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Bhangra Now

Bhangra now: Panjabi MC
Bhangra now:
Panjabi MC
"There was only a handful of bands around: Alaap, Premi, Heera and Apna Sangeet. The music was mainly played on dholaks - there were practically no dhols or hardly any tumbis. People used accordeons and dholaks 'cause that's what they were able to take with them originally on their journeys from India. The music was very raw and mainly played in weddings, but when we arrived it had evolved, in that people had started to use drum kits, extra percussion to fill up the sound. You even saw the odd guitars floating around. We took all of that a stage further. We introduced synthesizers and electronic instruments to the sound of bhangra and also new rhythms which we were influenced by, such as reggae and ragga. All of this alongside all the pop influences, of course. I was a great fan of Duran Duran and Tears For Fears. We brought all these sounds into bhangra and it took off in a big way and people really liked it." Gone were the salwar kameez and turbans: DCS were dressed in Armani suits and they created a style of bhangra that the new generation could identify with.

The late '80s was a time of real optimism for the Asian communities: they had their own radio stations, club nights, music shops and magazines, yet at the same time the new generation, mostly in their teens, had started to develop their own cultural identity which was broader and more fluid then that of the previous one. Pioneering British-born producer Bally Sagoo mixed bhangra with other forms of music that he had been brought up with such as soul, hip-hop, reggae and dancehall. Soon other young DJs joined the sampling frenzy, and whereas live bands kept on dominating the club scene in the '90s, they were now accompanied by remixers. B21 was the most successful boy band to combine live music performance with bhangra remix production on stage. Bhotta took care of the instruments, Bally Jagpal stood at the turntables and Jassi Siddhu sang live over their electro-acoustic mix. Their music launched the beginning of the bhangra remix culture which dominated the late '90s and gained full momentum in 2003 when Panjabi MC founded the cult of the bhangra DJ.

Markie Mark is one of the leading DJs on the contemporary bhangra scene and presents weekly shows on 1xtra and the BBC Asian Network where he plays the new Asian sounds now dubbed 'Desi Beats'. He is also a member of the Panjabi Hit Squad collective (see fR244), who with their cutting-edge mix of bhangra, hip-hop, R&B and garage, managed to secure a record deal with the biggest hip-hop label in the country, Def Jam. He explains what impact the DJ culture of the '90s has had on the bhangra scene. "Even though DJs are still keeping the tradition moving, it's killed the whole scene of live bands on stage. Promoters find it easier to book a DJ; a DJ can play a variety of music. Bands are expensive; they haven't kept up with the times and charge exorbitant rates - £2500 for a half hour set. A DJ is going to be much cheaper."

Bobby Friction, who is Markie's counterpart on Radio 1, but with a mission to convert white audiences to bhangra music, adds: "Bhangra is not dying out. It's just a victim of its own success and of popular Western '90s culture. If you go back to India, bhangra is still played live, there are bands everywhere. In the mainstream there are no bands, because Britian and India are going through an MTV culture. These days all you need is a great singer. The great band can be a great producer..."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 264, June 2005


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