basement bhangra celebrates ten years


I could not have prepared worse for my trip to New York as far as clothes were concerned. The weather had been miserable and cold and wet in NYC before our arrival, and I expected it to be even colder and wetter than Portland. The forecast said that during our visit it would be wet and gray with some sun in the middle of our visit and on the hottest day a high of 62 degrees farenheit. I hate being cold so I packed only wool pants and sweaters, and certainly not T-shirts and shorts. As it turned out every day was hot and sunny reaching as high as the mid 80s on one day. I spent the whole trip with wet clothes stuck to my back with sweat.

A lot had changed since my last visit to NYC ten months ago. My favorite Indian vegetarian restaurant, Udipi Palace, was gone. The Barrio Music Shop in Spanish Harlem was gone, but according to a worker at Fernandez music down the street, they had just moved, although he wasn’t sure where. Funnily enough the Fernandez Music in Queens had been replaced by “El Tunnel,” with which I was not as thrilled. (I was looking for the reggaeton compilation series “Flow Salvaje” which I had only ever seen at that shop.) I already dealt with the blow of Stern’s Music having closed down on my last trip. Brooklyn’s Beat Street had had “going out of business” signs up on my previous trip but a worker there claimed it was a scam. I didn’t make it to Fulton St. this trip to find out if they are still there or not.

I feel like I barely scratched the surface of my usual music shopping expeditions, but I still managed to effectively drain my bank account collecting recorded cultural artifacts. Some of my lack of thoroughness was down to bad timing. I went to Spanish Harlem on Sunday and learned that a lot of music stores in El Barrio are closed that day. I also found that Rock & Soul is closed on Sundays, after spending a fair bit of time walking through midtown to get there. I didn’t make it to most of my usual hip-hop vinyl spots, but I still managed to swing by Turntable Lab.

Instead we spent a lot of time hanging out with Anjali’s family. So much so that the day of the Basement Bhangra 10th Anniversary Celebration we didn’t even bother to try to hook-up with any of the DJs and musicians involved. Instead we figured we’d catch up with everybody at the show. The production was massive and there had been many of Rekha’s people overseeing the production for twelve hours at the Hammerstein Ballroom before it was all over. We arrived around 10:30pm-ish and Atul told us things were behind schedule. We entered the ballroom in the middle of Rekha’s first set. We missed Phil Money’s opening set, but had the pleasure of surprising him in the crowd. (I hadn’t seen him since we last played together at Basement Bhangra in December of 2004.) According to, “The current capacity of the Hammerstein is 3,700 when the audience is standing. The floor holds 2,500, and each of the two open balconies holds 600 seated patrons.” It was a beautiful, massive space with a 75-foot ceiling. The ticket structure had been staged from $35 for the open floor, to $100 for the highest-tier VIP tickets. The downstairs was more than half-full while the balconies seemed largely empty throughout the night; especially when the banks of white lights above the stage would flare up and illuminate all the shadows.

Rekha was playing some big bhangra tracks from the last ten years (surprise!) and I thought the sound and the bass sounded great. Unfortunately the sound soon deteriorated. The bass began farting and distorting, the sound would clip, and several times the entire sound shut down, interrupting some of the DJ sets. I wondered if the Hammerstein system was used to having DJs push their mixers up into the red. There was a huge projection screen above the DJ setup. When we entered it was playing video clips of desi women dancing bhangra, which I thought was a great way to assert the new role of women in bhangra: one of participation, as opposed to the traditional exclusion of women from the male dance. In preparation for the night several videos were filmed of different creators in the bhangra scene bigging up Basement Bhangra and DJ Rekha. The first one we were there for was Tigerstyle, which was the only one that successfully played over the projection screen above the DJ set-up. The other times the music was stopped for one of these tributes it wouldn’t play, except for a video that was a cut-up of Rekha’s appearance on CNN.

