Recently returned to New York after a six-month stint in India, I emerged onto the street from the A-train stop in South Harlem and was greeted by the bizarrely familiar strains of . . . Jay-Z’s latest single? Yes, there was no mistaking the irresistible baseline of Punjabi MC’s bhangra hit, “Mundian to Bach Ke”, a song that blasted its way through the hearts and minds of young desis (that’s slang for a South Asian person) across the planet several years ago and remains standard fare all over subcontinental nightclubs today.
Perhaps it has been my recent experience in the latter that has cemented a permanent association in my mind between the song’s first opening notes of the Knight Rider sample and the ensuing dhol-driven bhangra beats and the image of eagerly gyrating South Asian pretty young things (with a nod to Michael Jackson). Whatever cultural context it was in which I had grown accustomed to hearing the single, it certainly did not match the scene I encountered on 125th Street: bhangra blasting out of the stereo of a pimped-out SUV while a crew of jersey-wearing African-American guys on the sidewalk nod their heads appreciatively. The Punjabi lyrics begin, and when Jay-Z’s smooth rapping picks up the guys on the street start rhyming over Jigga (like “HOVA”, another Jay-Z alias), tossing in their own freestyles in between.
“Keep your head down and cover your face with a scarf/ Don’t just give your love to anybody.” Punjabi MC, “Mundian to Bach Ke”
“Mundian to Bach Ke” (translated into “Beware of the Boys”) comprises one of the latest incarnations of a musical tradition dating back to the 15th century. Bhangra is the folk music of the Punjab, a region straddling southern Pakistan and northwest India, and is most closely associated with popular celebration of the harvest festival among the primarily agricultural Punjabi community. The heavy, resounding beat of a double-barreled drum, called the dhol, forms the centerpiece of all bhangra, new and old. The dhol is a large, high-bass drum with a skin usually around 15 inches wide, and is usually hung around the neck by a strap and played by beating it with two sticks. It is difficult to listen to a proper bhangra rhythm without being induced to engage in a bit of accompanying finger-tapping, if not full-blown body-shaking. And bhangra is, indeed, inseparable from the act of dancing the music itself is integrally tied to the participation of its listeners in the graceful hopping, synchronized twisting, and incredible shoulder-gymnastics of Punjabi folk dance. Bhangra lyrics, always sung in the Punjabi language, generally deal with social issues such as love, farming, alcohol, dancing, and marriage, as well as a healthy dose of Punjabi nationalism and mythology.
How do Jay-Z and hip-hop figure in this musical tradition? Of course, the 15th century bhangra of the bucolic fields of Punjab has evolved considerably since its emergence, making its way into the often messy but occasionally genius madly multicultural, genre-bending, fusion-o-rific mishmash that is South Asia’s popular music scene today. Be it reggae, house, trance, two-step, R&B, rap, breakbeat, drum’n'bass, jazz, or rock (in more unfortunate cases, all of the above, all at once), Indian DJs have sampled elements from all over the spectrum of Western popular music, added a bumpin’ bhangra beat, and produced a music that is unmistakably the product of a postcolonial, globalized era, but at the same time is undoubtedly Indian, local.
Since 1991, the year the government of India took its first major steps towards full economic liberalization, the country’s floodgates have been opened to the myriad forces, positive and negative, of the phenomenon called globalization. The full-fledged arrival of satellite television, the Internet, advertising and with them a host of foreign/Western ideas, traditions, lifestyles, practices, and products effectively brought the middle-to-upper urban class of India into contact with some of the best and worst of this postmodern age. The popular musical landscape of the country shifted with the arrival of music television and channels like MTV Asia, StarTV, and Channel [V], a process aided by the emergence of Western-style nightclubs in major urban centers and increased ease of access to cd’s, tapes, and the like. Indian youth lifestyles expanded to accommodate Western mainstream popular cultures and subcultures, in many cases following the examples of young South Asians in the diaspora. Probably the most notable site of creative popular musical syncretism among the latter was in Great Britain, where second and third-generation Indian and Pakistani youth in the nineties adopted hip-hop culture, adding the requisite “masala” to make the music they produced, the words they spoke, the clothes they wore, and the lifestyle they lived truly their own (for a brilliantly satirization of this phenomenon, check out Zadie Smith’s debut novel, “White Teeth”.) This new generation of South Asians negotiating their ethnic and cultural identities via hip-hop culture gradually inched their way into the more mainstream British music scene.
