[Banished words/phrases in this review: Bollywood, India/Pakistan conflict, “gang-bhangers”.]
Double-headed drums dominate the two main strains of Indian-derived dance music floating around these days. One branch of the tree is focused on the tabla, the smaller conga-like drums played with the hands and fingers; this branch has played up the tabla’s similarities to the frantic skitterings of drum’n'bass, and includes such devotees as the Asian Dub Foundation, Tabla Beat Science, and Karsh Kale, whose work incorporates the intensely mathematical calculations of Indian sitar ragas (the Indian “classical” music) as well as the craziness of the best techno jams. It’s great stuff, and I love it, but we’re not talking about it here.
The other branch focuses on the dhol, the larger drums worn around the neck and played with hands or with curved drumsticks. The dhol is more closely associated with Indian folk-dances than with ragas, and the main way that the dhol is used in modern music is in the dance form called bhangra. This music, which has been filling clubs from New Delhi to London to New York for more than 10 years, relies on the dhol to function as a huge bass tone, thumping out a heartbeat that shakes dancers to their very souls while Indian folk- and film-derived melodies and vocal lines float above it. It’s exotic, it’s familiar, it’s the best of both worlds.
But most of the people shaking their asses to this cool sound have little or no idea that bhangra as a musical and dance form has existed in the Indian/Pakistani territory of Punjab for centuries. Farmers have celebrated the harvest of “bhang”, or hemp, for 600 years with this dance, so it is really no surprise that it can be updated (and boogied to). This compilation collects some of the best bhangra tracks from Kiss Records, one of the UK’s most prominent labels of South Asian music; it was originally released in 2000, but has now been re-released with a “nicer”-looking cover, which means I can stop kicking myself for not grabbing it back when I had the chance.
And it’s kickin’. You drop this disc in the player, pump up the bass, and you immediately feel the impact of the dhol on the first track, Anakhi’s “Lok Boliyan”. This medley of traditional bhangra tunes is pumped up with vocal samples and guitar bits and something that sounds a lot like an electronic jaw harp sample, sweetened with some intricate string/synth arrangements, and filled out with ululating call and response vocals but you can’t get away from the dhol. Its insistent lower-register thumping strikes right to the gut, and suddenly all the modern stuff is so much window dressing. That drum hits and we’re back in the Punjab.
There are some great dance songs on this disc. Jassi Premi’s “Ludiane Nachdi Nu” sounds like an amped-up version of a Bombay musical number, but its bigger dhol-driven low-end and its nutty “hey hey” chanting mark it as club material. “Nachde Punjabi”, by K.B. and the Gang, is slower and less Westernized but derives its considerable momentum from the combination of live drums and supporting electronic bass tones. And I’d love to hear “Sahotas Boliyan” by the Sahotas down at the teen center dance, sandwiched in between “Hot in Herre” and “Grindin’”. Give those kids some perspective for real.
But this disc isn’t entirely focused on the politics of dancing. Bhinda Jatt’s “Putt Sardaran Da” is almost power-pop, as is “Lak De Hulareh” by Canadian Jazzy B. “Dhamiwala Da Dhol” is the CD’s most reactionary/ambitious piece, a simple demonstration of dhol drumming in all its variety, with accompanying “Hoy!” chanting. And “Sounds from the Des” by Balbur Bittu is, according to the liner notes, tour of all the varied glory of Punjabi culture and its people; to me, it just sounds like a six-and-a-half-minute slice of heaven, jam-packed with hooks and interweaving lines and, undergirding it all, that wonderful booming drum called the dhol.
This is by no means a survey of all that bhangra music has to offer (I’ve heard rumors of a three-CD set out there somewhere that would probably fill that bill), but it is a great one-hour compilation of songs from one label. I recommend this, as well as last year’s album by The Dhol Foundation called Big Drum Small World, wherein Afro-Celt Sound System drummer Johnny Kalsi (who got his start with a bhangra group in the first place) weds new-age washes and lively techno beats to layers and layers of dhol drumming by all his students in Great Britain. Between these two albums, you will hear the future of the dhol—this sound is gonna be everywhere in a year or two. Don’t miss the boat, okay?