The party had gotten a great deal of print media attention. It was the pick of the week in all the New York weeklies with paragraph descriptions riddled with errors. The New York Times preview was the least embarrassing, largely accurate, but making the curious choice of the word “musky” to describe the bhangra sound. I can’t find most of the previews online, and didn’t think to keep them, so my attempts to highlight the specific errors of specific papers are currently frustrated. However my online searches have turned up many more articles than I was aware of at the time, showing just how much print media attention the party got across the board. All positive, from what I’ve been able to find. Anjali and I often cringe at the mistakes made by local writers when they attempt to write about our party, and I was surprised to see that the New York papers were little better. One paper said she played “grime”, another said she played “Bollywood” (not at Basement Bhangra!) another said she played something like reggae-disco-house. (I wish I could find the exact quote because it was so wrong. –Just found it, “she brings her Southeast Asian/reggae/house music party out of the basement and into the Hammerstein Ballroom.”).– That paper even made the most common and aggravating mistake made by papers in Portland, which is to call bhangra “SouthEAST Asian music.” One paper talked about “tablas” instead of DHOLS!

The crowd didn’t seem like the usual Basement Bhangra crowd. There had already been an observance of the 10th anniversary at the club S.O.B.’s, the night’s regular home during all that time. Rekha described that observance as being completey off the chain. I bet it was. From my past experiences at Basement Bhangra I imagine there was some really intense energy there that night. This party at the Hammerstein Ballroom was a completely different event. It had been advertised in full-page color ads in the Indian papers with several corporate sponsors listed. The crowd that showed up was very mixed in terms of age and ethnic background. The young were really young, since eighteen-year-olds and up were allowed to “party.” The crowd seemed a mix of the inexperienced, the apathetic, and the distracted, with only small pockets of excited dancers. (One of the excited groups of men did manage a three-person-high pyramid!) Any attempt at crowd interaction from the stage fell largely flat. Attempts to get the crowd to scream or clap in acknowledgment of different performers had to be repeated several times and the response improved only slightly with forced repetition. Instead of being hyped a lot of people seemed only curious or uncommitted.

After Rekha, Bikram Singh came out to perform with a dholi and a DJ playing backing CDs. When Bikram was singing a cappella, or just backed by the dholi, he had a great live voice that carried well. Unfortunately the backing CDs were not instrumentals and so when he was singing to a CD his live voice was joined by his own recorded voice, creating a distractingly canned effect. How hard would it be for an artist to bring instrumental CDs of their own recordings to their show? He sang over the Jay Dabhi reggaeton remix of “Kawan”, when it came time to feature that song. While he obviously had several female admirers in the front row, I wish I could say his hometown crowd gave him more love. It wasn’t that no one was feeling his set, its just that the general vibe of the crowd was unenthusiastic and stand-offish towards the performers. I thought Bikram was great, he just really needs to lose his pre-recorded vocals in the live setting.

Eddie Stats was up next. I wish I could comment more fully on his DJ set, but I took too long to write this, and a lot of the set details have faded from memory. He played a mix of bhangra, and dancehall, and hip-hop. He played “Sanehvaal Chounk” (or maybe the remix). He played a series of songs on the Diwali riddim: Sean Paul’s “Get Busy”, Wayne Wonder “No Letting Go”, and a mashup with Jay Sean and Juggy D’s vocals from “Dance With You.” Unfortunately his set was plagued with the same sound system distortion, clipping, and ugliness that all the DJ sets suffered from.

There was a performance by the NYU Bhangra team. They performed on the floor in front of the stage since there wasn’t room otherwise. I watched them at eye level from the side. Since the performance is geared for people viewing from the front, I don’t know if I got the best sense of it. They seemed solidly competent, but didn’t really blow me away. The pre-recorded mix they performed to was the most contemporary mix of bhangra of the evening, including Sangra Vibes “Darshan Kuriya De.” I love that song and didn’t know anyone else repped it at all. The climax of their performance was rudely interrupted when Bikram’s DJ started cueing a track for after their performance and didn’t realize it was going out over the massive system, blaring over the NYU Bhangra team’s song, right at the dramatic finish of their mix. They stayed focus and finished their performance like pros.

