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Bhangra Now

I asked Shin how important bhangra lyrics really are: "The lyrics are important to those people that understand them. But 80% of the young kids that dance to bhangra don't actually understand the lyrics. And I don't think they give two hoots about it. Bhangra music is party music, celebratory music. It is music to dance to. I have my comebacks on using music as a political tool and I wouldn't want bhangra to be bogged down as other forms of music such as rap are, for example. Because it is not that kind of music. I would like to see a positive element coming through however. I would love to meet a writer who can write a song in English that carries a message for Asian people in the UK which could be translated into a bhangra style of music."

There have been earlier instances when British Asian music has come into vogue: Talvin Singh (see fR187) won the Mercury Music Prize, Apache Indian's Asian ragamuffin got him a major deal (see fR251), and artists like Dhol Foundation (see fR229), Nitin Sawhney (see fR199), Sheila Chandra (see fR134) and Najma (see fR51) have enjoyed crossover success with the world music crowd: however, bhangra they're not. Yet the success and subsequent popularity of bhangra in the mainstream, which Panjabi MC achieved with Mundian Tho Bach Ke, has had a far greater impact on the Asian communities than any of the other acts in the past. Unlike the so-called 'Asian Underground', bhangra is grass roots music and has been the best-selling genre since the '70s amongst Asian communities across the UK, as opposed to the Asian Underground acts which mainly sold to a white audience. I am interested in finding out from Markie whether he thinks the bhangra movement could learn from any of the failures of the Asian Underground and its rapid burn out.

"Going back to '97 when the whole Asian Underground movement reared its head for the first time, it was very dismissive of bhangra. I rallied against that, and always have. We were the bigger scene but almost unfashionable. They were very Hoxton, Shoreditch, media trendy. Asian DJs were mainly playing to white crowds. There were almost no Asian people, apart from the DJs who were playing there. It was media friendly, mainly instrumental music, it wasn't hard to digest like bhangra is. Bhangra is not easy on the ear. They sort of dismissed bhangra at the time, almost as if it were the bigger unfashionable cousin they didn't want to talk about. They actually said that bhangra was dead and it wasn't the case. If you went to Southall and asked about a lot of those bands, even Talvin Singh at the time, they would have no idea who you were talking about. But the Asian Underground did die off and the media stopped writing about it. It was almost like a media phenomenon, hype, the whole thing which in the end killed it. Then suddenly bhangra started to come back up in popularity, a lot of the Asian underground people started jumping on bhangra as if they'd always supported it. Now they are like 'Bhangra is OK. Can they help?' I think they can definitely help in making bhangra more media friendly, to help it with its media image, to help take it into the mainstream. Because one thing the Asian underground did manage was to attract the attention of non-Asian people."

Opinions on whether bhangra has finally made it into the mainstream and whether it is there to stay are varied. Shin and the other traditionalist singers and performers of today - Malkit Singh, Balwinder Safri and Jazzy B - are courageous and doing their utmost to keep the bhangra tradition alive, even if it means having to change their line-ups and programme to suit younger and bigger audiences. Shin for a start believes that, "Yes it is in the mainstream and it is being recognised worldwide. Yes it is different, but that's the beauty of it. It's evolving all the time, it's changing all the time and that's why it has lasted and will always be there."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 264, June 2005


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