Sunday, May 18, 2008

Exporting Bhangra and Punjabi Viral Videos

Before I go any further, I should warn you that an 8 week stretch of bar exams appears to have warped my mind. The relentless exposure to statue, case-law and legal commentary has caused me to temporarily misplace the ability to write unpretentiously. I consequently sound like an annoying prat, even to myself. However, for reasons that I will not divulge, I do not have the time to colloquialise my language. For this I apologise.

I came across this video by way of forward the other day. It raised the question as to why Bhangra in particular, and Punjabi-ism to a more general degree, is South Asia's predominant pop cultural export?

Now you may watch that video and say "What rubbish. 'Britain's Got Talent'? Please. This show is lame, and Simon Cowell is a tight-t-shirt-wearing, middle-aged, man-breasted farticle. How can this be used to evidence the supposed pervasiveness of Punjabi Bhangra in Western Pop culture?"

And you'd be right about Simon Cowell. Sure, a more authoritative example of Bhangra's popularity might be the one discussed previously on this blog, namely Daler Mehndi in "World of Warcraft", but I still feel that this video somehow articulates the appeal and the universailty of Bhangra.

Let me set out the elements that I think form the basis of the Punjab's global appeal:

Bhangra's Beat and Pace

The spare riffs, pace and percussion go well with the heavy pop baselines currently in vogue within mainstream pop. Bhangra seems to lend itself to hip-hop remixes in a manner that other regional music doesnt. Dont beleive me? I challenge anyone to try listening to K-Pop for 5 minutes straight without feeling like a tasteless pre-pubescent twit of a girl.

The Dance Moves

Anyone who has watched bhangra at a wedding knows its fun to watch and to do, without being too technical. There are enough examples in the videos to follow so I wont repeat any here.

The Indulgent Tastelessness of it

This aspect of Bhangra may also be refered to the "The Jiggly Fat Man Celebratory Aspect". Case in point, the Legendary Arif Lohar.

I would go as far as saying that part of the central appeal of Bhangra is its universal idiotic goofiness, and it's gaudy lack of self restraint. The costumes are appalling shiny neon blues and greens. The sets are redundantly located overseas ("Arif Lohar in China"??!) and the actual video pretty much comprises of Arif Lohar making gleefully silly faces whilst dancing around "Cheeny" and "Sheedi" dancers in stereotypical costumes that purport to add to their exoticism. The directors of the videos are blind and mad.

All of that bad taste adds up to an irresistible combination, the ultimate guilty pleasure. No one can look away. Whilst writing the previous paragraph, I've watched the video thrice.

Now to prove that tastelessness persistently remains a feature of Bhangra videos (and also to prove the influence of hip hop on bhangra), please observe Arif Lohar's relatively new remixed rendition of his fathers classic "Jugni". Do note the blinged out Chimtas.

The Crudeness of it

Relatedly, it cannot be denied that swearing in Punjabi is an art in itself. I present as evidence the poetic "Punjabi Underworld", one of my favorite Youtube clips of all time. I have in fact learned all of it by heart. I should warn that it is completely obscene and graphic and should not be listened to by those amongst us who are prudish or proper in any respect.

What crudeness as such has to do with Bhangra is moot. But it certainly helps sell the culture as a whole. Moreover, the phonetic appeal of the language helps explain why the music can be appreciated without the lyrics being understood. For fun, here is another classic Punjabi/Urdu dub.

Other Stuff

I suppose there is a lot to be said about minority communities and their respective pop cultural manifestations. It isnt a coincidence that Bhangra is way more popular in the UK than it is the US. But for the moment, I am tired so I will continue this at some other point. Readers, do let me know if there are any other features I've missed.


Yasmeen said...

NB - having 15 days left for my LPC finals and using your blog as ‘true divertissement’ during lunch break, I have to comment on your excellent post on bhangra which is correct on many of its aesthetic aspects but you are forgetting one main one - namely the PEOPLE who actually spread the bhangra virus and came about doing it!!! That said just an overview of some basic demographics (without the stats.. sorry)

Who were/ are the first migrants – whether forced to come as part of the military way back during the British Raj or the later World Wars (both of them) or just because they were work seekers during industrial revolutions time in textile factory and mills up north essentially Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester and more recently post –partition and post 1970’s South Asia turmoil- I give it to you: PUNJABIS. I would like to add that the three cities mentioned are the Hometowns of Bhangra… mainly because they are housing an impressive amount of the Punjabi expats…

Now when we say 'Punjabi' there should be some distinction between Sikhs, Indian (Hindu) Punjabi, Indian (Muslim) Punjabi, and Pakistan (Muslim Punjabi) (there are few Sikh Pakistani (Punjabi) but there are very few). I am insisting on the difference because it heavily influences not only musically but also on the 'finesse' of the topics exposed in the songs (if any one actually pays attention).

