It was Panjabi MC’s surprise Top 5 hit Mundian To Bach Ke that heralded the change in attitude earlier this year, with its Punjabi lyrics, insistent samples from Busta Rhymes and the TV series Knight Rider.
In its wake, mainstream stars like Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Craig David and Ricky Martin have been queuing up to hire bhangra producers such as Rishi Rich to remix their tracks.
“There is a buzz going on,” says Bally Sagoo, the self-styled Godfather of Bhangra, “and that’s great, but it won’t last forever."
Bally’s ground-breaking Tum bin Jiya won him accolades similar to those currently landing at the feet of new sensations Juggy D, Jay Sean and Panjabi MC.
“You’re not going to see Indian guys with turbans jumping up and down on Top of the Pops singing in Hindi,” he says, “because at the end of the day, bhangra is a traditional music for Asian people. The mainstream will take the fizz out of it..”
Elderly Sikhs encouraged their
children to play at bhangra gigs
“Everyone wants to have the new ethnic eastern fusion on their tracks right now. But after they get fed up, they’ll move onto something else. We’ll still be here doing our thing,” he says.
Bhangra developed out of the traditional rural Punjabi rhythms that migrants from the Indian subcontinent to Britain in the 1950s and 60s listened to in their communities. Many of the first bhangra bands – like Alaap and Heera – cut their teeth performing on the Punjabi wedding circuit.
But despite selling hundreds of thousands of records through informal (and non-chart retail) channels, they were ignored by the mainstream. The next generation of Asian DJs began innovating the sound as they mixed it with hip hop, r’n’b and garage they were hearing at nightclubs and parties.
That sound crossed the Atlantic to the US where it was popularised to a huge global audience through tracks like Missy Elliot’s Get your Freak on. Such bhangra-inspired hits crossed back over the Atlantic and in turn re-energised the UK scene.
According to John Pandit of the pioneering Indian rap group Asian Dub Foundation, the new bhangra scene’s grassroots structure and global connections are enduring strengths. But he is still worried that the latest bhangra explosion could just be a flash in the pan.
“They talked about the Asian underground five or ten years ago and not many artists came through,” he says matter-of-factly. “Remixes are great but they don’t make for a sustainable movement.”
“Everyone wants to have the new ethnic eastern fusion on their tracks right now. But after they get fed up, they’ll move onto something else"
self-styled Godfather of Bhangra
“They involve a one-off payment to a producer to mix in a certain style, and that style can change. It could be Middle Eastern next year, or Soca the year after or Salsa the year after that. Unless there’s proper support on the ground and bands get recognition in the mainstream, it can be a fad,” he said.
How to maintain traditional Punjabi culture and language is a big debate in bhangra circles but John Pandit does not see assimilation in purely black and white terms.
“Of course it’s a danger,” he responds. “I just think that eventually all types of music get incorporated into the mainstream.”
“There is a worry that things could be diluted, in that we’re not taken seriously until Madonna takes a bhangra band out on tour with her. But any recognition is better than none,” he says.
As Bhangra did not find backers in the initial days it was forced to develop independent means of production in terms of studios, distribution networks, right down to selling records out of their corner shops, Pandit says.
This do-it-yourself culture developed partly through the daytime bhangra gigs of the 1980s that sometimes over-protective parents were happy to allow their children to go to.
As the popular bhangra DJ Bobby Friction recently said, “It’s bhangra day-timers that took Punjabi music out of a particularly British Sikh ghetto and sold it as the sound of British Asia to young Gujaratis, Bengalis and all the other Indian communities here.”
"I just think that eventually all types of music get incorporated into the mainstream"
Indian Dub Foundation
John Pandit agrees that economic globalisation has created a pop smorgasbord but says there are still regional issues. “In east London, it’s a different community, a Bangladeshi community” he says. “Perhaps drum and bass is more important than bhangra here, and perhaps Hindi film music is better understood than bhangra.”
Above all, says Bally Sagoo, there is an age old problem that has not gone away: “We don’t get songs onto national radio or television because of prejudice and racism,” he says.
“When it comes to the language issue, Radio 1 or CD:UK won’t play Indian songs alongside Robbie Williams, even though they might be selling a lot more,” he says.
In so much as Bobby Friction has a regular bhangra show on Radio 1, this is not entirely accurate, but Bally is in a position to know the mainstream well. ISHQ, the record label he founded in the 1990s has successfully shepherded new bhangra talent like Rishi Rich and Panjabi MC into the charts.
“Panjabi’s track was the perfect vehicle for crossing over to the mainstream because of the sound,” Bally says, “and because of the Busta Rhymes sample. It wouldn’t have got into the charts without that. It’s a very hard aggressive sound.”