Basement Bhangra CD: a review

People in New York tonight might want to stop by the release party for the Basement Bhangra CD, which is officially coming out today. It’s been 10 years of Basement Bhangra nights at S.O.B.’s — and for all that time DJ Rekha has held it down on the ones and twos. (It’s also, coincidentally, been 10 years since the first ‘Mutiny’ party, and the old gang are coming out of hiatus in a couple of weeks for their own celebration — with guests Talvin Singh, and Shaair and Func.)

Rekha’s approach here is to take some familiar Bhangra anthems (like Lehmber Hussainpuri’s “Tin Cheejha”) and mix them up with solid Bhangra tracks most people probably won’t know (Sunil Sehgal’s “Fakir”). The “Basement Bhangra anthem” that opens the CD is really cool — respect to Wyclef Jean (“Mr. International”) for contributing an original rap, and Queens-based Bikram Singh is as usual great (he was also responsible for the absurdly catchy “American Jugni” song a couple of years ago). Incidentally, you can listen to the “Basement Bhangra Anthem” here.

Many well-known remix masters are represented here, including Panjabi MC, DJ Sanj, Dr. Zeus, and Tigerstyle. There are also a couple of tracks from Hard Kaur, a British Punjabi pop star who has been kind of omnipresent for the past couple of years (see “Glassy”). But alongside some staples there are also some surprises, including a track by the drum ‘n bass influenced Dhol Foundation, as well tracks from producers I hadn’t heard of (Ominous DJs).

I should note that this CD isn’t by itself a “definitive” statement of where Bhangra music is today — but that probably wouldn’t be possible to do in a single hour of music anyway. In the liner notes, Rekha describes it instead as a “cross-section of a living musical culture that connects New York City to the Punjab,” and that sounds about right to me. Some people, including commenters on Cicatrix’s earlier post on this, have criticized the selection of songs here, but I actually think the choices are quite good. Some hard core bhangra downloaders listeners may be tired of “Tin Cheejha,” but I suspect most people — including readers of Sepia Mutiny — haven’t even heard of Lehmber Hussainpuri (though they may have heard his hit song). For them, the Basement Bhangra CD is going to be like a one-hour living room Bhangra party to go.

And doesn’t everybody need one of those every once in a while?

More reviews: here and here. The Basement Bhangra CD is available from Amazon.

40 thoughts on “Basement Bhangra CD: a review

  1. Good thing tigerstyle is on it- missing them would have been unconscionable cos I think they’re the best thing to happen to bhangra in the last 8-10 years. Thanks- will check it out.

  2. Good thing tigerstyle is on it- missing them would have been unconscionable cos I think they’re the best thing to happen to bhangra in the last 8-10 years. Thanks- will check it out.

    Yes, those guys are absolute wizards (though I wish more of their stuff were legally available in the U.S.). I saw them when they came to Basement Bhangra a couple of years ago — amazing.

  3. “cross-section of a living musical culture that connects New York City to the Punjab,”

    Although these songs have been ‘tweaked’ by New York, I’d say it’s more a “cross-section of a living musical culture that connects THE UNITED KINGDOM to the Punjab”, because with only a few exceptions, most bhangra releases come from England (and recently Scotland). Including many songs on this cd.

  4. I agree with Amitabh above.

    cross-section of a living musical culture that connects New York City to the Punjab

    More like connects NYC to the Punjab with a long stopover in the UK. Overall, it certainly seems like she has done a fair job of connecting the dots to paint a picture of the current bhangra-scape. Good enough to be passed on in the Bhangra 101 class.

  5. The British dominance is definitely nothing new, though on this CD I think Rekha made somewhat of an effort to bring in some local talents — Sunil Sehgal (Jersey) and Bikram Singh (Queens) in particular come to mind. Dhol maestro Dave Sharma (aka Sharmaji), who is well-known to several of us bloggers, also plays dhol on the two original tracks. And there’s also Toronto based DJ Sanj…

    You could also argue that the British hip hop/Bhangra fusion is at least partly inspired by New York after all — though not desi culture in New York — in that it takes musical ideas (and of course, samples) from hip hop.

    (As to why the Brit-Asians are so much more productive than U.S. desis, there are a thousand theories — people have mentioned greater ghettoization in Birmingham/midlands, greater suburbanization/dispersal in the U.S., and maybe also the fact that so many 2nd gen desis in the U.S. are on the “professional” track, too busy trying to get into med school to think of trying to make money writing songs in Punjabi.)

