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Interviews

DJ Rekha

Bringing the Beat Back

DJ Rekha “No immigrant parent wants their child to do art,” says Rekha Malhotra. “It’s not stable.”

Still, ten years and counting into a monthly residency at a New York City club, capped off with her own mix CD and coverage by the likes of CNN, NPR, and the New York Times, DJ Rekha finds that her parents – after what she describes as “a few panic points” – have come to terms with her career.

Ironically, it was her mother who introduced her to the music that changed her life. She returned from a trip to London (where Rekha was born) with a tape of bhangra music, which had been surging in popularity in the UK’s South Asian community in the ‘80s. The Punjabi folk music, based on the syncopated beats of the dhol (a large, double-sided drum) and traditionally played at festive occasions, was updated with synthesizers and pop elements; it resonated with the funk and hip-hop that had already caught her ear.

Music, for Rekha, has always been a family affair. She learned how to DJ along with two cousins in New York City, and when they moved to India, she took over their amateur tag-team sets, eventually becoming a community radio DJ while studying at Queens College. In 1997, she opened for Toronto’s bhangra/hip-hop posse, Punjabi by Nature, at the SoHo club Sounds of Brazil (S.O.B.’s) and drew in a big enough crowd of friends and supporters that they asked her back to start her own night; she hasn’t left since Basement Bhangra began.

Rekha has since become such an authority on the music she has given lectures about it at NYU. As a DJ and promoter, she has presided over an evolution. Over the phone from her New York home, the night before jetting off to a DJ gig in Mumbai, she recalls: “When we started, we had a real downtown New York scene – a lot of artist/activists. There used to be a happy hour around the block, so we started getting a lot of suited professionals, and then kids from the outer boroughs started coming, and we’ve seen a proliferation of bhangra dance teams from colleges. Five years into the party, we added a dance lesson, which has its own little following. A larger awareness of South Asian culture has brought a really diverse mix of people who are just looking for interesting things to do.”

The music itself has evolved: back in 1997, the “Asian Underground” from the UK, represented by acts who merged bhangra and other South Asian styles with big beat and drum’n’bass (Transglobal Underground, Talvin Singh, etc.) was surging with critical acclaim and cult popularity, but the music proved too far ahead of its time for the mainstream.

According to Rekha, “There’s been noises and grumbles – Bhangra has almost broken for 20 years.” Panjabi MC’s record, “Mundian to Bach Ke,” which sampled the bass line from the Knight Rider theme, became a European club smash in 2003. It impressed Jay-Z so much that he added a rap to the rolling beat to create his own version, “Beware of the Boys”; in its various incarnations, the song, as Rekha notes, “put bhangra on the map.” Now it’s up to her and her fellow musicians to expand its territory.

To kick off the CD named after her club night, Rekha samples a lick from “Mundian” on her own “Basement Bhangra Anthem.” The track also features vocals by UK star Bikram Singh and a verse by Wyclef Jean, who has been known to pop into the club to check out Rekha’s sounds. The result, much like “Mundian” itself, is an unpredictable hybrid.

Rekha does her best to steer clear of cultural stereotyping; she is keen to distance her club night from the current wave of Bollywood chic. “I think it’s very easy to use convenient, reductionist images for cultures,” she says, “whether it’s Indian love gods, or Bollywood starlets, or elephants. Basement Bhangra is a product of this urban context: it’s part of New York. It’s what happens when you take a music that comes from one place and is transported to another place and is yet again inscribed in another place.”

The range of styles on Basement Bhangra reflects a typical club night where Rekha finds herself playing for all kinds, including “hardcore Punjabis that think a Panjabi MC song is sacrilegious” and bhangra b-boys who like to emulate hip-hoppers, even though, as she wryly notes, “Middle-class Indian kids are not trying to survive in the ‘hood, no matter what they say; they’re living with their mom.”

Even Rekha’s parents have become converts, to the point where they’ve given glowing interviews on TV and in print about her work.

“They soak up the shine,” says Rekha with a laugh. “My friends joke, ‘They’re going to start getting more press than you. You should start their own MySpace page.’ They’re really integral to who I am, and it’s what I try to put forth in the music or whatever it is I do.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Mar. 1, 2008

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