Talking to DJ Rekha

May 4, 2009

If you’re familiar with New York’s club scene, chances are you’ve heard of  DJ Rekha, who is credited with bringing contemporary bhangra music to the US since the 1990s. She spins at a monthly event known as Basement Bhangra at S.O.B.’s on Varick Street, which occurs on the first Thursday of every month. DJ Rekha was nice enough to take a few minutes to speak to me about the growing presence of South Asian music in the US:

Photo from flickr.com

Photo from flickr.com

Question: How did you start bringing bhangra beats into clubs?

DJ Rekha: Well, I started DJ-ing about 15 years ago, and I DJ-ed hip hop and bhangra and Bollywood and all that stuff. As opportunities came we started doing events in clubs, and that’s the music I was playing. In ’97 I got an opportunity to play at S.O.B.’s basement and that’s where it started.

Q: What were the initial reactions to the dance style and music?

DJR: Well I always had an audience that was sort of familiar with it, mixed with a wider audience. My first round of gigs were with artists and musicians.

Q: What is the difference between traditional bhangra music and its evolution into a more modern hip hop style?

DJR: I don’t necessarily make a distinction. I think there’s a false impression that the music was once traditional and now it’s not. I don’t think it’s ever-evolving, I think recording techniques and globalization have as much to do with the changing sound of bhangra, as well as different people who like different styles of Punjabi music within the larger context of Punjabi music, one of those breakdowns of Punjabi music being bhangra. Most of the music I play has mostly been produced in the UK so it only has that influence of dance hall hip hop and modern dance music. I just think as music evolves in any way, it sort of matures and imbibes different influences and that’s what’s happening.

Q: How great a presence do you think bhangra has established in the US?

DJR: The America and West has a long fascination with Indian music and culture. It’s been happening since the ’60s since the Beatles collaborated with Ravi Shankar, and that dialogue continues and it definitely transpires more in the last 10 years with hip hop music–with the widening of the palate where hip hop producers are drawing eastern influences and sound. It’d be more correct to say they draw from a South Asian musical palate. I think bhangra gets overused to signify all things that are South Asian. I think there’s as much an ode to classical music that has been incorporated into contemporary dance music.

Q: Is the bhangra dance scene in the US comparable to that in the UK?

DJR: You know, we get so many British Asians who are like, “we don’t have it like this.” Sometimes it happens here in the US where the parties end up being formulated more around the demographic of music. I go to the UK a lot and I’m dying to go to a good party and it’s a struggle, because I’ve only been to “Uni-nights” which are college parties. There’s no branded regular dance party like [Basement Bhangra] in the UK. In New York, there’s so many different styles of music and so many different styles of people. You don’t see Brazilians at a Brazilian party [in New York], you see everybody and Basement Bhangra is in that tradition where it’s good music and people like to dance.

I find that South Asian culture is most electric and most vibrant and most diverse in NYC over anywhere in the world, including India. On any night in New York you can find people of South Asian background engaged in music and culture in so many different ways. You don’t see that anywhere else, you don’t see that in the UK–I mean definitely, the [South Asian] population has been there longer so there are people who have made forays into the arts, but on any random night it’s always a struggle.

Q: What are the top 3 or 4 reasons you think bhangra appeals to people outside the Indian community?

DJR: There’s only 1 reason, it’s good music. I mean, you know, people like good music. It’s danceable and people like good music. (laughs)

You can find out more about DJ Rekha and Basement Bhangra at her website here.

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Dancing Barefoot

May 3, 2009

If you’ve seen enough performances of Indian dance, you’ll notice that generally, the dancers dance with their bare feet. Though I’m not entirely sure of the reason(s) why Indian dances are just generally performed sans shoes, it’s probably due to the fact that Indian dance emphasizes rhythm and beat, particularly in classical Indian dance, where the dancers strike the floor with their feet.Photo from flickr.com

Photo from flickr.com

Photo from flickr.com

To emphasize the movement and sound of the feet as they strike the ground, a string or pad of bells known as ghunghroos are tied around the dancer’s ankles. You can imagine how this attests to a dancer’s skill–if the dancer makes a mistake, the bells will sound out of synch with the time of the music, amplifying the misstep even more.

There’s a spiritual aspect to the bells as well. The ghunghroos are never worn during practice, only during a performance. And my Bharatanatyam guruji, or dance teacher, would never let us wear our ghunghroos before a performance without having them first blessed by God.

In addition to the bells, dancers will often paint their feet. This is generally just for decoration though, as the hands are also painted with the same design. The intended effect is to make the gestures and movements stand out even more, such as when the dancer is performing onstage.