  6. (though I wish more of their stuff were legally available in the U.S.)

    Amardeep you can buy a lot of stuff online (including Ominous DJs) from punjab2000.com

    One thing I feel bad about….back in the early 90s (when UK bhangra was still widely available in Edison and Jackson Heights) I used to buy a lot of cassettes as opposed to CDs. That was to save money. But over the course of the years, a lot of those cassettes (which I later realised were CLASSICS) got lost or destroyed, whereas I still have all the CDs I ever bought, still in good shape (towards the mid 90s I switched over to buying only CDs). Unfortunately, a lot of those late 80s/early 90s releases are not available anymore on CD OR cassette, even in the UK. I’ve lost some great music, which now only exists in my head. There was one release by someone (or a group) called Robb, and the name of the album was State of Mind or something…it was SO good I still dream about it. I haven’t heard those songs in 12 years at least. That being said, I was lucky to buy some of those early releases on CD (like Midland Boys to Men) and I’m happy about that.

    Anyway, genuine UK bhangra (except for the most major of releases like Sukshinder Shinda and a few others) hasn’t really been available in the US for at least the past 10-12 years now…because there was such a small, niche audience for it here, and it cost the merchants an arm and a leg to import it…by the time they put a small mark-up on it in order to make a little profit, it was priced out of the market.

  7. Anyway, genuine UK bhangra (except for the most major of releases like Sukshinder Shinda and a few others) hasn’t really been available in the US for at least the past 10-12 years now…

    I’ll put it this way…I heard Mundian Ton Bachke in summer of ’99 when I stopped in London for a few days…it was huge in desi circles but nowhere else. Few in America knew it. Years later it blew up in Europe and the US. Well, can you imagine…there are dozens of songs of that calibre and quality that have come out before and since then, and most don’t make the radar of people living here, who would LOVE them if only they were aware of them.

    I also feel that the UK bhangra industry should have marketed itself better in India and Pakistan, starting right from the 80s on. Again, people would have loved that music if only they knew about it. Now it’s quite common for Shinda, Jassi Sidhu and others to travel to India to make their videos and promote their albums, but a huge quantity of great music stretching about 15 years never made it out of the UK.

    Also guys, check out punjabisongs.com

  8. I heard Mundian Ton Bachke in summer of ’99 when I stopped in London for a few days…it was huge in desi circles but nowhere else. Few in America knew it. Years later it blew up in Europe and the US.

    My experience was different. I remember the month and year Legalised came out here on the west coast (November ’98) because we were playing it at campus parties. I was a party animal then and I can assure you that 3 tracks from that album were being played on loop at every gig I went to (San Jose State, Santa Clara, Berkeley, Davis and Bhangra Blowout). Plus, that was the Napster era and Legalised was definitely file shared around the country. In fairness though, I knew of this album before it came out because I was not only watching the release dates in the UK via messageboards but I bought PMC’s other albums upon release (Souled Out, 100% Proof, Grass Roots, Mirza Part Two) In fact, in the Grass Roots album was an advert for a forthcoming album called Steel Bangle which was later retitled Legalised (I’ve yet to hear the real, 2005 released Steel Bangle). I was a freak man; I would supply club DJs, desi and non-desi bhangraheads, with some first releases and great tracks from obscure albums.

    I am in the same predicament as you with respect to the cassette & CD conversion. My cassettes are gold, GOLD I tell you. And one box of my collection is missing in action! Cassettes in those days were $2.50 or $3.00 and my rule of thumb was if one track out of every six had a nice hook, chorus, or beat, it was money well spent. I even have a rich collection of one track wonders on blank cassettes that I recorded off buddies. If there was a calamity in my house, my boxes of cassettes would be the first thing I’d take. Not because they are priceless but because they simply can’t be bought again. And my cassettes aren’t just limited to bhangra; I have old school Asa Singh Mastana, Surinder Kaur, Hazara Singh Ramta (he’s a riot), lot’s ghazals, Mohd Rafi, and sitar albums. I can’t wait for when I have kiddies and take them through each album, track by track, and tell them the stories that go with the music of my more bustling days.

