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by Ken Hunt

Bhangra and Giddha

Bhangra, a secular folk dance and music form of Punjabi origin associated with the Baisakhi harvest festival, has also become a sophisticated popular music form. Sung in Punjabi in its original folk form, the popular version was later adopted and adapted by Gujaratis and other ethnic groups.

Bhangra is traditionally performed by Punjabi men, though female singers such as Kamaljit Neeru also encroached on its male preserve during the 1990s. Its female counterpart is giddha (or gidha), also performed at harvest time as well as to celebrate the birth of a son. A prevalent and deeply entrenched Punjabi male view has it that giddha's cultural association with womankind makes it unfitting for men to dance to its rhythms.

During the early ‘60s, when the Punjabi community in Britain consisted mainly of men whose wives and families were still back in India, a folk-styled bhangra reminded them of home. Amongst early acts performing bhangra were Deedar Singh Pardesi, Mohinder Kaur Bhamra, and Bhujangy.

Gradually a more commercial form developed. Amplification and Western instruments like electric guitar and bass, and more recently keyboards, became commonplace. However, the traditional percussion instruments are still deemed essential. Foremost are dholak (a double-headed wooden drum with sheepskin heads) and dholaki (a smaller version) played respectively with curved wooden sticks called khunti or the hands.

These drums power the music and provide bhangra's heartbeat. Even the relatively quiet chimta, a tong-shaped instrument with five pairs of metal discs tambourine-fashion along each arm, has retained its place as a color instrument with the aid of amplification. Pop-bhangra -- an alternative label probably devised by journalists to differentiate it from the music's traditional roots -- emerged in Britain's Punjabi community during the late ‘70s.

Initially bhangra was a specialty of amateur or semi-professional bands at weddings and other functions, but increasingly it is the domain of professional, full-time groups capable of filling sizable venues. Even so these bands continue to perform at parties and wedding receptions and to live in their old neighborhoods. Canada and Australia have also thrown up thriving bhangra scenes.

Coverage in the British press at the time trumpeted bhangra as the voice of disaffected Asian youth and there was something in this, even if it overplayed the music's sociological aspect. Though bhangra has remained first and foremost a dance music, it did supply British Asian youth with a voice, growing into the main form of cultural expression for second- and third-generation Asians and helping them to define themselves culturally and socially. Several dynasties of musicians arose, bridging the gap between bhangra's folky roots and the contemporary bhangra form. Bhangra's foremost acts are Alaap, Malkit Singh's Golden Star (U.K.) and Heera.

Increased audience expectations led to increased sophistication and showmanship. Premi and Apna Sangeet epitomized these developments; gold and silver lamé became very chic, and a cabaret style, as newer bhangra bands dubbed it, became popular. By the mid-‘90s the most popular British-based bhangra acts playing either Alaap-style or modern bhangra included Achanak, Azaad, Malkit Singh's Golden Star (U.K.), Holle Holle, Pardesi, Premi, the Sahotas and Johnny Zee.

Towards the end of the 1980s a new era of experimentation dawned. Labelled by some new wave or fusion bhangra, these experiments drew on American and Afro-Caribbean forms such as funk, rap, reggae and ragga and in some cases bhangra became but one ingredient in the mix.

Head and shoulders above the competition was the singer Apache Indian, who signed with Island Records in 1992 after a series of independent-label crossover dancehall hits. The 1990s also saw bhangra reflect other trends in Western popular music. Fusion forms -- with various cod names like bhangragga and bhangramuffin -- appeared. Ragga for the Masses (Multitone DMUT 1236) in 1992, featuring Sasha, D.C.S. and Bindusri, was the first major attempt to distribute and sell the music -- bhangraragga -- outside the immediate Indian market. Despite a partnership with the multinational BMG, it stalled. Remix compilations featuring DJ-style revisitings of material by acts such as Apna Sangeet and Premi have become a trend as happened in Jamaican music. Such experimentation spread the word: bhangra of whatever hue is one of the true success stories of Asian music.