Rekha was on next, and unfortunately the sound continued to distort during her set. At one point it got so bad I worried that the sound system would shut down for good before the Dhol Foundation or PMC were to go on. She played the Basement Bhangra theme song she created with Bikram Singh and Sharmaji and another exclusive track off her forthcoming compilation that sounded great. September 25th is the currently scheduled release date. Rekha did play a raw dhol instrumental that I thought was from DJ Moody’s “Pure Dhol” CD, or at least it sounded like a track I used to play. The bhangra dancers in the crowd appreciated the increasingly intense tempos of the track. Dave Sharma, aka Sharmaji, joined her onstage at one point, accompanying her on percussion. Unfortunately there must have been something awful going on with the monitors. Dave Sharma is an amazingly talented musician and producer. He toured America as part of the Bombay Dreams production, and he is responsible for the best Bollywood remixes I’ve ever heard, by far. He leaves everybody else in the dust. -In fact Anjali and I have been listening to the incredible dubstep-y disc of his productions he gave us after the show as I write this.- We are hoping to bring him out to Portland this Summer. The reason I think there was a monitor problem (or there was some sort of delay in the system) is because of how off the DJ and the percussionist were. The rhythms were not in agreement throughout their performance. I know how talented Sharmaji is, and it was very sad to see their set wrecked by sound and equipment issues. The sound was clipping and distorted. People were leaving the sound was so bad and the headliner wasn’t going on for a long time. I had never heard such consistent sound problems at such a big show, and I didn’t know how much longer the night was going to go on.

When we saw that the Dhol Foundation were taking the stage, Anjali and I made our way through the crowd to the front. The thing about a space like the Hammerstein Ballroom is that it is so big that 1500 people doesn’t seem like a lot in that immensity. No energy was contained, instead it dissipated into the large space above. Johnny Khalsi of the Dhol Foundation played with the crowd quite a bit from the moment he walked out on stage. He kept referring to the crowd’s lack of energy and involvement, and made a sleeping motion with his hands and his head at one point. His band was PHENOMENAL. Their recordings have been too polite and ambient for my tastes, but the power of their live presence is thrilling. The band was comprised of five dholis, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a bassist, and two men behind drum kits. One of them was an UNBELIEVABLY sick young Danish drummer. (Johnny kept raving about him after the show. He plays kick drum parts that most drummers need two kick drums to do. As Johnny was raving a sound tech came by and agreed with how technically accomplished the kid is.) His breakbeats hit so hard and were so dope and so sick. -I met him. He was a really sweet guy but I can’t remember his name. Gotta find out- Anyway, the other drummer was fucking SUNIL KALYAN (whose percussion appears on “Mundian To Bach Ke”) who had a unique drum kit featuring tablas he played with hammers. Again, he sounded SICK. So dope. The whole band was a powerhouse. They were definitely a fusion band, although the tracks they previewed from their forthcoming album “Drums and Roses” seemed more calculated to attract the mainstream bhangra crowd then anything else I’ve heard from them. Their set was mostly instrumental, but they played a few tracks with pre-recorded vocals from their new album. The singers on their new album include Gunjan, KS Bhamra, and Lehmber Hussainpuri. I loved the uptempo hard-pop bhangra sound of their new tracks. At one point they did some just dhol tracks for the “folk police,” as Johnny called them. At another point they introduced a song called “2 Go Mad,” dedicating it to the “youtubers.” They claimed every dhol player plays the track, taken from them, but they have never recorded it. They invited everyone to take out their video phones and record it before they started playing. I wish they would record it! Or release a live version.

