The Bhangra Reggae Subculture Of Birmingham & What It Meant For The Asian Diaspora

The Bhangra Reggae Subculture Of Birmingham & What It Meant For The Asian Diaspora

When it comes to the global music scene, more often than not, the contributions of immigrant and diasporic communities are ignored, even when it revolutionizes the way we perceive and engage with music. In white-washed spaces of the creative industry, multicultural influences shine through in music productions but do not guarantee a space in the studio. For generations now, diasporic and immigrant communities have been creating sub-cultures and alternate genres, ones that deviate from the mainstream and become the sounds of the diaspora, ones that represent their own unique experiences.

Much like in the 70s from the streets of Bronx, New York, where an underground music genre emerged — one that changed the way we listen to music. Born from the New York street culture as a communicative medium for the African Americans to voice out their issues, hip-hop redefined the scope of music and became the original platform for those shoved to the margins of society.

For those in multicultural Birmingham in the 80s and spanning all the way to the early 2000s, the sub-culture of redefining the scope of bhangra music and fusing it with hip-hop and reggae became a way of not only staying true to their desi roots but also to speak of things that truly mattered to them. The becoming of Punjabi Raggea is as much a story of community as it is of music. The entire modernisation of traditional Punjabi music, a process that is accelerated when Punjabi immigrants heard their neighbour’s (in this case, the Afro- Caribbean community of Birmingham) music lies at the core of this sub-culture.

Where It All Began

It was the sixties when Sikh families were lured to Britain either by jobs in London or in Birmingham’s fading steel industry. These former farmers came from lush agricultural valleys of Punjab and brought with them their traditional songs and dances as a vital consolation. A farming class, all in all, their music and dances were related to the crop seasons and celebrations centred on the annual harvest festival, Vaisakhi.

While back home Bhangra was traditionally a men’s dance, defined by the rousing rhythms created by the dhol, its migration to the west became not just a way to remember home for all but also for the newer generations to experiment with and embrace the way they like. It digressed from just a celebration of crop cycles into a symbol of cultural representation for the British-South Asians trying to navigate their identity in a new country.

The Bhangra Daytime Discos That Defined An Entire South Asian Generation In Bradford & Birmingham
The Bhangra Daytime Discos That Defined An Entire South Asian Generation In Bradford & Birmingham
Image Courtesy: Tim Smith

The Bhangra Daytimers— The Becoming Of Punjabi Reggae

By the late 1980s and the early 1990s, bhangra music was sweeping across the UK owing to artists like Alaap, Heera, and Apache that were fusing elements of Punjabi folk music with reggae and western pop. But for most of the youth belonging to the South-Asian community, conservative parents meant discs and nightclubs were ruled out.

This gave rise to ‘Daytime Discos’, a cultural phenomenon embraced by the youth who wised to enjoy DJ, music bands, and dancing and make it in time for dinner. Bradford became the epicentre of this underground space where hundreds of teenagers and college goers would flock in the afternoons, bunking classes, intent on not missing out on their favourite bands and DJs.

The concept of Daytime Discos also debunked myths surrounding the Asian diaspora as being sexless studious young people who loved dancing to only vintage Bollywood music and where girls were just confined to the kitchen. It gave them an opportunity to not only live out in the best way but also to assert an identity that didn’t require the validation of the white man.

The Cultural Impact Of Bally Sagoo’s Star Crazy

Birmingham, the British home of reggae became the space for radical musical developments. One Punjabi who was at the centre of it, was Bally Sagoo, a visionary producer from the British-Asian music scene. Fusing elements of Punjabi music with influences from the Afro-Caribbean, his 1991 compilation Star Crazy put Bhangra on the global music map.

Talking about the cultural impact of that mix, with Bobby Friction from the BBC, Sagoo said, “This particular track (Laung Gawacha, feat. Rama & Cheshire Cat) was a Punjabi reggae song, it was an experiment, where the Asian kids went crazy and everybody thought we need some stuff like this.”

The influences of the black community are almost unmissable in his numbers, having grown up next to his black school friends, his formative years were steeped in black music from hip-hop, and reggae to soul. The black influence comes through in music. Describing his cultural music mix recipe to Time Magazine, he once said, “A bit of tabla and a bit of the Indian sound, but ring on the bass lines, the funky drum (dhol) beat and the James Brown samples.”

Bhangra muffin: Birmingham singer-songwriter and reggae DJ Apache Indian  pioneer of Bhangra Reggae
Bhangra muffin: Birmingham singer-songwriter and reggae DJ Apache Indian pioneer of Bhangra Reggae
Image Courtesy: BBC UK

The Bhangra Muffin, Remixes & The MTV Generation

Fellow Birmingham singer-songwriter and reggae DJ — Steven Kapoor aka Apache Indian was another pioneer of the reggaeton wave in India in the 90s. Earning the title ‘The Bhangra Muffin’ Apache was able to create a brand out of fusing reggae with bhangra.

Following Afro-Caribbean school friends into reggae, his popular numbers like ‘Boom Shack A Lak...’, ‘Chock There’, ‘Arranged Marriage’ and ‘Om Numah Shivaya’ were a staple for the MTV generation who assimilated reggae along with his bhangra mix. In an interview with The Guardian, he said, “When I first went into the studio, I didn’t want it to be just reggae, so we put a bit of the Punjabi rhythm in there - the first time bhangra was being fused musically, just like our lifestyles.”

While his early mixes had a very desi Punjabi and Ragga blend, as he gained more popularity he started setting bhangra beats that would course more towards mainstream sounds. His hit single ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ (Beware of the Boys) is one such example and was also later remixed by Jay-Z. But by 2005, Apache went back to his bhangra-ragga roots, with his album Time for Change (Revolver). The album featured dhol drummer Bubzy, a bhangra-ragga-ska re-make of ‘Israelites’ with Desmond Dekker and US-based female bhangra singer Gunjan.

By the mid-90s, the British-Asian population had not only expanded but also diversified with new waves of immigrants calling the UK home, but bhangra was the force that held all these communities together. Young British Asians found their voice and their identity through bhangra music. As Bobby Friction notes: ‘The eighties London sound was a bit more innovative, open to Hindi and other Asian music, whereas Birmingham was desi because the community was solid, Punjabi and Sikh. It had an authentic rawness whereas London’s was more poppy popular. Today, a lot more kids in London are sampling grime and hip hop and doing remixes of bhangra classics than in the Midlands.’

The story of Punjabi reggae is in many ways, the story of cassette tapes, corner shops, teenagers who would bunk their schools and colleges to attend the secret daytime gigs and two cultures fusing together but most importantly of an underground scene that became as popular among Asians as Wham and Culture Club were to the mainstream.

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