Rajinder Rai, a.k.a. Punjabi MC, is a 27-year-old DJ and producer of South Asian descent who hails from the English town of Coventry and has been a leading figure of what one might call the hip-hop-ification of bhangra. Rai has been a trailblazer of the “new” bhangra movement that has flooded India’s popular music scene in the aftermath of the cultural changes brought about by the country’s early ‘90s entrance into the process of globalization, described above. Given his moniker by black rapping peers, Punjabi MC began experimenting with bhangra and hip-hop in 1993, and actually recorded “Mundian to Bach Ke” five years ago. Signed to the bhangra label Nachural Records, Rai’s first album, “Souled Out,” put him on the bhangra map, leading to the releases of a number of hip-hop/bhangra albums that caught the attention of a number of big-time mainstream British DJ’s. By the late ‘90s Punjabi MC’s sound started blowing up in London, following his massive success on the subcontinent.
Fast forward to 2003: Jay-Z hears “Mundian to Bach Ke,” already standing alone as a mainstream hit beyond the borders of South Asia and the British Asian scene (breaking the top 40 and reaching number one on the charts all over the world) in a Swiss nightclub. He likes what he hears, decides to record a track of himself rapping over Rai’s work, and releases it on June 9th. The result: bhangra enters the American popular consciousness for perhaps the first significant time ever, and a new hip-hop anthem is born. Since my first encounter with the Jay-Z version on 125th street, I have heard “Beware of the Boys” all over the New York City map, including, most exceptionally, as a cell phone ring tone all this before the single’s official release date.
Punjabi MC’s rise to success is, however, not unique as the only example of the East-West syncretism of South Asians making its mark in the world of mainstream Western popular music world. Another notable example of successful experimentation in such fusion is comprised by the genre known as “Asian Underground” (or “Asian Massive”), the work of a collective of British and American South Asian DJs, musicians, and producers led by Talvin Singh to fame in the mid ‘90s. Singh, a classically trained tabla player, along with other artists such as Karsh Kale and State of Bengal, popularized the fusion of classical north Indian music with modern electronica, particularly drum-n-bass, building on the work of other pioneers of sound, such as the Asian Dub Foundation. The AU movement took off in London clubs and eventually reached limited mainstream success and, importantly, established a solid precedent for non-Asian artists who began incorporating South Asian musical traditions and elements into the electronica they produced.
For, importantly, Indo-Western popular musical syncretism has not been a one-sided process, nor has it been limited to DJ-oriented music. Neither the bhangra/hip-hop nor Asian Underground movements mark the first occasion that Indian music has entered the consciousness of Western popular audiences. Beginning with musicians like George Harrison in the ‘70s, a scattered host of Western artists have incorporated Indian instruments and rhythms into their music. The market for such fusion has grown, thanks in part to the flourishing of Western interest in “world music” and the crossover success of such classical South Asian artists such as Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Since Punjabi MC’s ascent in the late ‘90s, non-Asian rappers before Jay-Z have experimented with Indian music, including Missy Elliot in last year’s, “Get Your Freak On,” and Truth Hurts’ “Addictive” (the latter sampling a track by veritable Hindi filmy-pop queen Lata Mangeshkar). All this is cross-cultural exchanging and sharing and caring is wonderful, some objectors point out, but what about the cultural collisions occurring under the glossy surface of unproblematic syncretism?
—uote>“Move your body like a snake mama
Make me wanna put the snake on ya.”
Jay-Z, “Beware of the Boys”
Jay-Z’s lyrics, rapped with his usual swaggering braggadocio, exhibit a male-centered sexual hedonism heightened by “Eastern” exotic images specifically, a snake charmer. All this seems completely bizarre when juxtaposed with Rai’s Punjabi lyrics, which translate into a call to a young girl to maintain her modesty and “beware of the boys.” Isn’t Rai warning his subject about the kind of thing that Jigga himself is rapping about in such lyrics as, “Be careful of the boys, you’ve only just grown up,” and “The boys are talking about you everyday . . . everyone is looking at your thin waist”?
