The atmospheric beauty of DJ Rekha’s set began with sensual Bhangra beats that cultivated in her mind, flowed to her turntables and laptop, and eventually manifested on the dance floor in a hybrid of traditional Indian dancehall and contemporary club grooving. In Chicago’s Smart Bar, located in the basement of the historic Metro rock venue, Basement Bhangra could not have had a better subterranean setting. The Punjabi-hip-hop fusion swirled and percolated, bouncing off the circumference of dimly-lit multi-colored walls and filling bodies with motion. One of the first phrases on DJ Rekha’s debut album, Basement Bhangra, released last fall, is “Do your research!” You can do all the research you want: listen to the album again and again, let it shatter, rebuild, and enhance any previous misconceptions you may have of the “Bollywood sound” as it’s commonly referred to. You can watch all the Internet videos showcasing her sets and learn about the seminars Rekha holds to educate fans’ minds as much as their bodies. But all this research can do is prepare you. It can’t compare with, much less replace, the live set, where the Bhangra beats are born — beats designed to slip backbones and cause limbs to move in blissful ways not commonly experienced at an American club show.
As a lecturer, activist, and owner of her own production company, DJ Rekha adds to the celebratory history of an Indian style of music called Punjabi. A folk-based musical form originating in regions of South Asia, Punjabi is comprised of a few key instruments: the dhol two-sided drum and the stringed ektara, among others. For the last ten years, DJ Rekha, who is British-born and New York-based, has spearheaded the proliferation of Bhangra by filtering the Punjabi-influenced sound through turntables and pumping it through speakers. In doing so, she has welcomed throngs of swirling night clubbers and music fans, from all races and colors, at the monthly Sounds of Brazil shows in New York. Having brought her set to Chicago before, DJ Rekha was well aware of the previous impact her music had on Windy City night clubbers who’ve been eagerly awaiting her return ever since. Flanked by a video screen playing Basement Bhangra music videos and Bollywood clips, she appropriately started with the lead track, “Basement Bhangra Anthem”. For most of the set, DJ Rekha studied her laptop and decks like a focused Ivy League scientist configuring a Nobel experiment. She mixed approving grins into this serious demeanor, looking up to witness the dance-floor response, which was a swaying mass of shifting hips and limbs, arms cutting the air above and below the waist. As the set progressed, the sampled, lark-like vocal melodies of Bhangra artists Sunil Shegal and Bikram Singh cut through the air, proclaiming, “Bhangra music, can’t fuse it!” Dance-floor space shrunk as the beats grew more sensual, and twirling pockets of Indian men sprouted up — among coupled groups of Indian women and Caucasian men and women — unleashing bursts of Punjabi dance moves driven by the unrelenting thump of dhol drum beats pouring from the speakers.
Standing a few feet from Rekha, opener Jimmy Singh swigged a beer and bobbed his head as he too received a late-night education. Though he has not graduated to Rekha’s level just yet, he still worked a smooth set, full of his own interpretations of Bhangra that mixed Punjabi with elements of house, techno, and the sweet snare and bass of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Rekha’s live deejaying aesthetic doesn’t necessarily create a continual stream of music to dance to. When it came to blending and segueing during this set, she abruptly ended tracks — sometimes filling the void with swirling Punjabi siren vocals — before taking another abrupt leap into an extended remix version of a Basement Bhangra track chosen to fit the mood. Her set started out slow, gradually luring in the crowd by piling layers of rhythm on top of dhol drum beats and mixing in all the right enticing improvisations that make a club crowd hungrier and hungrier.
She has mastered her craft, but what sets her apart — and is the most alluring aspect of her live show — is how she orchestrates the high-pitched trance-inducing melodies of the string ektara into the live mix, using it both as a melodic and rhythmic instrument, as well as a between-song segue. The result is a live experience that is liberating for both the mind and the body: Rekha is a one-woman movement pushing hip-hop (especially the live club experience) forward while successfully re-introducing Punjabi folk music to an American music culture, one show at a time. Best of all, she creates a community where two unrelated sonic cultures and music fans can come together. At first, I watched with grinning pleasure as the waves of dancers were wooed with a buoyant Punjabi-sonic invitation to buck club pretensions and let loose in a flurry of loose-limbed liberation. Hands reached high, almost touching the low hanging ceiling. But it wasn’t long before I had to ditch my pen and pad and join in. And, as the set carried on into the early hours of Friday morning, I wondered, especially in a venue called Smart Bar, why all learning experiences couldn’t be like this.