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Party In The Basement

Ten Years Later, Basement Bhangra Is Still Going Strong. A Closer Look At The Party That Launched A Movement.

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You know, the one about how a New York City desi DJ threw a party one night, 10 years ago, and accidentally launched a movement.

About how, housed in a tiny music club near the Hudson River, that party quickly took on a life of its own, soon becoming a regular theme night and attracting young desi crowds. About how this DJ became familiar to countless desi American youths with whom her original vibe had struck a chord.

That name, of course, is DJ Rekha: Rekha Malhotra. And it belongs to a smart, hip British-born spinmaster from Queens.

As a college student in the 1990s, Malhotra took her obsession with Punjabi music, married it with her respect for urban hip hop tradition, and created the wildly successful underground party phenom Basement Bhangra. Her story is one of how a young woman followed her passion and used it to fundamentally change the soundscape of a city.

So you've heard that one before, have you?

OK, fair enough.

But you do know the story doesn't end there, right?

Far from it, actually.

That's because for many desi artists, Basement Bhangra is just the beginning. It is square one, a rite of passage and a catalyst for raw talent in search of a platform. It is also an institution. The party attracts the dedicated and curious from across the nation and abroad. People interested in experiencing first-hand, a very vibrant slice of desi American urban life.

Confused? Good.

Rekha Malhotra's party 10 years ago launched a movement
Let's begin in the middle, then. A right proper place to start.

Balle-Balle Meets Bruuaah

It is the perfect August night and here, in the original home of DJ Rekha's party - an unassuming splinter of a club called SOB - things are just winding up. SOB may be an acronym for "Sounds of Brazil," but today, the first Thursday of the month, it really ought to stand for Sounds of Bhangra. That's because it's Bhangra - not Bossa Nova- - currently pounding through the club's walls. The music is loud and proud, and each time the glass doors swing open, its beats trickle out, filtering through the cool air on Varick Street.

Tonight, SOB is packed to the gills with partygoers: students and bankers, dentists and cab drivers. People, mostly between the ages of 21 and 35, who may be from different streams of life, but who all share an appreciation for Basement Bhangra's definition of a night on the town.

People like Jonna Davis, a young graduate student with an armful of bangles and an infectious smile. Davis, 24, enjoys Bhangra and has spent time in India. She admits this isn't her first visit to SOB. "It's fun here, and I don't feel like anyone's being pretentious, like at some of the other clubs that are more snobby," explains the Pennsylvania native. "Everyone lets everyone have a good time in whatever way they think is best."

That means inside you can expect to find lithe women hoisted onto the shoulders of burly, turbaned men. Partygoers singing at the top of their lungs; stomping and grinding, arms raised, sweat sliding down their beaming faces. The energy is incredible; the noise, deafening.

Dancing in a club is nothing revolutionary - especially in a town known for its nightlife. And yet, there is something extraordinary and electric about this venue, this crowd, this music.

Bamboo Shoots
For many, a Thursday night at SOB is about having a good time, yes, but it's also about being a part of a community. It is about celebrating and sharing in what it means to be desi American. It is, in a sense, a performative expression of collective identity. An ethnic "coming out"- and it's all set to some incredible beats.

Tanushree Srinivasan is a consultant who lives in Manhattan. She first heard about Basement Bhangra while a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Srinivasan is here tonight with friend Neepa Majumdar, who is visiting from Texas. They think this venue is pretty special. "The idea of a club being dedicated to an Indian dance form is fascinating," says Srinivasan. Majumdar agrees: "There's nothing like this in Houston."

In fact nationally, club nights promoting desi music are still a rarity. And while there are a few exceptions, like the Baltic Room in Seattle, for instance, SOB remains unique in that it is the first, and longest-running American Bhangra experience of its kind. Swing by SOB the first Thursday of the month, and chances are you will see tourists, like Majumdar, who have added a night at Basement Bhangra to their list of things to do while visiting the City.

DJ Kayper, born Kaajal Bakrania, hosts the BBC Asian Network's "Hype Show"
And so, the party that first put Bhangra on the U.S. map ten years ago, keeps going strong. A remarkable feat, especially in a town where hot spots remain hot for about a New York minute. It's easy to appreciate why Rekha and pals (including Bikram Singh, the Dhol Foundation and Panjabi MC) marked the 10th year anniversary bash of Basement Bhangra with much fanfare earlier this year.

But could DJ Rekha have predicted any of this?

"Never," she insists. "Ten years ago I didn't have two nickels to rub together. I was just trying to get out of college."

British Invasion

The desi music scene here is gradually coming into its own, and yet, it still plays second fiddle to its UK counterpart. That's partly because British Punjabi music has a more deep-seated tradition, with artists like A.S. Kang producing hits as far back as the 1970s. It's also because British Asian artists, including Bally Sagoo, Apache Indian and Panjabi MC, are largely credited with pioneering the desi remix movement in the 1980s and 90s. They were among the first to take a real creative risk, weaving tumbi and dhol beats through western, jungle and raga rhythms - creating inventive combinations that took the music world by storm.

