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DJ Rekha talks bhangra, cultural appropriation

DJ Rekha

DJ Rekha

For almost two decades now, Rekha Malhotra has brought in the crowds at her monthly Basement Bhangra party — no small feat anywhere, but especially not in New York City.

Malhotra, better known as DJ Rekha, was one of the first to introduce bhangra into American clubs in the late '90s. The London-born, Brooklyn-based artist made a name for herself remixing the popular Punjabi music with electronica, hip-hop, and dancehall. She continues that work today while also running her own production company, record label, as well as other parties. She’s taught at NYU, spun for the president at the White House, and now, on July 11, she goes where few bhangra club DJs have gone before: Minnesota.

Rekha comes as a part of a dance party fundraiser for Ragamala Dance Company, which is co-presenting the show with the Cedar. In advance of the show, City Pages sat down with DJ Rekha via Skype to talk about everything from the history of bhangra to South Asian cultural production in the U.S. to appropriation and more.

City Pages: Outline for us briefly what exactly bhangra is.

Rekha Malhotra: Bhangra is a dance and a music that originally comes from Punjab, a region that’s been divided by the current nations of India and Pakistan. It’s actually technically a very specific rhythm, but it’s become ubiquitous to sort of mean Punjabi dance music.

I would say it got its rise in England. Post-World War II, there was a lot of immigration to England, and a lot of those communities, the second and third generation folks from those communities — Indian and Pakistani — that migrated there to fulfill labor shortage, they brought over their cultures and traditions. And the bhangra music I got acquainted with and a lot of what I play is produced in the U.K. It’s changing now, but that whole moment was sort of in the late '80s, where initially there were live bhangra bands that used to play at weddings and culturally specific occasions. And then within the community, you saw the rise of DJs and producers taking that sound and blending that in with other styles; namely dancehall, because a lot of that came from the Midlands in England, which also has a very significant Jamaican and Caribbean history.

CP: Had your parents also come in that post-WWII wave?

Malhotra: They came a little later. They moved over in 1970, lived there for six years, and then we moved here. My introduction to bhangra was basically my mom going back to England to visit a family friend and bringing back a cassette that was produced in the U.K.

CP: What cassette was it?

Malhotra: It was Malkit Singh’s Up Front.

CP: So then fast-forward to 1997 ...

Malhotra: Nineteen ninety-seven was when I started my monthly party in New York called Basement Bhangra. So I took it one step further in that I used that music produced in England and played it like a New York DJ would. I actively would do hip-hop sets, dancehall sets, bhangra sets, all seamlessly, because I find the music to be quite related to each other.

CP: Was it hard trying to put that music out during that time?

Malhotra: I didn’t actually release a record [Basement Bhangra] until ’07, so a little slow. In terms of the success of the party in New York, it did take off kind of quickly. I think there’s a hunger for a different kind of sound. And in New York City, if you can throw a good party, you’re rewarded.

CP: Do you think part of Basement Bhangra’s success was that it came out around when a lot of other “global bass” music started taking off in the mid-2000s?

Malhotra: I think part of the success of the album — I think there was a moment of global bass for sure. Like, I would credit in the larger scope of global bass, artists like MIA taking different international styles and bringing them to the fore. I also think that in New York and in general, there’s a wave once again of awareness about South Asian culture at large.

Like in 2002, Bombay Dreams opened up in New York, and it created a lot of interest around South Asian cultural production in New York City, which resonated through the industry. There were various forays by Hollywood and Bollywood directors into South Asian culture, whether it was Moulin Rouge putting a Bollywood song in the soundtrack, to, eventually, Slumdog Millionaire. There are always things that resonate, or cultural touchstones that get people interested to investigate more culturally about what’s happening.

CP: So how do you go about presenting your music now, especially in the context of cultural appropriation and yoga appropriation ...

Malhotra: Oh, for the record, I hate yoga. [Laughs.] Yoga sucks.

Cultural appropriation is what this country is based on. Let’s just face it. We see cultures appropriated every second of the day. Gwen Stefani was wearing bindis in ’97. And we can eye-roll, but we’re part of a larger cultural network, force, and economy. Those of us who are from other countries were here, some of us due to our privilege, some of us due to necessity. So we’re constantly in a dialogue with cultural exchange. A lot of South Asians, Asians, and white people are really privileged in how they access and participate in hip-hop without any context or meaning. Appropriation is a two-way street. So yeah, cultural appropriation sucks. Don’t do it. Don’t wear your headdress at Coachella.

CP: When you’re presenting bhangra, do you see cultural appropriation coming from the other direction too though, in terms of other people possibly exoticizing it?

Malhotra: Of course. There’s always going to be those people that think anything that’s not extremely white — the minute you add a tint on something, it becomes exotic. Do people come to the parties and sometimes put their hands together and wave and do the snake dance in front of me? Sure, they do. That’s kind of part and parcel of what you have to deal with as a person presenting art. You can’t control directly how people consume what you put out there. You can control how you put it out there.

So I’m responsible in not taking convenient ways to play that up. For instance, bhangra is a dance, and there are bhangra dance competitions all over the United States, and people dress up in what they call “traditional gear.” I make sure that in the club, I don’t participate in that. I don’t believe that’s the space in the club to do it. I’m very careful and responsible about how I use language, how I use visual images in promotion. I’m accountable for myself and to my people. It’s very easy to play that up to appeal to an audience, but you have to be true to yourself.

CP: You’re coming to the Twin Cities for the first time this weekend, and it’s with Ragamala Dance Company. How did that happen?

Malhotra: [Laughs] Well, we met in one of the whitest places in America. We met at Martha’s Vineyard. We were at an artist residency at this place called the Yard. I did a gig out there, they came to it, really liked it, and were really trying to find a way to make it work with what they do. The work that [Ragamala] do is completely different from the work I do. It was their idea to bring me out for a fundraiser and to try something new. Their discipline is very particular. It’s rooted in Bharatanatyam. They work with live musicians; I’m a DJ playing dance music. So, they made it happen, to be honest.

CP: What can we expect?

Malhotra: Dance party! Wear comfortable shoes.

CP: Charanjit Singh [acid house pioneer] passed away recently. Will there be a nod to his acid house influences?

Malhotra: Hmm. I don’t know. I don’t usually play him in my sets. But maybe. I don’t ever plan my sets. It’s just about the moment, the room, the vibe. I’m very excited that my friend Chamindika (DJ Chamun) is going to DJ. She’s gonna set up the vibe. I’m gonna roll with it.