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Bhangra Now

Each year around the middle of April, the Punjabi community in London makes its way to Southall Broadway to celebrate Vaisakhi, the time of harvest in the Punjab, northwest India, where bhangra music was born. It is a long way from the backwater villages of Punjab to the hustle and bustle of the urban streets. Yet to see dozens of Sikh families striding up and down the Broadway while their men hang out of car windows furiously pounding big dhol drums or waving bright orange flags (the national colour of Punjab) is a clear sign that in the minds of the Punjabi immigrants, whether first or second generation, home is never very far away.

By maintaining cultural links with their homeland, these immigrants and their sons and daughters have encouraged the growth of bhangra music worldwide. Indeed, what was once a gritty folk music of rural India has now become an international music force since Panjabi MC managed (for the first time in bhangra history) to break into the pop charts across the world with his 2003 hit Mundian Tho Bach Ke (Beware Of The Boys). As a bhangra track it is as rootsy as they come, yet the trick that did it was the Knight Rider sample which ran under it. Having released a number of rather unsuccessful albums himself, David Hasselhof and his metallic companion must have been taken by surprise! Yet Punjabis across the country were even more so when pop stars like Beyonce and Britney Spears started looking for bhangra loops and tumbi licks. In the hope of targeting the huge, virtually untapped Asian markets, pop artists started to enlist the help of UK bhangra producers such as 26-year-old Rishi Rich to remix their latest songs desi style, in the hope that they themselves might one day become the next big-selling R&B or hip-hop act.

But where does that leave bhangra? I met up with a number of musicians, old- and new-school DJs and producers, to find out whether it is important that bhangra music breaks into the mainstream or whether it ever will... and if so, whether it can keep its soul and wild power.

Bhangra was born as a folk dance in the Punjab. With time, it moved through all divisions of class and education, becoming part of weddings, New Year parties and other important cultural and political occasions. Its history probably dates as far back as 300 BC but its journey westwards began more recently, in 1947, at the time of the Indian partition which resulted in a large migration of Punjabis into the United Kingdom. These immigrants brought their folk music with them and it is fair to say that music in general has played an important part in consolidating their Asian identity ever since.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 264, June 2005


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