Ruling the Dance Floor

How two musicians of Indian origin popularised genre-bending South Asian-inspired music in the US

Rekha Malhotra. aka DJ Rekha, a major-league New York-based DJ, beatmatches Bhangra records. COURTESY OF NISHA SONDHE
01 September, 2010

A CLUTCH OF YOUNG VOLUNTEERS is pulling bindis out of plastic wrappers in a room that smells of chana masala in Washington DC. They are helping transform the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art for Bhangra Night, when museum-goers can have mehndi designs painted on their hands and sip on Indian-themed cocktails. There’s a bhangra dance troupe performing, too, but the reason everyone is here is DJ Rekha, the woman credited for almost single-handedly popularising bhangra in the United States. When the DJ herself is led into the room, there is a stir of excitement among the volunteers. It seems unlikely that the well-heeled guests gathering outside the Smithsonian in the steamy July evening will be pumping their arms in the air to DJ Rekha’s blend of bhangra and hip-hop later tonight, but that’s what they’re here to do.

Although many of the guests at Bhangra Night are wearing bright colours, Indian-inspired dresses and crisp sherwanis, few of them are of Indian origin. For the most part, they are young professionals with no connection to India beyond the plates of kebabs and samosas they are eating tonight. The Indian-American population is growing fast and becoming more confident, bringing with it a certain amount of awareness about all things India. Still, for most Americans, knowledge of India is limited to the Taj Mahal, the film Slumdog Millionaire, and, of course, Bollywood and bhangra. The credit for the latter two, many say, goes to DJ Rekha, who was born Rekha Malhotra, but likes to say that her “first name is DJ, second name is Rekha.”

When DJ Rekha first played bhangra in a New York club in 1997, it was unheard of in mainstream American culture, which makes her a sort of folk hero—both to South Asian immigrants and to music lovers. Thirteen years later, she still presides over the monthly Basement Bhangra parties at SOB’s in New York, but now she also travels all over the country to spin her tunes at parties, clubs and performance spaces. Her 2007 debut album, DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra, featured original music by Panjabi MC(Rajinder Singh rai), Bikram Singh, and hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean. “DJ Rekha has been a huge force for not only bhangra, but generally for Indian music in America,” says MC Yogi-G, who co-hosts the music radio programme GenerAsian Radio and started playing Bollywood and bhangra to crowds in Houston, Texas, in the mid-1990s. “And Indian music has been really exciting in the last ten years. It has opened up a whole new genre by mixing so many different styles.”

DJ Rekha’s personal style is more hip-hop than Indian. This evening, she is clad in a baggy t-shirt and jeans and lugging her laptop and other DJ equipment in a sagging backpack. When she is swept into the room of volunteers, she smiles reluctantly at the enthusiastic greeting. She doesn’t want to linger and talk—she makes it clear that she would rather start setting up for the gig than chat with her fans—but she is intercepted by Vinita Khanna, a young Indian-American medical worker who lives in Los Angeles. Khanna calls herself a bhangra fanatic; she tells DJ Rekha she’s been listening to her music for five years, and has seen her perform in three different US cities. She and her cousin, Ajay Batra, try to cajole the performer into wearing a bindi on her forehead, without much luck. “My efforts got kind of rejected,” Batra says good-humouredly. “I don’t think bindis are her thing.”

DJ Rekha has always been careful about resisting what she considers Indian clichés. She refuses to print images of Hindu goddesses or Bollywood stars on her Basement Bhangra flyers, for instance, even though they might be a draw because many Americans associate such imagery with India. But that doesn’t mean that culture isn’t important to her. She’s always hoped to promote a greater understanding about South Asia through the music she helped popularise in the West.

DJ Rekha was born to Pakistani immigrant parents in London 39 years ago. When she was three, her parents moved to the modest New York suburbs of Queens and then Long Island, where her father worked as an insurance salesman. DJ Rekha remembers playing her parents’ Bollywood music—a record called Film Hits 1972—in an effort to improve her Hindi. Indian music was all around them in their South Asian community, and she grew to like the music. “Unlike other desi friends, I never rebelled against either Bollywood or bhangra,” DJ Rekha says with pride. “Even when I was a teenager, I always stood by it—even when I was listening to every kind of American music, from Prince to The Beatles to early hip-hop.” She was so obsessive about music that when the Walkman first came out, she jokes that it was surgically attached to her head.

It didn’t take her long to imagine translating her love of music into something marketable. Along with two of her cousins who had moved to New York from Delhi as teenagers, she started playing desi music at friends’ parties soon after she graduated from college. Her cousins’ exposure to Indian pop combined with her own experience with hip-hop made them a great trio, she says, and they built up a reputation. For the most part, her male cousins did the technical stuff and the actual DJ-ing, but that changed when the cousins returned to India and Rekha went solo.

