Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Originally a secular folk dance and music form of Punjabi origin, associated with the Baisakhi festival to celebrate the harvest, especially of wheat but (as its name indicates) also of hemp. In the late '70s bhangra had taken on other shadings and became a sophisticated popular music form, albeit one that has largely failed to break out of its Indian (and primarily Punjabi) audience. Baisakhi, unlike most Punjabi festivals (or melas, literally fairs) which are based on a lunar calendar, always falls on 13 April and is the start of the Punjabi New Year. It has an additional and special significance for Sikhs because the Khalsa was created on Baisakhi in 1699. Primarily associated with male performers, bhangra has a traditional female input called gidha or giddha, a folk dance performed solely by women. Popularized by gidha performers such as Mala, female singers such as Kamaljit Neeru encroached into bhangra's nigh-exclusive male preserve, especially during the '90s. Sung in Punjabi in its original folk form, its popular version was later adopted and adapted by Gujaratis and other Indian ethnic groups. The word bhangra is said to derive from 'bhang', a word used widely in India and abroad to mean cannabis, especially herbal cannabis, but earlier used more specifically, as B. R. Deodhar explained in Pillars Of Hindustani Music (Popular Prakashan, Bombay '93), to mean 'cannabis usually ground and mixed with milk, sugar and dry fruit'. Adding a further confusion in his Far East, 1945 (Batsford, republished as Indian Diary And Album, OUP '91), Cecil Beaton described the 'concoction of milk of almonds, rosewater, carminum nuts and eight ingredients of which hashish, or Bhang, was the principal'. ('One of the effects of Bhang,' he further reported, 'is that it makes everything appear humorous. Another is that strange things happen to one's sense of time.')

In the early '60s before wives and families joined them, the Indian community was predominantly male in Britain, and the folk-flavoured form of bhangra reminded them of home. Among early bhangra acts were Deedar Singh Pardesi (who had earned the title of Voice of Kenya through singing Punjabi folk songs and ghazals, a Northern Indian Muslim poetic form, originally of Persian origin, and who had something of a hit with 'Salma' in '67 on Philips), Mohinder Kaur Bhamra (the mother of Kuljit Bhamra), Bhujangy (a group which had hits with 'Peeni Ah Valeti' and 'Bhabiay Akh Lar Gayee', but after its split in '79 existed in various forms as ownership of the name was contested). ('Hits' in this context are what people remembered and requested at live appearances.) Pop-bhangra, an alternative label to differentiate it from the traditional roots, had emerged late '70s but swept Punjabi communities in Britain around '86--7 with followings especially in Southall in West London and in the Midlands, largely performed by amateur or semi-professional bands at weddings and other functions; even the best-known groups continue to perform at parties or weddings today. Gradually bhangra joined the repertoire of Indian cover bands whose core material mainly consisted of filmi (Indian film music). Similar trends could be observed in other Indian communities, e.g. in Canada. Alaap, based in Southall in Middlesex (West London), were one of the earliest groups to make their mark and the excitement of their music spread to a new audience in India. Press coverage at the time trumpeted bhangra as the voice of disaffected Asian youth; there was something in this, though it overplayed the sociological: bhangra did articulate their feelings about pressure from parents to conform to traditional ways while British society placed other demands on them, but it remained entertainment and dance music. In fact bhangra was important because it enabled Asian youth to express themselves culturally in Britain without opening themselves to charges of acculturalization or betrayal of their Indian blood. Alaap gave a practical demonstration of the form's development: their debut album focused on traditional Punjabi folk music; with the recruitment of producer Deepak Khazanchi the band's music transmogrified into an electric form using drum machines. The presence of one track on WOMAD Talking Book Vol. 4 -- Introduction To Asia brought a wider audience; then increased sophistication and showband tendencies came through, epitomized by Premi and Apna Sangeet. As had previously happened with filmi music with the advent of the cassette industry (still all the rage), bhangra albums became prime targets for shoddy counterfeiting. By '90--91 the form had become major popular music with British Asian youth, standing with Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston; a new era of respectability and experimentation emerged, exemplified by Alaap's '91 album, Chham Chham Nachdi Phiran, in part a collaboration with Asha Bhosle, one of India's greatest female playback vocalists (see Filmi); labelled by some new wave or fusion bhangra, it drew on American and West Indian forms such as funk, rap, reggae and ragga.

Vocalist Apache Indian (as Steve Kapur became) was British-born of Punjabi extraction; his crossover dance hall hit 'Move Over India' mixed elements of bhangra, rap, reggae and ragga and spoke to black and white youth in general, not just people of Indian or Punjabi origin; his signing to Island '92 heralded mainstream popularity among whites, blacks and Indians alike; however, while he has bhangra on his musical palette, his music owes much to Afro-Caribbean influences (he took his stage name from his Jamaican hero, Apache Supercat). The eight-piece Achnak, formed in '89, also built a following through live performances and their platinum-selling Nachurally and Panache albums. As bhangra increased in popularity, other groups emerged, including the Wolverhampton-based Sahotas, the Coventry-based Anaamika and, with their huge hit 'Pump Up The Bhangra', Pardesi. Bhangra has failed to break out of its Indian enclave worldwide; although there are strong bhangra scenes among ‚migr‚ Punjabi populations, it is largely seen as a Punjabi phenomenon even among other ethnic groups from the Indian subcontinent. Where there are traditional ethnic rivalries, for example, between Punjabis and Gujaratis, bhangra's crossover potential has been limited: it is a popular music, but lacks the universality of Indian film music in Indian hearts.