The reception of Jay-Z’s “Beware of the Boys” in the United States has only generated more fodder for skeptics of this easy cross-cultural borrowing. To begin with is the relatively benign but supremely annoying ignorance about and orientalization of Punjabi MC’s music and bhangra itself, reflecting the American public’s general tendency towards the lazy stereotyping and avoidable misunderstanding of other cultures. Punjabi MC is known everywhere as “Panjabi MC,” few realize that Punjabi is a different language than Hindi and that neither of them are a non-existing language called “Indian,” and close to none understand that bhangra is actually an incredibly old and specific agricultural folk music tradition. These slips, along with those of certain very well-read publications citing “Mundian”‘s tablas and chants (neither have anything remotely to do with the song), though, can be forgiven. More sinister has been the threatened boycott of the song by American radio stations anxious about giving “Beware of the Boys” airplay during the recent propaganda carnival surrounding the “war” in Iraq, on terror, and apparently on any vaguely South Asian or Middle Eastern-sounding music in scary foreign languages that simple all-American folks like our nation’s great leader can’t understand.
And what about the implications of this new bhangra-rap collaboration for Indians? Mothers and fathers of young MTV-watching, nightclub-going, Western pop culture-loving people all over the Indian subcontinent are surely writhing and ranting if they have an inkling of the new music their kids are listening to and loving. Are Indian youth, as their parents assert, loosing touch with their roots and giving in to American shallowness, crassness, shameless materialism and sexual decadence? And how are bhangra purists reacting to what they see as the pollution of a centerpiece of their heritage with fundamentally foreign influences masquerading as music and culture? It is far too easy to yield to defensive yelping about cultural imperialism and conclude that Indians using hip-hop in their music are corrupting their authentic ethnic traditions and yielding to the hegemony of the vast corporate machine that aggressively markets and imposes American popular culture on the rest of the world. Young people in South Asia are, indeed, entering an era of fluid identities and international markets, but let’s give them enough credit to trust that they will use their new access to global cultural products to positive, self-empowering, and socially beneficial means.
Nonetheless, we shouldn’t gloss over the complicated issue of artistic cultural integrity. From the other side of the picture, is it reductive to view American artists using bhangra as agents of a cultural hegemon that “steals” from non-Western artists and in doing so, at best, trivializes and exoticizes their work? I argue that it is; despite superficial appearances, what Jay-Z and Punjabi MC are doing is participating in an exciting, creative process of fertile cultural cross-pollination that accentuates some of the most positive aspects of the practice of using popular culture as a medium for the negotiating of post-colonial local and international identities. Both East and West indigenize and localize what they appropriate from each other, and the process is becoming increasingly, albeit not perfectly, mutual. With time, and the deepening of such exchanges, a more meaningful, nuanced, and less caricaturized understanding of each other’s cultural contexts will develop. Next time around, hopefully, we’ll see less talk of snake charmers and spiritual chants, and fewer insinuations about the politically suspect nature of Eastern music.
Even now, the bhangra and hip-hop traditions have a lot more in common than one might immediately think. Of course, the cultural and socio-political roots of each are worlds apart, as well as the meanings of the music hip-hop as urban, modern, and often transgressive, and bhangra as rural, traditional, and festival-oriented. It would be myopic, though, to let these differences obscure the powerful similarities between the two. The bhangra experience actually shares a lot with the African-American musical experience both exhibit similar types of participatory playfulness and allow for improvisation, both are popular community-based phenomena rather than elitist and exclusive, both are rhythm-centric. In both traditions, clean lines simply do not exist, as they do in the post-Romantic Western “high” musical tradition, between artist and listener; performer and audience. No live bhangra event is complete without the often raucous singing along, interspersed with shouts of “Hoi! Hoi!,” of women and men in the crowd, not to mention the joyful dancing of the same. The potential of this culture of music, similar to the African-American call and response tradition, to involve and sustain personal meaning, community participation, and popular engagement should negate the fears of global Americanization and corporate-led homogenization voiced by reactionary anti-“Mundian”/“Beware” traditionalists.
The fruit of Jay-Z and Punjabi MC’s collaboration is destined to be played, heard, hummed, rapped, improvised on the streets of urban America, as it was when I encountered it on 125th Street. There is something almost revolutionary about this boundary-breaking collaboration between two groups of brown people, worlds apart, but weaving through this era of shifting identities to create meaningful music for their communities and anyone who is navigating today’s web of loosened borders, personal, communal, geographic. Besides, when it comes down to it, the song has got to sound amazing to any ear. The thematically clashing lyrics, while maybe a bit ridiculous, are kind of strangely wonderful providing a little traditionalism for hip-hop, a little rowdiness for bhangra, and a little of both for everyone listening (though non-Punjabis might not know it). Dhol rhythms, DJ beats, and rapping seem to have found each other and come together in a match made in post-modern heaven. Let’s hope they have a long, happy, and fruitful married life ahead of them.