    A redeeming rumor is that there are shops in Birmingham that still stock the old cassettes and if you can arrange a date with the old studios like Roma Music Bank and Nachural Records, they have at least one copy of everything in a music bank. So I’ve heard. Other than a trip to the UK, the best way to replenish your stash is to befriend a DJ!

    genuine UK bhangra (except for the most major of releases like Sukshinder Shinda and a few others) hasn’t really been available in the US for at least the past 10-12 years now

    “Genuine UK bhangra” has always had a hard time selling in the US because of the relative inaccessibility of UK garage and DnB for most US Punjabi’s. I say most because I know the east coast has been more warm to experimentation like raggamuffin/bhangramuffin because reggae has deep roots on east coast. I think that the east coast has more urban consumers of bhangra which is fitting because UK bhangra originates from an urban culture. In the west coast, there isn’t much bhangra being played in San Francisco or LA; the ears are in the surrounding communities where there aren’t rich DJ cultures that would bring forward the DnB, the garage and other experimentations. What has done well on the west coast is the pindoo stuff but what do you expect when the epicenter of Punjabi life here is the Central Valley- tawdry FUBU apparel and pindoo music! Wah! Kya combination!

    Midland Boyz were dope!

  9. For them, the Basement Bhangra CD is going to be like a one-hour living room Bhangra party to go. And doesn’t everybody need one of those every once in a while?

    Yes. Party at the Professors?

  10. NVM, you can also convert your cassettes to CD (using specific hardware). My parents did this with their cassettes, and my dad did this with all his (now classic) old skool Punjabi and filmi records. Then they backed up all those CDs and put them in a safe deposit box (really). There’s a little loss of quality because, depending on how you’re doing it, you’re moving a generation out from the original. He still has the originals, but he realized that he might lose them from repeated play over time.

    I, too, remember Punjabi MC. He was def. blasting in Punjabi households on the West Coast, and I can say that as a kid who was NOT on the party circuit (too young) and who didn’t physically live near very many Punjabis at the time.

  11. converting cassettes to cds is quite easy. just take a regular walkman style cassette player, and use a male-male cable (cheap, less than $10) to connect the output (headphone) port of the player to the line-in on a computer. you can then use various kinds of software to convert the sound input to mp3. you can get arbitrarily good quality by increasing the bit rate of your mp3s, i am sure.

  12. I also feel that the UK bhangra industry should have marketed itself better in India

    I disagree. If UK artists start making music for the Indian market they will lose their edge. At the end of the day, most UK bhangra music is made by people in their back room, in their garage, for the clubs and radio stations, and it’s all about their experience of being a desi in England. It’s informed by the music they hear around them, mashing up styles together, bringing it all together, the bass lines, the tumbi, the dhol, it’s got that sharp edge, it’s a music of the streets. Market it to India and it will have to speak to the Indian market, being very ‘pop’ and even Bollywood-ised.

  13. I disagree. If UK artists start making music for the Indian market they will lose their edge. At the end of the day, most UK bhangra music is made by people in their back room, in their garage, for the clubs and radio stations, and it’s all about their experience of being a desi in England. It’s informed by the music they hear around them, mashing up styles together, bringing it all together, the bass lines, the tumbi, the dhol, it’s got that sharp edge, it’s a music of the streets. Market it to India and it will have to speak to the Indian market, being very ‘pop’ and even Bollywood-ised.

    I agree 100%. Sukshinder Shinda used to make badass music before he started trying to appeal to the Indian market. Now its catchy but generic. What I meant was, it would have been great if the awesome music that was already made (as you described so eloquently) also had been available in India all those years. People would have loved it.

  14. might wanna check out the intunes store also…songs are available there and if u r looking to get the whole cd, you might save $$$$…

  15. Ruby (#15)…GREAT article. I really feel the whole British bhangra scene, especially in the 80s and early 90s, has been underanalysed and underappreciated for what it truly was…a youthquake. The bhangra scene continues, with some great music being made even today…but those heady days will remain unique in diasporic history. No other 2nd gen community (to my knowledge) has taken its parents music and gone so far with it, as the Sikhs of the U.K. did. Truly made it relevant for their lives in their adopted home, on every level.

    By the way, best bhangra song ever….JUGNI by Malkit Singh (on a Bally Sagoo album)…one album I was smart enough to get on CD and still have to this day.

    Another great song…Giddha Pa Nikkiye by Premi….don’t think you can find this anymore, not 100% sure.

  16. .I heard Mundian Ton Bachke in summer of ’99 when I stopped in London for a few days…it was huge in desi circles but nowhere else. Few in America knew it. Years later it blew up in Europe and the US.

    Funny, that song and a few by M.I.A. are the only songs by desi artists that get played in parties here. It’s a very amusing experience to be in the middle of a frat party and then suddenly hear Punjabi MC.

