Andaz is tough. I probably say the exact same things in every post I make the day after this party. So if I have written all of these things a hundred times before you will understand what central fixations these are for me in regards to the particular challenges of this night.
You can’t please everyone. 85 bpm bhangra and 130 bpm filmi do not mix. And its not just a matter of tempo, the tone and mood and texture of these different genres are drastically different. It is really difficult to effectively (and gracefully) span both in an evening. When we started the night over 4 years ago we were much more focused on playing Panjabi music all night. I remember one party where I kept track of how many filmi songs we played. That night we only played 5 filmi songs in 6 hours. Back in those days we would have large groups of angry Hindi-speakers in attendance who would sometimes loudly express their displeasure for every bhangra song that was played. I remember one “gentleman” who would make loud hacking sounds in front of the DJ every time the next song was a Panjabi one.
Some Hindi-speakers have an incredlibly narcissistic view of “Indian music.” They think that only music sung in Hindi is “Indian music.” These people (there are more than one of them unfortunately) will come up to us and ask why don’t we play more “Indian music” when we are in the middle of a long bhangra set. Uh, hello narcissistic Hindi-speakers, for your information, the Panjab is IN India. Yes, that means Panjabi music is “Indian” music. Just like music sung in Malayalam, Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, Telegu, you name it, is “Indian music.” These Hindi-supremacists have got to learn to respect their fellow Indians, and their linguistic and cultural differences. These are the same people who try to make Hindi the official language of India while South India says, “Fuck you, we’d rather speak to you in English than Hindi.” These Hindi speakers probably don’t even recognize how much of their beautiful Hindi language is actually borrowed Urdu vocabulary.
Anyway, the Panjabi community in the Portland metro area is a tiny one, and after alienating all the Hindi speakers with long nights of bhangra Andaz went through a phase where other than a few Panjabis the night was almost all non-Indian. I realized that if we wanted more Indians at our night we would have to play more Hindi music. And over the years I started very consciously doing just this. Always buying the latest Bollywood soundtracks, trying to keep up with the latest hits. Anjali would continue to play mostly bhangra, while my sets would be half Bollywood or more. The joke is that I read an article about us once where they thought that was my “sound.” As if left to my own devices, I would play a more house-y, electronic set than Anjali, since that is the vibe of most danceable Bollywood songs. I play plenty of all-bhangra sets for a variety of different audiences all the time. It is when I am attempting to please Hindi-speakers that my sets veer Bollywood, and thus house-y and electronic. That is not my usual sound.
For a while the night at Andaz seemed to have a fairly standard rhythm. There would be a big crowd of non-Indians who would show up early and want to dance to bhangra. There would be a late arrival of Panjabis who would show up eager to hear bhangra, not realizing that they already missed hours of bhangra sets. They would have to put up with a mixture of bhangra and Bollywood as the Hindi-speakers and a large desi crowd of Tibetans and Nepalis would show up last. So during the course of the evening the night would progress from a bhangra night to a filmi night. The last hour would be solid filmi.
That has changed lately, because more Panjabis are dancing until 3am. The final hour of the night is now a flip-flop filmi/bhangra hour. There are still the people that want to dance to filmi until 3am, but there are also people requesting Jazzy B up until the last song. Trying to please one of these crowds is more than doable, trying to please both of them is a fool’s errand. Call me a fool, because I try anyway. There are songs that do work for both Hindi and Panjabi speakers, but you can’t play for hours without having to alternately please one group or another. I don’t want anyone to leave, which puts pressure on me to change up the groove very frequently. That keeps people from getting into a groove and riding it. I can please one group or another for a longer time, and then simultaneously displease the other group for just as long a time, or I keep each group happy for brief alternating moments.
In my experience no matter how much filmi I play, the second I play a bhangra song there are people at the DJ booth asking me to play more filmi. Of course if I am playing filmi there is someone in front of me with a Jazzy B request. Meanwhile there are the people who don’t know Hindi from Panjabi, they mostly just want to hear some wicked dhol beats. The songs that work best for them are not the same as the slower-than-slow Panjabi songs with meaningful lyrics that are favored by the Panjabis. That is one of many jokes. Anjali and I love bhangra and collect it like fiends. We love all sorts of bhangra that is simply not on most Oregon-residing Panjabis’ radar at all. We could play hours of bhangra that we think is the hottest stuff on the planet and the Panjabis in the house would be bored and shiftless wondering why we are not playing Jazzy B. Don’t get me wrong, we love Jazzy B, but there is a whole world of bhangra out there. A lot of which does not appeal to many local Panjabis. Funny how the goreh love it though.
