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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