Originally a Punjabi dance music for celebrating the harvest, over the last 20 years young British Asians have transformed bhangra into a modern and vibrant dance music. Today British Asian bhangra is a huge export to the millions of South Asian expatriates around the globe, and it also has been sent back to India, where it has had a big impact on Indian pop. In England, however, bhangra has not done much crossing over; the focus of a lively cultural scene, with a large network of bands, clubs, and recording companies, bhangra never entered the mainstream British charts, in part due to white racism. Bhangra has also suffered from the prevalent notion that the music produced by South Asians in Britain was also simply not as funky as that produced by Black Britons. To be of Pakistani or Indian heritage had nothing like the coolness quotient of Jamaican or Nigerian roots. It was the post-bhangra Asian dance bands of the ‘90s, like Fun^Da^Mental, Asian Dub Foundation, Talvin Singh, State of Bengal, Nitin Sawhney, and Joi who began to demolish that notion, to finally make British Asian music hip.
Bhangra remains huge, however, and has not been displaced in the South Asian community by the Asian dance wave. Listening to this collection gives us an opportunity to hear the tradition that the Asian dance artists of the ‘90s built upon. From the beginning, bhangra in Britain was wildly eclectic in its borrowings and incorporations of other pop musical genres in Britain. The Rough Guide to Bhangra opens with Alaap’s “Bhabiye Ni Bhabiye”, the first bhangra single ever (1982). Like all bhangra, its foundation is the beat of the dhol, a large wooden-barrel drum, and the song also features Indian violin, and the sweet vocals of Alaap’s lead vocalist. But it also contains solos on flamenco-styled acoustic guitar. The rest of the numbers, dating from the 1990s and featuring many of Britain’s top bhangra artists, display the same willingness to borrow—from reggae, metal, house, disco, etc. DJ/remixer Bally Sagoo is featured on two numbers, most notably “Mera Laung Gawacha” (with Rama on vocals), which helped launch the reggae/bhangra trend known as “bhangramuffin”. The song demonstrates how well the dhol could be made to work in a dub/reggae context, and proves that this South Asian drum was capable of offering beats as deeply funky as those from the ostensible epicenter of funk, Africa.
All the numbers chosen for this impressive collection are of high quality, and it is therefore difficult to choose standouts. But particularly notable is “Boliyan” from Malkit Singh, widely considered the best voice in bhangra, which shifts seamlessly from house to reggae rhythms, and is full of samples of house riffs and vocal snippets from the early nineties. Even late qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the house, the incendiary vocals of his classic “Piya Re Piya Re” given the bhangra treatment by remixers Salim and Sulaiman. And although bhangra tends dominated by men, the collection also contains (in addition to Bally Sagoo’s collaboration with female vocalist Rama) numbers from prominent women bhangra chanteuses Mohander Kaur Bhamra and Baldit Jabble.
The collection was lovingly compiled by Br-Asian disc jockey, DJ Ritu, who also wrote the Bhangra chapter in the new, second edition of the Rough Guide to World Music. This chapter is also included on this enhanced 72-minute CD. This enhancement makes the collection even more of a bargain, as the World Music collections in the Rough Guide series (to date, there are upwards of 70) are sold at prices in the mid-range. I have only a couple of minor quibbles. First, other bhangra collections I have heard usually contain a couple of cheesy, wacky numbers, where the borrowings from other genres are hilariously over-the-top—as in those great, kitschy Bollywood collections. By not including any bhangra tunes that are downright nutty, this survey fails to give us the full flavor of bhangra. And finally, the photos on the CD and jacket, depicting folk performers in bright costume, are misleading about the bhangra scene. This is a fully contemporary, innovative and urban phenomenon. Photos of urban Br-Asians dancing in Southall clubs would have been conveyed a much more accurate impression of the bhangra. For the bhangra on this album is not Punjabi folk music, but as fully a British phenomenon as jazz is a unitedstatesian one.
Fortunately, the music on this delightful collection ably conveys the reality, that bhangra is a creative and vigorous and constantly mutating musical genre. The Rough Guide to Bhangra is the definitive introduction.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.