The non-Indians at our night who love the dhol beats probably wonder why I get on the decks and suddenly they are hearing a silly-sounding trance or house song. “Where’s the Party Tonight” yaar? Meanwhile there are people asking why we aren’t playing the latest filmi songs, often while we are playing the latest filmi songs. I buy nearly all of the soundtracks and know most of the songs. If I’m not playing it it’s usually because I don’t like it. (Or I still find the supreme cheeziness of a new track utterly repellent and it hasn’t melted my brain through repetition to the point where I’m willing to play it.) There might be a few Hindi-speakers in the crowd who think we are behind the times because we might not be playing the absolute-most-up-to-the-minute filmi hits, but I have learned over the years that very few people in our audience are that up-to-the-minute. We usually start getting filmi requests for popular songs after they have been out six months to a year. When I play sets of all the latest filmi songs Anjali will comment that out on the dance floor she could tell that no one knows the songs yet. I have put a lot of effort into being ahead of the curve just to learn that people want to hear songs they already know. When people complain about us not playing the latest songs while a brand new song is playing, it makes it clear to me that what people want are new songs they already know, not ones they haven’t heard yet. One woman was complaining that we weren’t playing the most current songs while repeatedly requesting a song from 1998. I had a guy ask me if I kept up with UK Bhangra?!?!?!?!? He asked if I knew Bally Sagoo. -Bally Sagoo started in the early ’90s, last solo release was an underwhelmer called “Hanji” in 2003 and the last project he did was under Gunjan’s name in 2004. (This material been repackaged in different forms in different markets.) Yeah, I keep up with Bally Sagoo.- What about the killer stuff that’s been coming out in the last 3 months? Most of the requests we get are for songs 1 to 5 years old. Unless we get an older Indian crowd in which case it’s “Amitabh, Amitabh Amitabh.” I love playing only the latest-latest, but it rarely stokes the dance floor the way familiar numbers do.
I want to aplogize for any resentful tone in this email. I love having the opportunity to play for hundreds of people every month. It’s just frustrating to have 300 people dancing up a storm while someone complains at the DJ booth that you are not playing what they want to hear. Well, if everyone is dancing, and you are unhappy at the DJ booth, your dancing tastes are out of synch with everyone else’s. If I try and play something you like there is no guarantee that anyone else is going to enjoy it, since they clearly enjoy dancing to things you don’t. These are people who are oblivious to everyone dancing around them. They only want to hear what they want to hear even if they are the only person in the club who wants to hear it. I remember a woman who kept requesting salsa at a house party years ago. Every time I’d play a Cuban song the dance floor would clear. I’d shift into house party mode, everyone would go back to dancing, and then she wanted to hear more salsa. Finally I pointed to the dance floor. I asked if she saw all the people dancing. I asked her if there were that many people dancing when I played the last salsa song. She left me alone.
There will usually be some random guy asking for an out-of-date overplayed mainstream hip-hop song. Why? Aura is right downstairs. Go there, or Barracuda, or Ringler’s Pub, or a million other places playing that schlock. I can assure you that you are one of the only people at our night that wants to hear that sort of thing. Actually, I wish there were more people that wanted to listen to Hip-hop at our night. But I’m excited to play the new Roots and the new Nas, and the requests are more along the lines of Lil Jon and Yung Joc. I don’t think my choices would appeal at all to these people. I bring a crate of Hip-hop records to every Andaz. I will play a few of them at most. The majority of the crowd that comes to Andaz does not come to hear Hip-hop. Certainly not the kind of stuff I groove to. So why do we put “Hip-hop” on the flyers? Because modern bhangra and (to a lesser extent) Bollywood wouldn’t exist without hip-hop. When bhangra songs aren’t directly sampling hip-hop songs they are either remaking them, or using the same sort of beats mixed in with dhol and tumbi. Bollywood has never left disco behind, but more and more filmi songs are remaking hip-hop songs, or are just really lame attempts at aping a hip-hop vibe. Hip-hop (and in some cases, its child D’n’B) defines the state of mind of many of the producers of urban music from the Indian diaspora and we want to reflect that in terms of how we describe the party. You may not hear a lot of songs you recognize from the radio, but more and more bhangra and Bollywood songs incorporate “raps,” and reflect the post-hip-hop sonic landscape of global pop and dance music. We try to incorporate the very best in Asian Hip-hop and R&B into our night, despite the efforts of many of the infant genre’s creators. I dropped the single best Panjabi hip-hop song ever, JNas and Deep doing “Boys in the Hood” last night. Anjali and I both have been playing that track a lot recently. Except for Anjali and DJ Blackmarks everyone just stood around and looked confused for the duration of the song. “Why is he playing Dirty South hip-hop?” Uh, nevermind.
So, why all this verbiage? After feeling relatively good about my performance at the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration, I am back to feeling awful about my DJing after my performance at Andaz this month. As much as I describe how difficult it is to DJ to the different factions as Andaz, I still expect perfection from myself. I want everyone to go wild to every song all night. I hate looking up from the booth and seeing a lot of mild shifting in place or motionless bodies. I want to please everyone all night, and I already explained what a fool’s errand that is. Sometimes I ignore requests, and sometimes I’ll play them all night. It is much easier to perform without aggresive requesters. Sometimes a person with a request has a much better idea than the DJ about what people want to hear. Often they are just a control freak who thinks the cost of admission guarantees that the DJ will serve as their personal jukebox for them and their friends all night. It don’t work that way, Honey. There are hundreds of people who paid just as much as you, and they all want to have a good time. If they thought you knew what they wanted to dance to then why aren’t they paying admission at your night? Sometimes I get so flummoxed trying to satisfy all the clashing requests, that my set seems like one long train wreck, with little joy and excitement for anyone. Maybe the trick is ignoring everything except my own feelings. Anjali is much better about performing that way. As much as I like to fuck with people I want them to get at least some of what they want. After all, without the dancers a DJ’s just an awkward figure holding records.
PS: The Nick epilogue
I was utterly surprised and overjoyed to see The Nick. He came late in the night, straight from his first experience DJing a corporate party. He fell into me declaiming “I have a new respect for what you do. I had people mobbing me for requests all night. People were grabbing me and shouting their drunken requests. They never stop. They never leave you alone.” Yeah, welcome to the glamorous world of DJing. Just don’t rip your pants.