At first, her gender was an issue both at home and in the music world. As one of the few female DJs in New York, DJ Rekha faced resistance from clubs and promoters—not to mention from her own parents, who have said that they initially discouraged  her from playing music in public because they did not consider it appropriate for a girl. By the time her debut album was released, though, her parents had adapted. At the album release party in New York, the Malhotras bragged to the media about their daughter’s accomplishments.

At this summer’s Bhangra Night at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery in Washington DC, dancers let loose to DJ Rekha’s beats. MIRANDA KENNEDY FOR THE CARAVAN

IN THE LATE 1990S, bhangra had a bad reputation, even among the desi community, DJ Rekha says. Party promoters and club owners told her not to play it, saying it was associated with cab drivers, who are often of Indian and Pakistani origin in New York. She ignored them and found other venues. She says that she was always confident that the music would take off “because bhangra is inherently danceable, and people will always want to dance.”

To her, it was a political statement to make an effort to find an audience for an unpopular musical style. She drew a parallel between bhangra and early hip-hop, which many Americans generalised as ‘black music’ or ‘street music’: “It was the same kind of stereotyping that people made about hip-hop before it got popular,” she says.

DJ Rekha, who majored in Urban Studies at university and planned to work as a community activist, became something of an evangelist about the power of music to promote cross-cultural understanding. To her, playing classic bhangra at her early parties seemed like something bigger—it was also an effort to teach New York clubbers about India. Much has changed, though, since DJ Rekha’s first days of spinning bhangra beats, when she had a lot to prove. Now, she rarely plays pure pop bhangra anymore; instead, most of her tunes are blended with hip-hop and dancehall. “It’s not Daler Mehndi,” she says with a wry smile. “It is hard to be taken seriously in India when you say you do bhangra.”

DJ Rekha’s original mix of sounds led Time Out—New York to call her “the queen of bhangra and hip-hop fusion music.” Still, she resists the term ‘fusion,’ pointing out that her music is more organic than the simple fusing of East and West, since much of what Americans consider Western has been learned from the East, and vice versa. In the decade or so since DJ Rekha first merged classic bhangra and Bollywood with contemporary hip-hop and electronic dance music, it’s become almost standard for hip-hop producers to sample bhangra. All the way back in 2003, the hip-hop mega-star Jay-Z rhymed over a remix of Panjabi MC’s ‘Mundian to Bach Ke’ in the ‘Beware’ track on his album, The Blueprint, making it a huge international hit. DJ Rekha says that collaboration made it clear that bhangra could appeal to a wide swath of people. “Everyone’s always looking for new sounds, and the Indian-American population has become large in influence, if not in actual size. It’s only natural that hip-hop producers got exposed to it and heard something they liked.”

Over the past decade, music inspired by bhangra and Bollywood tunes has exploded into American pop culture. MC Yogi-G points out that even though many new American listeners do not even know the difference between bhangra and Bollywood, they don’t care: “They just find the sounds and beats new and exciting,” he says. In the past ten years, he says he’s witnessed “an increased excitement level” among non-Indians for Indian music. It is now possible to take Bollywood dance lessons in practically every major American city. Over a hundred people show up for bhangra dance lessons at DJ Rekha’s “Basement Bhangra” parties each month. She even teaches college-level courses on Bollywood and bhangra at New York University, and last year, the US consulate invited her to visit India as a cultural ambassador.

DJ Rekha is just one musician on a roster of South Asians who have influenced mainstream American and British music. Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones—both daughters of Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar—are evidence of the South Asian community’s musical success in the US. M.I.A., the British-Sri Lankan musician who melds East and West in her music, gained widespread international recognition for the songs she wrote for the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.

INDIAN-ORIGIN ELECTRONICA ARTIST Karsh Kale (pronounced Kursh Kah-Lay) has his own fusion style, and unlike DJ Rekha, he celebrates the term. In many ways, Kale’s musical life runs parallel to DJ Rekha’s, but the end products of each are quite different. Both were born in England and raised between Queens and Long Island. In the mid-1990s both moved their music to Manhattan, where they were able to engage with New York City’s vibrant music scene and make genre-bending South Asian-inspired music. That’s where the similarities end, though.

Kale, a tabla player, was one of the earliest producers of the music style known as Asian Massive or Indo-fusion—initiated in the UK—and brings together Indian classical music, rock, jazz and hip-hop. In the 15 years or so that he’s been on the scene, Kale has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians: jazz great Herbie Hancock, experimental trip hop artist DJ Spooky, Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, and the British Punjabi electronica artist Talvin Singh, to name a few. He remains open to experimentation: Kale’s fourth album, produced together with Anoushka Shankar and featuring Sting on one of the tracks, incorporated a softer Bollywood sound. More recently, Kale wrote the soundtrack for the Farhan Akhtar film, Karthik Calling Karthik, with his longtime collaborators, the Delhi-based group, MIDIval Punditz.

