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Jason Polan takes on New York City... with a pencil
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PHILHARMONIC HIP HOP
Classical instrumentation and urban beats fuse to impress your eardrums
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BEWARE THE BHANGRA
Thanks to Jay-Z, Punjabi beats evolved from underground darling to a hip club sound...and it doesn't get much hipper than DJ Rekha's mix
Hands flutter and shoulders bounce to the DJ's beats on the dance floor of SOB. Originally a house for Sounds of Brazil, this downtown Manhattan club now serves as a "premiere venue for world music." Hip-hop beats fuse with thumps produced on the dhol, a South Asian percussion instrument. A man's high-pitched, sandpapery voice sings about love and life in a Punjab village, rising over the beat and accompanying claps. The usual dance floor grinding and booty-shaking give way to raised hands twirling and clapping, and heads bobbing (or trying to) in time to a 4/4 beat.

Welcome to SOB's Basement Bhangra night with Rekha Malhotra, who for more than 11 years as DJ Rekha spins a fusion of Bhangra with hip-hop, reggae, and other mainstream music. Bhangra, a folk-dance often compared to hip-hop, comes from the Punjab region at the India-Pakistan border. The beat of the dhol provides the base for Bhangra, while songs of spring harvest celebration accompany claps.

Bhangra's evolution—mixing Punjabi sounds with mainstream guitar and drum beats—began in Britain in the 1970s, graduated to a fusion with reggae and later, with hip-hop. This combination, with hip-hop in particular, made its way to the U.S. in recent years. Over the past few decades, its popularity enjoyed a boost among South Asian immigrant communities all over the world, especially in the United Kingdom and Canada, as a nostalgic reconnection with their homeland. This popularity became most prominent in 2005 with Panjabi MC's single, Mundiyan Te Bach Ke Rahe (Beware of the Boys), which rapper Jay-Z produced. Other prominent brushes with Bhangra include Missy Elliott's Get Your Freak On. DJ Mad Lib also experiments mixing Bhangra with jazz, funk, and electronica to give hip-hop a new sound.

Vijay Chattha, front man of the San Francisco-based Bhangra band Black Mahal, calls this fusion the second regeneration of Bhangra. "With more authentic hip-hop beats, the songs did not sound like an Indian wedding anymore, but more like something you would hear on a dance floor anywhere in the world," Chattha says. Bob Niedt, an adjunct professor at Syracuse University and music critic, agrees. "Sometimes with fusion, because it is blended, it may be easier on the ears for the uninitiated," he says. According to Niedt, American popular culture and music contains fusion in its DNA. For example, rhythm-and-blues in the 50s, the British Invasion of the 60s, and 70s jazz all fused with the pop sounds of the moment to produce a new sound and culture. The introduction of Bhangra in American music follows the same trend.

For DJ Rekha, Bhangra beats instigate more than just shoulder shaking and head bobbing. "I think once you put culture out there people access it, shape it, manipulate it, take it and use it within a larger frame of things," DJ Rekha says. Born in London and raised in Long Island, N.Y., DJ Rekha's first-generation immigrant South Asian parents introduced her at an early age to Punjabi music. Often regarded as the main force behind Bhangra's underground emergence in America, DJ Rekha started her career as a DJ for South Asian parties. "A led to B led to C," she says. "We got a night at SOB and it almost immediately took off." After releasing her 2007 album Basement Bhangra, Rekha sees little chance of her music taking a back seat anytime soon. "I am booked all the time, so it must be doing well," she says.

Basement Bhangra, even without mainstream success, reached number one on the international music charts on Amazon.com. DJ Rekha maintains a sample of her music on several web sites, like her own and SOB's. "Popular social-networking sites such as MySpace thrive on a variety of music getting out there, to all ears, often at no cost," Niedt says. Black Mahal, another band serving as a vehicle in the Bhangra revolution uses MySpace and Internet publicity to reach a greater audience. Its MySpace page offers short renditions of its songs, and YouTube features clips from concerts. Punjab native Lal Singh Bhatti, well into his seventies, provides vocals and plays the dhol dressed in long Punjabi tunics called kurtas and brightly colored turbans.

Bhangra sounds reach beyond cultural hotbeds like San Francisco and New York City. DJ Rekha now plays gigs in Washington D.C. and Colorado, while smaller renditions, like Boston Bhangra, spring up in other cities. Bhangra also gains acceptance among the college crowd. Schools like The University at Buffalo and George Washington University organize Bhangra competitions like Bhangra Blizzard and Bhangra Blowout, exposing a young demographic to the contagious music.

DJ Rekha's manager, Rhiannon Erbach, believes the infectious beats of this rhythm-heavy dance contribute to its popularity. "Even if people don't understand the lyrics and the dance moves, everyone can feel it in their body and their shoulders," she says. Bhangra newbie Charolette Gaspard agrees, shouting over the loud music about how "fucking dope" Bhangra is even though she does not understand the songs' lyrics. Patron and New Orleans native Conana Magee's passion for Bhangra extends beyond the club. He likes his Bhangra mixed with favorites like Daft Punk, to make the sound more conventional even as it maintains its unpredictability.

While some might worry that the 2005 Jay-Z song signaled Bhangra's peak, Erbach disagrees. "Sometimes when a thing reaches that kind of mainstream status you lose the original spirit of things and the underground hype, but I don't think that's really what's happening with Bhangra," she says. "People have heard enough of this to give them a taste, but they don't really hear a lot of actual Bhangra through mainstream hip-hop artists. The audience has heard just enough to want more." Niedt wonders if the American mainstream is ready for a more ethnic version of Bhangra without the hip-hop infusion once the initial buzz dies. "Can hipsters in America take straight Bhangra? Perhaps not," Niedt says. "But a watered down version, sure. Maybe later, the straight stuff."

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