Comparing Aarif Lohar to Malkit Singh would give you a fair idea. Or if you are not that much into bhangra some might have come across more recently Abrar ul Haq and Juggy D. I would talk more about Juggy D (with his once producer Rishi Rich) as he /they embodies the whole Hip Hop bhangra fusion today (for the past 4 years on the UK scene.)

The former (Abrar) would sing stuff like ‘Assan teri gal karni deddy naaal’ - I would /will like to talk about you with / to your father’

And the latter (Juggy) would say ‘Mein terey naal nachnaaa – I would/will dance with you’. See the subtle difference between Muslim and Sikh and how one’s background influences on what you can talk about…

As far as the musical influence of Bhangra in the UK, the very few first Bhanra ‘propa tunes’ were back in the early 80’s and emanated because of the growing wedding scene - as the children of migrants were now grown enough to get married to most of their own cousins - (I am referring to my own extended family living in B’ham, I am not insulting anyone here… please…) and the availability of technology.

Some dudes back in their council estate houses had suddenly just enough money to get basic recording equipment. These guys were Sikhs and because music being an intrinsic part of their religion they already had the knowledge of dhol giving the bhangra its peculiar beat and the tumbi- this south asian equivalent of not a guitar but maybe banjo that makes this high pitched and rapid ‘tadnnna tadnna’ sound which one gets by rolling their tongue.

Mixing this with the influences one gets from Pop culture of the 80s (Micheal Jackson and Maddona) and you get the modern version of bhangra in contrast to the more folkloric, rural one, that now everyone comes to enjoy at weddings (we are still in the 80’s.)

For a good example of this would be to listen to Heera (dowe janeya) one of the most populars at any true desi EXPATS wedding in the early 80’s all the way through the 90’ or SAFRI brothers - that was more 90’s.

The whole fusion movement started in the 90’s with Apache Indian (An Indian grown up man with massive dread logs singing the boum shakalaka song). (Un)fortunately he did not get too much attention back then by the Western audience. However he does have a huge revival now… essentially because of the trends raised in NB’s current posts.

Now making a huge short cut to the early 2000 by just briefly mentioning that the influence of Bhangra is somewhat (not?) surprisingly very very predominant in Bollywood when Punjabis do NOT actually count for the majority of Indians. Bhangra has also conquered South Indian cinema which is even startling, being a completely alien culture. This can be explained by the predominance of North Indians (I won’t mention all the Salman, Saif, and Amir and other Khans of the like) in the industry.. that is another issue.

So if you add the predominance of Bhangra in Indian movies, to the rise of Bollywood in the West (with Ashwariya Rai as Jury of Cannes festival in 200 – something) with all these (Punjabi) kids in the UK who grew up with their own music, mix all this together and you get a product called bhangra fused with hip hop… in the form of a guy called Rishi Rich

Now I think of him like a British Asian equivalent of Timbaland (sorry for misspelling, the dude on ALL the albums this year… you know who I am talking about). Rishi Rich came up with British Asian ‘bhangra’ artists who fused bhangra with hip hop and you get Juggy D and Jay Sean (he is a kind of an British Asian Justin Timberlake with songs like Aatif Aslam as by NB described in a previous post. Most of his songs are in English with few words of hindi. You can listen to his Stolen - Chura liya - song for which he became famous)

So all this to say that there are some strong demographic reasons why and how bhangra came to become quite popular with its own audience first and how it came to merge with hip hop (there is a Mary J Blige remix for one example out of many) especially in the UK.

I am afraid I do not possess right now the exact datas but are accessible if anyone REALLY cares (after my exams)

This – namely the whole rise of bhangra merging with current Western trends and its growing Western audience - is all very well illustrated when Universities in London host regular Bhangra Nights like the LSE Bhangra Crush or Kings Fuse nights as there themed party once a month or two, funded with the help of their Student Union. I have to admit that it was a bit of an overwhelming cultural shock for me to go to the first (of many later…) of these and see for the first time everyone doing the ‘Rail Gaddi – or train car’ you know when everyone queues up behind each other holding shoulders and jumping in circles and - being in’sync with the songs!

I would love to post some of the songs but lack of time and being at Uni when writing this prevents and frustrates me that I cannot share some of the finest tunes with you.

NB =– shame on you- as a SOAS student you are bound to know about all this! But great fun and DISTRACTING post

Especially since SOAS held an exhibition last September about this.