  17. It’s a very amusing experience to be in the middle of a frat party and then suddenly hear Punjabi MC.

    Try being in an all-white, “beautiful people” setting in the Meatpacking District in NYC, and then have that song come on…it’s awesome (comes on less often the past year or two though). In Brooklyn, I heard Arabic and Spanish versions of that song.

  18. NVM- i’m amazed how much our tastes converge! I too have a ridiculous collection of old-skool (Ramta, Surinder Kaur, Mastana, etc) cassettes. Some were recorded off the radio when the songs were played on the daily 15 mins of Punjabi music Singapore radio used to have, while others were lying around the house from my sisters’ purchases. My wife often wonders what I see/hear in these songs, and it’s hard to explain to her the joy I get from singing along, especially cos some of the metaphors/similes are so “pind punjab”-specific. But, she’s coming around slowly :-) My all-time fave is Mastana’s “Balle ni Punjab di Sher Bachiye”.

    My memory of the UK-India bhangra scene began with Alaap in the early 80s, and then moved to Heera and Apna Sangeet in the 90s. They were all the rage in the wedding parties in Singapore in those days. My wife brought some of my old cassettes back this summer, and it’s been a joy singing along to their boliyan while driving to work! I found some MP3s and WMAs of these older songs on an Indian site a few years ago (2002?) and managed to snag a few.

    My story of bhangra diffusion: I heard Malkit Singh’s “Hey Jamalo” when I visited my pind in 1989, but it only became big elsewhere a few years later.

  19. My all-time fave is Mastana’s “Balle ni Punjab di Sher Bachiye”.

    harminder, this is one of my favorites (hat tip to Amitabh’s “Jugni” nod as well!), and it’s my mom’s cell phone ring tone :) She bought the Mastana compendium on CD last time she was in Punjab, and it is wicked awesome.

    It’s funny that with the growing scholarship around NYC-bhangra there isn’t as much that’s been done on UK bhangra. Or maybe we just aren’t as tuned into it?

  20. I’m loving reading about y’alls love affair with the music of the harvest (NVM’s trip down memory lane especially), given that aside from a few Oriental Star cassettes and a very worn out Patel Rap tape, I grew up and have lived most of my life totally ignorant of desi music. I wish I could fondly recall some warm chestnut about going to college parties in the Bay or feeling the exciting novelty of hearing a tumbi beat at a swanky NYC party, but the closest I can come to is, as a life long headbanger, this anecdote about discovering Chamkila and other sangeet stalwarts from the days of yore a few years back.

  21. I heard Malkit Singh’s “Hey Jamalo”

    Until 5 minutes ago I thought the song was “Dahi Jamalo” as in “make some yogurt.” I always figured it was a double entendre …

    I have no idea what Hey Jamalo means …

  22. Do you any of you peoples know Jasjeet Thind?

    Yes, but not personally. He was a Cornell guy who created a great website that compiled all things bhangra- history, culture, dance traditions, album reviews, links. I think he even had an on-site mixer in WAV format that I used to play around with. There were several bhangra-themed sites that popped up but his was one of the few that was regularly maintained and I thank him for it. Cool first name too.

    The web quickly became the best choice out of many poor alternatives to get music information because the record labels had a firm choke hold on the supply of information. They would even send out false rumors for albums that never existed. The middlemen- distributors right down to shopkeepers- were a useless pack of pirates. Right from the conception of an album, there was someone, somewhere in the process salivating at the thought of siphoning off future returns. The shop that I went to in Berkeley made some change off piracy and when burning technology became available, they made a killing by collecting the best tracks onto three-disc compilations and selling them back to the distributors they bought from. All of it illegal of course.

    DJ Drrrty Poonjabi, I’m glad you mentioned Oriental Star because they certainly deserve praise for being an honest label and staying true to the artistic endeavor. I knew you were gonna mention the Patel Rap =) I’ve got the Patel Rap on tape too; I think mine is from the Exxtra Hot series. I don’t have the proper plugins to load the audio but I remember it going a little something like th-th-this:

    Good morning sir vut can I do? vutever you vant is up to you. Doesn’t really matter how small the amount, vutever it is, no discount!

    Yes, no? Hope so.

    My wife often wonders what I see/hear in these songs

    harminder, every now and then I play one of my many old favorites and I wonder the same thing =) Who cares! I don’t want to over think why it makes me feel good.

