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Bhangra, Asian Underground and belonging

Updated Tuesday 11th March 2014

Bhangra and Asian Underground music are often seen as signs of British Asians having "arrived" in popular culture - but the truth is more complex.

Malkith Singh at the London Mela Creative commons image Icon Jan van der Crabben under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license Malkit Singh and Gold Star play the London Mela Music – Bhangra

Laurie Taylor:
That is Golden Star UK with lead singer Malkit Singh performing Gur Nalon Ishq Mitha back in 1984 – one of the biggest worldwide Bhangra hits.

Music – Bhangra

Laurie Taylor:
Now British Bhangra is a blend of Punjabi folk music with elements of hip-hop thrown in, which was developed in Britain back in the 1980s by first and second generation Asian immigrants. It’s still very popular although it’s hardly ever gained what you might call national popularity, unlike this British Asian music:

Music – Underground

Joi – with the title track from their acclaimed 1999 album One and One is One. It’s an example of what is known as Asian Underground which did achieve huge national success by blending traditional South Asian music with Western dance music.

Now you must forgive this rather – I’m aware this rather plonking High Court Judge musical exegesis but what I’m trying to do is to set the scene for a fascinating new book called Bhangra and Asian Underground: South Asian Music and The Politics of Belonging in Britain. Its author is Falu Bakrania, who’s Assistant Professor of Critical Race and Resistance Issues at San Francisco State University and she’s now on the line from that city.

Falu, welcome to the programme. And some people I know writing about this British Asian music scene that I was referring to back in the ‘80s and ’90s said oh good this is excellent wonderful news, British Asians have now arrived in terms of popular culture, it is an example, if you like, of a new form of integration. You don’t really buy that do you?

Falu Bakrania:
No, no and thank you for having me on the show. I – there are a lot of problems with that narrative, it assumes – there are several parts to that story and it starts by saying young British Asians have a particular hybrid identity that gets literally expressed in this music and then again, like you mentioned, the popularity of Asian Underground in particular led a lot of people to say that Asians had finally arrived. And – one of the problems with that story is that it assumes that there’s a homogenous British Asian community whose identity is fixed and is just being straightforwardly expressed in that music. In that sense it completely ignores the very dynamic aspects of identity and of music and young people’s relationship to it. And then the other part of it – the celebration aspect – ignores the ongoing racism that South Asian communities in Britain experience – hate crime rates continue to be high, there’s some Asian communities in the lowest socioeconomic positions in the UK. So yes that story is one that I found really problematic.

Laurie Taylor:
I was very intrigued by this fascinating phenomenon – we were talking about, as it were, this being indicative of integration and you wishing to argue against that. I mean one of the powerful things is the way in which you point out that some British Asians started actually learning Punjabi for the first time after listening to Bhangra’s Punjabi lyrics, producing, if you like, a new identity but not necessarily picking up and – not picking up a British identity.

But let me just – now it’s been suggested you see that Bhangra, as well as Asian Underground, I mean that – you don’t see it as resolving the sort of dual identity crisis at all and I know that you spent a lot of time in London music venues doing this research and speaking to people. Let’s just start a little tiny bit – because I want to get some distinctions between these two types of music – and so tell me about a typical Bhangra night that you experienced, what would the atmosphere be like and what kind of mix of people would you expect to encounter?

Falu Bakrania:
Well in a Bhangra club one of the more popular ones that I frequented – they’re typically very large clubs since the music is drawing a lot from sort of commercial hip-hop, it has the vibe of those clubs. They had a sort of younger demographic, mix of men and women but mostly South Asian and some Afro Caribbean folks would attend as well. And it would be – I mean being in a club as a female researcher was not the most fun thing in a sense that there was a kind of aggressive masculinity that characterised the dynamics between young people in these spaces that made it quite difficult for women to negotiate.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean you said the women that you spoke to seemed to have a bit of a love/hate – a love/hate relationship didn’t they, rather mixed emotions?

Falu Bakrania:
…kind of strategic and interesting about those clubs is they would have several floors that would feature different kinds of music, you’d have Bhangra remixes on one and then you’d have harder versions of hip-hop on another floor. So there was much an engagement with hip-hop.

Laurie Taylor:
And as I say you were talking about the way in which the female club goers seemed to have a bit of a love/hate relationship with these clubs, very mixed emotions about them.

Falu Bakrania:
Right, I mean what I delve into there is how as working class women these clubs offered them a space to exercise some form of agency in a situation where they didn’t have very many choices, they sort of knew that their path was going to have to be sort of marry early on, have kids, raise a family. And so they would hate going there because of the violence that they would be subjected to but at the same time again it offered them a space to kind of feel free, out of the view of parents and as I said exercise some sort of agency and maybe sort of finding a partner on their own for example.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean it’s interesting because as I say we’re talking about two sorts of music here, we’re talking about the Bhangra and the Asian Underground and at one point it did look, we’re sticking with Bhangra at the moment, it did look as though it might become mainstream – I think when Jay-Z, the American king of hip-hop, when he remixed up Punjabi MC’s single, I think we’ll translate it roughly as Beware of the Boys and it became the theme song of the 2012 film The Dictator starring Sasha Baron-Cohen. Let’s hear it now.