Yasmeen said...

@ NB - Oh and I completely forgot this and would certainly not need such a long exposé if I thought of that before.

You posted one of the most recent Punjabi MC song which actually remixes a very old folkoric bhangra song….

Just a reminder that Punjabi MC rose on the International music scene in 1998 with Mundian to Bachke Rahin (Beware of the boys).
Why was it such a HUGE success that they even toured in nightclubs in FRANCE… because the underlying beats to the song was night rider’s theme, something so familiar in anyone growing up in the 80’s psyche that it was bound to attract attention. Mixed with ‘exotic’ vibes and you get a hit. Punjabi MC is a UK based group, and Sikh.

Also this again shows how the availability of music software to anyone with a PC helped spread different sounds to anyone willing to listen or with a connection to the net. So I guess technology has a very important role in spreading ethnic music and fusions.

I should really study and not read this blog….


Ahsan said...

"I came across this video by way of forward the other day."

Nonsense. I know you watch "Britain's got talent" religiously, and have a ravenous and voracious appetite for its highlights, for which you scour the fields of YouTube with bated breath.

Ali said...

@ yasmeen:

i'm surprised you're shocked at NB's lack of "'desi' hip-ness" by virtue of being at SOAS. remember - HE NEVER SPENT ANY OF HIS PRECIOUS TIME THERE!!!! that's why i properly met him after we left soas! come to think of it, he never even spent any time at store street! him and his "cool gang" outside my place(s) of study!

I agree with all you've written, you propa know your ish.

@ everyone else:
But i'd like to add a couple things:
1. recently, you can see the rise of the 'bhangra' trend in mainstream indian television and bollywood - i call this a sort of "Return of the Diaspora". That follows from Yasmeen's demographic argument, that punjabi immigrants in the west, able to cultivate and innovate their folk music for whatever contemporary fusion purposes, becoming popular at that, and then (as mainstream India always does) the jumping on the bandwagon of the hottest 'fad' and milking it for all it's got. (Look at the indian comedy shows now, with Sidhu the punjabi host/judge; or random new bollywood movies with more and more punjabi/bhangra "fun dancing" songs with sikhs all up in that biyatch, example: the mauja mauja video with shahid kapoor and karrena kapoor)

2. Following from that "return of the diaspora" element, what subsequently is happenening, the cause of NB's fascination of the rise of bhangra as representing "south asian music/culture" - Minstrelisation. (remember blacks in america and the "minstrel shows"? remember watching "bamboozled" in soas all those years ago?) I fear that is what's happening to punjabis (read: sikhs). Yes I said it. Don't believe me? Go back and look again at mainstream Indian television comedy shows (with punjabi sikh comedians/judges acting a stereotypical fool) and the same bollywood movies where the sikh character is now degraded to either the funny-one-line spitting dumb ass of south asia, and/or the dancing/jumping/jovial/dhol playing contrived role. Mainstream Indian entertainment perpetuates damaging stereotypes. In this current hot spell of bhangra (the type from UK) being popular in the 'mother land', it will be very non-profitable to make a 'bhagat singh' type movie or drama serial where you can take a sikh seriously. No, the people now want a jazzy b/juggy d/YAZZY C (the hottest out of geneve) or whatever item number for their punjabi fix.

Warning: check the ingredients before we minstrelise ourselves.

Ali said...

i'd also like to add that not only can NB recite that punjabi underworld clip by heart, but he can recite it in a myriad of accents and tempos - so much so that he appears to be mumbling something without the listener realising he's spitting the punjabi underworld dialogue.
boht talented, mashallah.

Jasmine said...

You're wrong.

Bhangra, especially that performed by the Sikhs, is a highly technical art form. You need to do more research because if you call it nontechnical or tasteless, then you either are one of those people who classify the entire Punjabi language negatively, or you don't have an inkling of knowledge about the original, true bhangra you find in Indian Punjab.

All those people telling you that bhangra is "petting the dog, turning a lightbulb" are talking out of their ass. Real bhangra is a unique, highly technical and difficult art form that unfortunately does not make it to the bhangra videos all too often. But then again, how many times do you see bharatnatyam being done in Hindi songs or mujra to Urdu songs?

Learn more about the real bhangra, once you've gone past the candy-floss remix videos.

NB said...


Fair point - when talking about the tastelessness of it, or even the relative easiness of the dance moves, I should clarify that I am only talking about the Candy floss variety of Bhangra, i.e. that which is exported. I've no doubt that in its pure form it is extremely tasteful and technical as well, but as you can see from the videos (check out Arif Lohar), those elements do not appear to be what have led it to be exported overseas.