[2 April 2006]
Six years have passed since Rough Guide’s first foray into British Asian bhangra, a dance music style stemming from Punjabi folk culture. Where the first volume attempted to present listeners with a brief history, the follow-up The Rough Guide to Bhangra Dance attempts to bring them up-to-speed on how the music has evolved. DJ Ritu, a 20-year veteran DJ, radio host and record company A&R of British-Indian descent, returns to helm the collection and offers another wide sampling of artists and sounds. Her club and industry experience shows as she culls tracks that present current pop tastes (“flavors of the month”, as she says herself), contemporary instrumentation (ranging from the continued use of the traditional dhol drum to the sampling of Usher’s “Yeah”) and modern trends (placement in feature films). In addition to Ritu’s thorough liner notes, this latest edition of the Rough Guide series continues to provide a summary yet economical exploration, apt for the musical tourist.
Considering that it is now a multi-million pound industry, bhangra has understandably become a diverse field crossing generation, genre and medium. Malkit Singh, the “British King of Bhangra” whose 20-plus year career and multiple awards only hint at his stature, sounds strong and clear as ever on his ragga-stomper “Chal Hun (Get Up Fix)”. On the opposite end is an artist like Binder, a young producer who comes from outside the “bhangra heartlands of Birmingham and London” of Yorkshire. His “Billo Raneeay” expertly mixes dancehall and club-worthy subtonic bass with traditional vocals, complete with filters and effects. Regardless of age, each artist manages a balance between roots and growth, past and present that makes their respective works equally intriguing. Perhaps the best representation of this effort is Four of a Kind, a “new, boy band” that pushes the classic folk song “Rail Gaddi” to both a brisk house beat and traditional drums riding the upbeats. An apt opener for the compilation, the recording’s production value stamps the date distinctly, while remaining distinct from the Western forms it engages.
Certainly, this fusion of influences can be traced to the worldwide paths of South Asian culture. As a medium of expression for artists based in the UK, North America and even the West Indies, bhangra naturally requires fluency in multiple languages and sound dynamics. And, like any other marketable product, desires to be acquired by others. Hence, Soni Pabla’s “Dil Tera” can be viewed as an extension of the Asian-Caribbean bridge first laid by “bhangra-muffin” Apache Indian. Mixing dancehall syncopation, patois toasting and Punjabi verses, Pabla navigates a similar migration path of numerous South Asians. Aman Hayer’s “Dil Nai Lagda” further expands the network by running Spanish guitar chords and flamenco rhythms underneath traditional vocal workouts from Feroz Khan and the cooing Vinni. Similarly, Veronica employs English verses and an R&B production sensibility, while remaining rooted in bhangra by keeping “Sajna”‘s plush bass and drum tracks far back in the mix, in favor of harmonium lines and the familiar upbeat accent. In such a manner, each cut strikes a deliberate balance between contemporary, Western pop/club sounds and Punjabi melodic and rhythmic roots, rather than blind appropriation.
Oddly enough, the most telling examples of bhangra’s commercial success are the two most subdued tracks of the compilation, Madan Bata Sindhu (and a cast of actresses)‘s “Mehndi/Madhorama Pencha” and Juggy D’s contemplative “Akheer”. While both cuts are relatively formal and traditional as music pieces, their existence also represents South Asian inroads within Western culture. Sindhu’s performance, taken from Mira Nair’s feature film Monsoon Wedding, offers Hollywood a rare glimpse of an intimate moment during a traditional Punjabi wedding. The scene presents a predominantly Anglo-Saxon industry with a familiar ceremony, minus the exotic garnish and more with a sense of dignity. Of course, there is always a flipside as with the relative newcomer Juggy D, who has risen to such popularity that “every sneeze and cough [makes] the front pages of the Asian tabloids”. You know you’ve made it when you have reached both the critics and the gossip folks.
Of course, the trick is to draw the line at how much can be inferred about culture from a commercial music compilation. Once again, Rough Guide drapes the package in images of presumably Punjabi men in seemingly traditional garb, creating a forced message of cultural authenticity that makes the package unintentionally insincere. Additionally, like any other popular culture, bhangra is no more or less susceptible to a degree of gruyère. Here, Ritu steers clear of the “low end”. However, taken as one DJ’s observations on a wide art form and culture, Rough Guide to Bhangra Dance performs ably enough. After all, what more can you expect from a one-hour tour?