    While singing a boliyan to work is definitely good for your BP, my vocal chords would puncture easily, so I am a steering wheel dholi. Balle?

  23. DJ Drrty Poonjabi, I thought I was the only poonjabi headbanger ever. This is tough to handle.

  24. Camille and dravidian lurker: thanks for the sound advice in #11 and 12. I’ll be doing it as soon as find my missing box.

  25. I’ve got the Patel Rap on tape too; I think mine is from the Exxtra Hot series.

    I used to have that too….there’s an excellent drinking song on that tape, I can’t remember exactly how it goes…

    You know what cassette I found recently buried under tons of other stuff? DHOLBLASTERS. Damn that shit was dope. There’s a Safri song ‘Mele Mittran De’ which rocks, and also ‘Lus Lus Karde Ang’…I love it. Plus a couple of great boliyan. Whatever happened to Narinder Winnie, the big fat dholi??

  26. Clueless, you should know that Drrty’s music knowledge is All Areas. Favorite metal show: Metallica/Pantera ’94 (yeah I’m that old). Drrty, I owe you an email friend.

    Can anyone suggest a bhangra primer for the uninitiated? Maybe a list of must have albums/artists to get a newbie started?

  27. Rah, you are too kind. I really stopped listening to new music after the last Mr. Bungle album. How you been, home-fresh?

    Here’s a couple I thought of off the top of my head. My relationship with these tracks seem to be that of contradiction: though I normally would react to the following themes with apathy or distaste, some intangible haecceity, maybe the driving dhol beat or the gruff, impassioned boliyan in each song, just make me unable to resist.

    Tigerstyle Feat. Bikram Singh – Taakre (This track reinvents the polemic. I had goosebumps the first time I heard it. By end of the first chorus, this lifelong pacifist was ready to raise up a glassy and bandook and kick some kundi.)

    Karan MC – Apna Punjab (A patriotic banger that can bring pangs of emotion to the most hardened and deracinated anti-nationalist.)

    Lehmber – Disco Warrior (This track is just f*cking killer. Funk-rock collides with the desh. My favorite bhangra track ever.)

    Send me that email and I’ll hook it up, gangsta style.

  28. DJ Drrrty:

    I once compiled a big list on this site at the request of a commenter named Gal Sun, of really good songs of just the past few years…can’t find the list now…it’s really hard to distill a huge amount of music stretching almost 20 years into a few favorite tracks, but off the top of my head, some songs I’ve loved (as a fan and also critically) would include (in no particular order, but with an emphasis on older stuff):

    Londonon Patola (Jazzy B) Dhol Mere Yaar Da (Apna Sangeet) Dhola Ve Dhola (Satrang) Darshan (B21) Jugni (Malkit Singh) Mere Yaar Ne (XLNC) Dupatta Tera Satrang Da (Surjit Bindrakhia…not strictly UK bhangra) Mera Yaar Vajaave Dhol (Apna Sangeet) Kala Kala Munda (Surinder Rattan) All the Mirza tracks by Punjabi MC The entire album ‘Unda Da Influence’ by Dr. Zeus The entire album ‘Word Is Born’ by Specialist and Tru-Skool G.T.Road

    Love this song (the video isn’t great, the song is great).

    Another great one.

    Thought this song was awesome.

    I’ll stop now…that’s just a sample…I know I’m overlooking a lot of great songs.

  29. Absolute classic…with a devastating refrain…India’ch akkhan jo ladaiyan mere naal si, tun bhul gai vilayat vich aake…(Afer coming to this foreign land, you’ve forgotten how you flirted with me in India).

  30. OK, sorry to be such a bhangra geek…but that last song I just linked to has it all…great music…80s glam…beautiful Punjabi lyrics…pathos and emotion…tangential references to deep cultural motifs like Heer Ranjha…AND it incorporates the immigrant experience as well as the new, permanent, yet still foreign surroundings (Soho Road, Midlands)…WOW. Just needed more dhol.

  31. Hey all..

    Not sure if this thread is still running but I noticed there’s a couple references to an original version of Patel Rap. I used to have the tape too and it was a top, top song! A few years ago I thought I’d be clever and use my new hi-fi’s tape deck [along with MMJB] to copy it over to my PC so I had a permanent ‘digital’ copy.. Unfortunately the tape got caught in the deck, and ruined both the tape and the hi-fi in the process! Long story short, you wouldn’t happen to have (or know where I can buy / download) a copy?

    Cheers,

    Kev