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Bhangra Now

Bhangra then: Channi of Alaap in the '80s.
Bhangra then: Channi of Alaap in the '80s.
Whereas Bollywood became the common link between all the different communities (and still is), it was bhangra music in particular which would ultimately become the most innovative musical form of all in a British Asian context. Originally performed by Punjabi farmers to encourage each other to work or to celebrate the end of harvest, bhangra is one of the closest things India has to dance music. With its simple 8-beat rhythm it soon became the rock 'n' roll of the Asian communities in the UK who still re-enact those ancient farming moves on the dance floor today.

In its early days in the largely scattered and un-politicised immigrant communities in the UK, bhangra remained a domestic form of entertainment. But with the rise of the National Front and the subsequent riots around the country in the late '70s/ early '80s, Asian communities found themselves drawn together and this further increased their sense of cultural cohesion. The obvious form of expression for this new cultural awareness was music. What followed was nothing short of an explosion in the number of bands, all varying a great deal in terms of musical emphasis. AS Kang was bhangra's first British-based star and his song Giddiyan Di Rani remains one of the most sampled and reworked bhangra tracks of all time. His success marked the beginning of a new commercial era in UK bhangra history which by then had become a record industry. However it was the appearance of Bollywood films on videotape that gave bhangra its social role.

Shin, singer and band leader of DCS, one of the pioneering groups of that time and still at the forefront of the live bhangra scene today, explains: "There was a big social scene amongst Asians in the UK when I was a little kid. People used to go to cinemas at the weekend and they would be a focal gathering point. People would watch their movies, eat samosas and socialise. With the advent of video films, this social scene for Asians disappeared. But when bhangra came along, especially the style of bhangra that Alaap were playing at the time, a dance-orientated bhangra with songs like Babiye Ni Babiye, it gave people an identity." (See Alaap feature, fR72.)

From the '80s on, bhangra groups not only performed at family weddings, temples, town halls and community centres, but they also started to appear in nightclubs, not just in Asian areas but in the major city centres. The gigs took place during the day-time, as the young kids weren't allowed out in the evenings. The Dome, Hippodrome and Empire of '80s London and Birmingham started opening their doors to school-dodging boys and girls in suits and salwar kameez, worn under Michael Jackson-style leather jackets, zips all over, with matching Adidas trainers and gold earrings. I asked Shin what the scene was like at the time and how the new hybrid Brit Asian identities translated into music.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 264, June 2005


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