With the massive popularity and acclaim of Slumdog Millionaire – the film set in the Indian city of Mumbai that won this year’s Best Picture at the Oscars – and its celebratory anthem “Jai Ho,” the Indian music genre of Bhangra has entered the American mainstream like never before. As a DJ who knows Bhangra and enjoys playing it at events when I can, for me this is exciting – it means many more people will not only be familiar with this type of music for the first time, but will also likely enjoy hearing it and dancing to it for the first time as well.
While this newfound familiarity may be fortunate, I realize many of you planning events will not suddenly now be confident with a DJ spinning Bhangra for your guests, especially if you know none of those guests have any or much exposure to Indian music. Though our company has been spinning Bhanrga for years, we still appreciate the opinion of those who think it will not “go over” at their event. However, if done in delicate way, and by including accessible Bhangra in the song selections, the increasing enthusiasm everyone seems to have for the genre (not just in the last year, but for about a decade now) can be used to add a touch of exotic – and now suddenly hip – flavor to your event.
First, a little background: Bhanrga refers to a style of drum-based folk music often accompanied by a single-stringed, high-pitched guitar, and the genre originated in the northern Indian state of Punjab. (Bhangra also refers to a form of dance that is performed to the music.) In the U.S., the sound of Bhangra music is probably most familiar to those from hearing hip-hop artists mix it into their songs in rougly the last decade or so. In 2001, Missy Elliott’s Top 40 hit “Get Ur Freak On” used a bhangra guitar riff, and two years later, Jay-Z had a Top 40 hit with a remix of a song called “Mundian to Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys)” where he rapped over singing by the song’s original artist, Panjabi MC. “Mundian” (listen to the song below) also featured a high-pitched Indian guitar riff, as well as use the theme of the ’80s TV show Knight Rider as a surprisingly potent danceable backbeat. The songs featured in relatively popular 2002 British film Bend It Like Beckham also no doubt introduced many to the sound of Bhangra for the first time as well.
But with the recent popularity of “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire (the song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song), Bhangra has seemingly connected with its largest American audience yet. “Jai Ho” (the words apparently mean, roughly, “may you have victory” in Hindi) is featured in the film over credits in a large, intense dance sequence, and is sung by Bhangra artist Sukhwinder Singh and composer A.R. Rahman. The song (listen to it below) has a Bhangra drum-and-vocal foundation, but is also quite a multicultural mix of other elements: the lyrics are at times sung in Hindi, Urdu, Panjabi, and Spanish; there’s dramatic violins; there’s even the so-in-vogue robot-ish vocoder vocals (popularized over the past few years by the suddenly ubiquitous hip-hop artist T-Pain). And “Jai Ho” has recently been released as a single remix with English lyrics and featuring vocals by recent Top 40 mainstays the Pussycat Dolls. This reworking of the song quickly climbed up the charts.
Guests to an event may indeed recognize these versions of “Jai Ho,” and it’s fairly infectious as a dance song. Most important, because it’s extremely well-known, it will likely bring people out to the dancefloor regardless of if they know how to properly dance in any sort of Bhangra style. While this may be encouraging for you to play the song, you may wonder if anything else can be played before or after “Jai Ho” for your guests instead of this isolated burst of Bhangra. Well, this is where the delicate approach to introducing Bhangra to your guests comes in.
First, the aforementioned hip hop songs are great lead-ins and follow-ups, as they sound much more hip-hop than pure Bhangra, which should mean that a crowd will not be intimidated and will feel comfortable dancing. If guests are feeling the Panjabi vibes, the DJ can add in some of the more infectious tunes from the Bhanrga-centric soundtrack to Bend it Like Beckham, such as “Darshan” by B21, or other catchy Bhangra like it, such as Sukshinder Shinda’s hip-hop-influenced “Panjabi Clap.” Also great is to try a more mid-tempo traditional Bhangra song, like “Hey Jamalo (Tootak Tootak Tootiyan)” by Malkit Singh (pictured), considered the “King of Bhangra.” (Listen to his song below.) If guests still want more, the faster-paced but sublimely goofy “Tutak Tutak Tun” (which, a few years ago became a hit as an internet video) by Daler Mehndi might work to take the intensity up a notch.
The important thing to remember, as I emphasized in an entry I recently posted on salsa, is that the songs be accessible – easy to dance to, fun, upbeat – and therefore, guests who aren’t very familiar with the genre will be not be intimidated by their “foreignness,” which is something which those of us familiar with world music need to always be sensitive toward.
So next time you’re planning an event – be it a wedding, corporate party, fashion show – don’t be afraid to have the DJ pull out some Bhangra for the guests. If accessible songs are chosen, and played at the right time at the event, this genre quite new to many American ears will do wonders to elevate the mood of your celebration.
Mundian to Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys)
Hey Jamalo (Tootak Tootak Tootiyan)