varma, "Bhangra’s arrival into the mainstream represents a superpositioned particle entering a new environment. The destabilizing effects have allowed bhangra to reach a new level, to impact and challenge definitions in national and transnational surroundings on multiple levels through bhangra’s global spread, again making traditional circuitry definitions outdated. Destabilising, superpositioned quantum bhangra particles have affected their local environments and have also changed the globalised waves for all those touched by the South Asian diaspora."
Varma explains his personal identity with Bhangra thus:
"Bhangra permeates my family. In a Los Angeles childhood, at home and through birthdays, sweet sixteens, twenty-firsts, weddings, and graduations my brother, sister, and I learned the intricacies of the ‘balle, balle’ head-shake. Though often preferring Bollywood movies and filmic Hindi songs, my parents teach us the legacy of our blood, of their homeland. My father’s parents still live in Punjab.My mother’s now live in the neighboring Indian state of Rajasthan. When we visit our cousins, we exchange mp3s of the latest bhangra music from our respective homes. Indian bhangra. US bhangra.
"We are Punjabi, though we mostly speak Hindi. We are Hindu, though we have many Sikh friends. My two siblings and I all attended a Catholic high school. We are American, born and raised. We share brown skin.
"Bhangra unites my family simultaneously, years later. In Australia, I find Karma, a bi-weekly South Asian party with heavy bhangra sampling, similar to the New York desi club scene. I find first and second generation desis in Melbourne at Karma. Waves of bhangra reach my ears. I dance. My brother finds a South Asian party in Germany, as he lives the adventures of a traveller. He explores, communicating understanding with motion. He nods his head. He dances. My sister, attending university in Los Angeles, joins one of the many bhangra teams the school has to offer. She practises for hours each day. She wears colorful costumes and her male partner wears an ornamental turban. On a stage at the latest interstate competition, she waits for the curtain to rise. The overflowing audience watches. She dances."