Their efforts gave rise to a very fresh, very hot new genre.

And it was only a matter of time before the Americans took notice.

Hip hop heavy-hitters like Jay-Z and Timbaland, were among the first to jump on the desi musical bandwagon. Britney Spears, Missy Elliot, even country artist Shania Twain, soon began sampling South Asian beats. In 2002, Panjabi MC's track Mundian Te Bach Ke became an overnight success. It became that song - you know, the one played, replayed, and overplayed until you almost couldn't stand it anymore. Mundian climbed up the charts both here and across Europe, quickly earning desi-anthem status.

But long before Panjabi MC began batting in the big leagues, he performed at - you guessed it - Basement Bhangra. DJ Rekha, recognizing his talent, brought him to New York in 1998 long before his, now classic, debut album dropped. Their relationship continues today.

Malhotra has helped turn Basement Bhangra into a fertile platform for emerging artists. She has been particularly instrumental in introducing us to British talent, in turn allowing them to reach a wider audience. She's performed alongside Tigerstyle, the Dhol Foundation, and Talvin Singh. And when Basement Bhangra launched in April of 1997, it was Birmingham-native Bally Sagoo who helped inaugurate the night. At her very first SOB gig, over a decade ago, Malhotra shared the stage with a band called 32 Tribes. The drummer of that band was a young London-born unknown. His name? Karsh Kale.

Singer Deeyah with Adil Ray
More recently, the stage at SOB has welcomed diminutive powerhouse DJ Kayper. Kayper, born Kaajal Bakrania, hosts the BBC Asian Network's "Hype Show" on Wednesday nights - a program where Bollywood beats regularly collide with urban hip hop vibes on the turntable. Kayper, who has performed alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff, Ghostface and Pete Rock, rolled through Basement Bhangra last spring and became an instant hit with the crowd.

Another guest DJ at SOB, Adil Ray, also works for the BBC.

By the time he takes over the decks, it is past 11 o'clock. The club is sweltering, it is packed, it is alive - and that line at the bar? Well, let's just say you can forget about getting a drink anytime soon.

Ray tells the crowd it's been four hours since he stepped off the plane, then launches into an eclectic set of tracks - Bhangra, hip hop, country. There's even a Turkish sample spun in for good measure. The music, he bellows, it doesn't always have to be desi, does it?

He's right, of course, it doesn't, and even though it may be his first time here, he seems to speak this crowd's language well. He understands this is the remix generation; and that these folks are just as likely to have Jay Sean on their I-Pods, as they are Jay-Z.

Tucked behind the turntables, he now surveys the crowd, spinning until SOB's walls shiver with musical bliss. Bad moods have long disappeared under waves of dhol beats twisting their way out of mammoth speakers. He may have achieved iconic status in the UK, but stateside Ray, 33, is a relative unknown - now on his first date with New York's massive desi nation. Chances are that's part of the reason he's chosen to be here tonight, in this modest matchbox of a club in the bowels of lower Manhattan. At SOB, Basement Bhangra, the little club night that could; the party that, against all odds, launched a thousand careers.

Beyond Bhangra and Bollywood: The BBC Precedent

The BBC Asian Network used to cater primarily to, well, British Asians. But in recent years, thanks to free and reliable online listening options, the station has drawn in a considerable international audience as well. Most shows on the Network are broadcast from a studio in Birmingham and can be heard live by accessing http://www.bbc.co.uk/asiannetwork. There's something for everyone, including contemporary music and comedy (the Adil Ray Show), arts and culture (Nikki Bedi's program), and DJ Kayper's late night spot featuring desi underground, electronica, and Bhangra music. No matter what your flavor, the music on the Network is always fresh, the pace fast, and audience participation encouraged. 

 Challenging the Mold

If you're interested in American desi music, but club bangers aren't really your thing you'll want to take note of these rising stars:

The Bamboo Shoots: When the Bamboo Shoots (Avir Mitra, Karl Sukhia, Ankur Patel, Ahmed Mahmoud, and Shiv Puri) were announced winners of MTVu and Epic Record's Artist of the Year award earlier this year, some were surprised. But a quick listen to their signature tracks, available on MySpace and through BambooShoots.Com proves the win was no accident. The group recently performed on the Conan O'Brien Show and was featured in last month's issue of Billboard magazine.

Goldspot: Lead singer Siddhartha Khosla has a voice like butta'-make that ghee. He also looks like a rock star, and has an Ivy League degree (from the University of Pennsylvania). Dan Cairns of the UK's Sunday Times calls this group "One of the best bands to come out of America in years." We couldn't agree more. Go to Goldspot.Net (or to their MySpace page) and seek out the Hindi version of their sublime acoustic track Friday.

Zameer: OK, they're not exactly American, but we'll forgive these guys because they're just so darn talented. Desi brothers Zameer, Ali, and Hussain Rizvi make up this Toronto-based rock band. Zameer--which means "conscience" in Persian--was nominated the nation's "Best Independent Artist" last year. The group's music has been featured on CBC radio, and Much Music-Canada's version of MTV. For more, visit ZameerMusic.Com.

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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | September 2007

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