Kale says that his hybrid trans-border music grew partly out of a desire to access both sides of his upbringing—Indian and American—and partly out of a rebellion against bhangra music. He came onto the New York club scene just when DJ Rekha was popularising bhangra in the late 1990s. Kale had an aversion to so-called desi music, and such clubs intensified it for him. “With that early bhangra stuff, it was as though you had to step out of your world in order to come into this one,” he says. “It was very insular, almost inbred. There wasn’t anything new happening.” Kale recounts a story of getting turned away at the door of one bhangra club because he was with two non-desis, who were informed that firangis weren’t welcome.

That experience stayed with him. Although Kale says he “had more of a problem with the scene than with the music itself,” the desi club scene in New York and London hardened his resolve to “define a new road,” as he puts it. He was determined to create music using mystical Indian elements and Bollywood-inspired sounds which would appeal to non-Indians as well as South Asian immigrants. It’s the kind of music that MC Yogi-G says was embraced by non-desis, and helped fuel GenerAsian Radio. Kale says that at his own concerts, he loved looking out from the stage to see all kinds of people—clad in army pants and kurtas; in dresses and bindis. His music was not an attempt to import a pure Indian sound to the States but, rather, a cultural approximation of his experience of growing up an Indian immigrant in the US.

Karsh Kale performing at Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco in July 2007, in front of an audience of 20,000. COURTESY OF JAZZ BHANGRA

Because Kale was the only Indian at his school on Long Island, he made an identity for himself as “the longhaired music guy,” rather than “the Indian kid.” Although he worked hard to assimilate, he says he always felt a nagging desire to come to terms with his Indian roots. “I wanted to explain and define my identity,” he says. “Music seemed the natural way to do it, because music makes me feel at home wherever I am.”

Kale’s parents started teaching him the tabla and drums when he was only five years old. His father, a doctor in Long Island, was himself a music lover, and when their Indian friends came over, the night always ended with everyone singing old Hindi and Marathi movie tunes.

Kale’s uncle told him to cut his hair, get serious, and get himself a real career, but his father was more liberal. When Kale told his father that he wanted to be a professional musician, he admitted to his son that he would have been a musician himself if he could have. Kale’s father grew up in an India where it was almost impossible to break into the music industry without connections. Now he saw that there were many more opportunities for his son in the US. After Kale started performing, his father took it up himself: he started singing Marathi songs at public community events on Long Island.

With the encouragement of his parents, Kale started playing in jazz and marching bands when he was as young as nine. After band practice, he’d pick up the other players’ instruments and teach himself how to play them. As he grew up, he experimented with the keyboard, the cello, the santoor, and even the sarod. Soon after he discovered electronic music, he started trying to combine it with Indian sounds. “Indian classical has an elegant way of describing and evoking emotions, and I wanted to apply it in other contexts,” he says. To be able to do that, he first had to learn traditional techniques and then teach himself to break them down. Kale still has recordings of the ‘fusion music’ that he made when he was 15—though he says, “I wouldn’t play them for anyone now. You have to learn from your mistakes.”

When Kale moved to New York to study music theory at New York University, he brought with him what he thought was the world’s first set of electronic tablas, which he’d built himself. Only later did he realise that elsewhere around the world, other musicians were doing something very similar at just about the same time. In London, the band State of Bengal was on the cutting edge of the British Asian music scene, mixing Bengali and Western street styles, with rappers, DJs, dancers and musicians. In Delhi, MIDIval Punditz had their own sets of electronic tablas. When Kale met these musicians, he was amazed to realise that they were influenced by the same range of music as he was, and it made him certain that  “we were all part of a musical and cultural evolution. It was bound to happen, this bringing together of two sounds.”

When Kale first started performing, he says, “We were making a statement about who we were, as immigrants, by putting together a diversity of musical tastes. I was revolting against the idea that if you are Indian, the music you make is restricted to the people who grow up listening to Hindi film music.” Now, though, he points out, there are dozens of American rock bands and DJs—some Indian-origin, some not—who have adopted Indian classical, Bollywood and bhangra sounds into their music.

“Young people who come to my shows now don’t consider it exotic,” Kale says. “It’s not about India. It’s the sound of Queens or San Francisco or wherever they’ve grown up. For them, it’s as though this music has always been around.” He sees that as proof of how far the Indian-American music scene has come since the days when DJ Rekha began spinning bhangra. “I don’t have to prove so much to the world about India anymore,” Kale says. “What started as a style of music has turned into an identity, a culture, and I don’t have to try so hard to get attention. I can step back and work toward being a better musician.”