Photo from flickr.com

Photo from flickr.com

Personally, I’m so used to dancing barefoot that when I go out to dance I feel uncomfortable wearing shoes. (Then again, high heels aren’t the greatest for dancing, either.) I’m glad that when I learned dance, I didn’t have to deal with squeezing my feet into shoes like some of my friends who studied pointe ballet. Although I do have tougher feet from having to strike them against the floor when dancing Bharatanatyam. My guruji would tell us that whenever we struck our feet against the stage, the resounding noise should sound like a clap of thunder.

I still have my first pair of ghunghroos. The pad has worn thin and several of the bells have fallen off, but I keep them as a memento of my first days of dance.

Last week I went to the start of the Indian Summer bimonthly bhangra parties hosted by the NYC Bhangra Club. The launch party was held in 218 Bar on Lafayette Street. When I arrived, it was a typical bar scene where the patrons had no idea that a bhangra blowout of sorts was going to happen until a crowd of people that began filing in around 11 p.m. started pumping their arms to the bhangra beat that suddenly blasted through the bar’s speakers.

nyc-bhangra-launch-party-027 The crowd was a pretty diverse mix of people. The Bhangra Club’s members are a diverse crowd in itself, and there was only more fun to be had when drunk bar patrons joined in the mix. It was amusing for me to see them bemused at the unannounced party unfolding in front of them, only to jump right in. Those familiar with bhangra dance moves helped them to move to the energetic beat, teaching them one or two basic bhangra steps. One guy dancing in front of me was doing pretty well, even inventing some of his own moves, until I turned around and realized he was borrowing from the person directly behind me!

Around 12:30 p.m., the bhangra club put on a performance of its own, as four people–two women, two men–dressed in traditional bhangra costumes cleared a space in the middle of the floor and began a three-minute choreographed routine. nyc-bhangra-launch-party-064

The dance was pretty impressive and showcased the NYC Bhangra Club’s strength as a performing team. One of my favorite parts of their choreography involved the women getting on the men’s shoulders and then raising their arms to the ceiling, all the while still in rhythm with the music:

nyc-bhangra-launch-party-084

The performance was followed by the dhol beats of Madan Madi, world famous dhol master. A dhol is a large two-sided drum, which when played, reverberated around the room. Immediately, people jumped in the space left by the previous performance and began dancing along as Mr. Madi played in time with the music, which had swept up again in a crescendo of sound.

nyc-bhangra-launch-party-092

Overall, it was an incredible evening. The next party is set for Friday, May 8th at the same 218 Bar and Restaurant. Cover is $15, though there is a coupon for $10 on the NYC Bhangra Club’s website. Ladies are free before 12 a.m., so if the pictures above are any indication, this isn’t something you’re going to want to miss!

When I think back to my movie-watching experience as a child, I realize that I unconsciously distinguished Bollywood movies from every other movie that I grew up seeing. I had frequent Bollywood movie nights with my family, but never with friends (specifically, non-Indian friends). For some reason, I always kept my Bollywood films separate from my other DVDs, reaching for a different pile depending on the friends who were visiting. I think it was because I believed that Bollywood was a completely different cinematic experience from the other movies.

Dance Sequence from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Picture from Google Images.

Dance Sequence from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Picture from Google Images.

And that’s true, to some extent. Most Bollywood movies have several things in common: a hero pursuing a love interest, random song-and-dance sequences in the middle of a scene, of which at least one is required to take place in a gorgeous landscape that is someplace in Switzerland (or some other green, mountainous country). And at the rate that the Hindi Film Industry churns out movies each year, many of them do share the same themes and basic plotlines.

However, that’s not to say that Bollywood is any less of a movie-watching experience, as filmmaker Suraj Das told me in a recent interview. “I always thought it was unfortunate that Indian films get a bad reputation–especially in academia, when you’re studying filmmaking and cinema studies,” he said.

“People tend to think of Indian movies as silly distractions. People don’t realy think there’s a lot of artistic merit to them at all.”

Mr. Das, who directed and produced the film “Arranged” for his senior film thesis, explained that the musical sequences in Indian films are actually very difficult to film, as actors and directors have to work to make sure the choreography aligns with the camera angles. For Mr. Das, the filming was particularly difficult as he and his choreographer had to try to create their own Bollywood sequences by picking up on elements from other Bollywood films. Mr. Das’ film in particular is an homage to both Hollywood and Bollywood, as the early musical sequences are reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever and Singing in the Rain, both iconic musical sequences in Western filmmaking.

Perhaps it’s time I joined my Bollywood-Hollywood DVD collections into one pile, after all.