Music – Beware of the Boys

Laurie Taylor:
Beware of the Boys – Jay-Z. Now it does that that became so popular really because of the hip-hop that was in there, not necessarily because of the Bhangra, I suppose that illustrates some of the tensions in British Asian music, it becomes popular only if you add in something else.

Falu Bakrania:
Right and only if certain artists do it, as some artists have talked about in their music that they themselves have created similar kinds of remixes but they didn’t get picked up – those songs didn’t get picked up in the way that this one did. And again Punjabi MC created that track several years earlier and it was only when Jay-Z remixed it that it became so huge. And when it did lots of people got excited, though Bhangra was finally poised to cross over but again it’s still in the same position.

Laurie Taylor:
Now you – then we’re moving on from Bhangra, let’s look at this Asian Underground music scene that we’ve mentioned already. I’ve got a reading here from your book, these are the words of a person you interviewed – Swati – a young British Asian student and she’s describing what this Asian Underground music means to her.

Reading – Asian Underground Music
We still go through racism but it’s very different to the racism that our parents had. We have to constantly rehistorisize to find out who we really are, just going back to telling stories and listening to stories. So that’s why I think that music is important because it’s global, it’s accessible and it’s something that marks us as people, it puts us on the map more or less. It’s like a sense of belonging. It’s like when you have déjà vu and you just really feel comfortable. I really relate to it. You feel whole because it’s everything that you’ve ever known all put into one.

Laurie Taylor:
In a way you say that you can’t understand this music really unless you allow that it harks back to nationalistic ideas, to nationalistic traditions, you can’t just read it off the page as it were.

Falu Bakrania:
Well right, I mean what I’m trying to get out there and I think it speaks to what David and Casper were saying earlier is that experiential aspect of the music. And in this case she’s really picking up on some of the more classical sounds like Talvin Singh’s Dubla playing and how it kind of resonates with her upbringing and yet being blended with drum and bass and these other sort of music forms that speak to her experience of growing up in London.

Laurie Taylor:
And if we go along – you describe the scene as a Bhangra club night, what about – how does it differ from the scene at an Asian Underground club night?

Falu Bakrania:
So speaking of particular Anokha, which was sort of the club that started the whole Asian Underground thing. It was a much smaller club, very boutique in a sense, it was in Hoxton Square, which at that time was starting to experience some gentrification. But the idea was that we’re talking about sort of hip club out of the kind of commercial mass base of Central London, which is where one of the main Bhangra clubs was. And it was a racially mixed crowd, which was also unique and interesting, it was whites, South Asians, Afro Caribbeans and it was an older demographic.

And the vibe there was very much about appreciating the music. So whereas at the Bhangra club you could definitely feel the energy of men and women wanting to meet up, at the Asian Underground club the idea was that you could sort of hang out and experience the music and have some chi or samosa, get a massage at the massage table upstairs, that kind of thing. So there was a very sort of chilled vibe that they tried to produce and that was I think also about the way that drum and bass was being experienced at the time.

Laurie Taylor:
But there were also some demands weren’t there that Asian Underground should become, if you like, more political, it should be more representative of British Asians. I mean what was the response to this?

Falu Bakrania:
Right, so among many of the activists I knew, scholars as well and some journalists, there was a lot of dismay that some of the Asian Underground artists – and I should actually just quickly mention that that term was really problematic as well, it was – the media sort of picked it up and decided to label everything that was not Bhangra Asian Underground. And it was a double edged sword because it helped artists all of a sudden have a spotlight – they had been producing music for ages, music – artists like Joi, who you played earlier, but then all of a sudden there was this big thing. So when some of the artists became really popular there was this kind of demand placed on them to represent the community politically in some of the ways that again was talked about earlier, that they needed to be involved in political protest in the way that Asian Dub Foundation was.

Laurie Taylor:
And did they respond? I’m pushing you a little bit because we’re short of time.

Falu Bakrania:
Oh sorry about that. Yeah. Right they did. What I explore in the book is really about how they may not have done politics in the same way that people expected them to do but that they definitely were interested in empowering the community. And so I kind of look at the ways that they did so and take strategies that might be considered...apolitical…

Laurie Taylor:
The last quick thing – as I understand it I mean Asian Underground didn’t really have lasting success. I mean Bhangra seems to have survived, done a rather better job surviving doesn’t it – very quickly – why might that be?

Falu Bakrania:
It has a strong fan base, there’s a strong roots aspect to the music that I think will always speak to people, it’s actually popular across generations…

Laurie Taylor:
Fascinating to talk to you Falu, I think you’ve actually disappeared but I’ve just got time left to – just to turn to Casper quickly, for a quick word, respond to that – I mean there is someone unpacking the experience of music. Yes David:

David Hesmondhalgh:
I think Falu’s research suggests that wonderful capacity of music to bring communities together but we have to be very careful about celebrating it and thinking that it can break free of histories of racism and nationalism.

Laurie Taylor:
Last word Casper?

Casper Melville:
Music can capture place. I probably was – I may have been in Anokha with Falu and I remember the Blue Note back in Hoxton in a very particular – I can conjure the very feeling and the smell of it, so it has this particular relationship to memory as well which is…

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you both very much. And now I can go home in peace and listen to my Cliff Richard latest hits!

 

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