Their set went on quite a while. Eventually Rekha came out and got behind the decks. The band continued to play. There were some on-stage conferences. The band continued to play. Rekha looked pissed behind the decks and it seemed like the band might be overstaying the host’s welcome. All ten band members then played solos, beginning with their youngest, an 18-year old dhol player. Rekha was still stationed implacably behind them at the decks. Then they said they would play TWO MORE songs. It was going on 2am at this point and things had started to thin out. It looked like Rekha was prepared to play after them, but by the time the Dhol Foundation finally left the stage it was Panjabi MC who began DJing. He had Metz from Metz’n’Trix serving as his hype man. A choice I found odd. Once their association with RDB ended I certainly didn’t expect PMC to work with one of them. Panjabi MC began with “Mundian To Bach Ke” and winded it down and started it up again at least once. He mixed into 50 Cent’s vocals from “In Da Club” over the “Mundian To Bach Ke” instrumental. He did occasionally just wind down a track, but for the most part he displayed amazingly tight mixing skills. He would consistently bring in little bits of say Cassie’s “U and I” or somesuch, and it would be right-on-time, sound great, and not be just unnecessary added busy-ness. The only unnecessary bits of added busy-ness were the many, many scratches he incorporated into every song. To be honest, they were only the slightest bit over-the-top, and I think they were a response to going on after a very full and very powerful band, and wanting to put on the most attention-getting show he could. He was certainly skilled, and impressed me much more than he had at a show in Seattle years ago. His set went up and down in tempo and featured a lot of his own productions. He played his new track “Snake Charmer” which sounded great, especially the bass, even though there were still sound distortions during his set. He played the Magnum P.I. Theme-sampling “Jatt Ho Giya Sharabee.” He played “Main Hogaya Sharabbi” off Steel Bangle along with the reggae version of “Dhol Jageero Da”. He played some Hip-Hop, including a mix with Rob Base’s “It Takes Two.” He played “Sona Sona”, which may have been the only filmi of the night. He stopped and started three times an exlcusive off his new album 420 which is based around the A-Team theme. It actually took Anjali and I a bit before we placed that super-recognizable riff. Now, you might be groaning at yet another PMC song based around a television theme, and while I can see why people would pigeonhole his sound on the surface, it was actually a very different sounding track, utiliziing a very different tempo, than his other variations on this “theme.” It was such a nice future forward rhythm that I am eager for it to be released, so I can get my hands on it. If he’s going to make himself an easy target by doing a series of television-theme-song-based hits, than more power to him if they sound this hot. Just before 3:00am PMC got on the mic and accused the Dhol Foundation of stealing his time. He came out from behind the decks and rapped over his own vocals to his “Mirza (Part 2)” track off Legalized. After this Metz starts freestyling. I’ve never been impressed by his rapping but his freestyle was the best and most convincing thing I’ve heard from him. I mostly tuned him out during PMC’s set and only noticed him “rapping,” as opposed to just being the hype man, hardly at all, to my comfort. A camera man was onstage filming Metz’s freestyle and PMC started freestyling into the camera. At this point it is 3:00am and the sound is shut off. PMC continues to hold the mic and rap into the camera but we in the crowd were rudely cut off from hearing the hottest thing I’ve ever heard the man spit. Startlingly good, and I have always been underwhelmed by his rhyming, despite the fact that I think he is one of the world’s hottest producers. (Timbaland, anyone?)

We joined Rekha and Sharmaji on stage after the show ended. Sharmaji was very friendly and inviting, and it was great to connect with someone gracious, and someone who just happens to produce some of North America’s finest desi beats. He’s touring the West coast in July and we’ll see if we can get him to Portland. Johnny Khalsi was very friendly and I told him I have to get some serious money together in Portland (patrons and sponsors speak up!) to bring the Dhol Foundation out here. He introduced me to the mind-blowingly good Danish drummer whose name I need to remember. Panjabi MC was respectful and chill but before entering the Dhol Foundation’s room he joked(?) about giving it to Johnny for taking up his time. It was cool to officially meet him. A while back we had shipped him the book Musical Instruments of the Punjab which came with a sample CD, which he wanted at the time. He thought the CD was cool but he thought the writer got snowed by her sources in the Punjab and she didn’t know any better. He felt like her outsider status kept her from getting the real story. I was greatly impressed by both his DJ set, and his skills, and his new productions. His performance revitalized my enthusiasm for his work and I’m actually curious about his future rap tracks, rather than dreading them.

The coolest part was ending the night and bringing in the dawn with Phil Money and his cousin Will in a 40th-floor corner suite at the Ramada New Yorker Hotel in midtown. A sweeping panorama of New York City skyscrapers greeted our eyes from one corner of our vision to the other. From up in their midst we were looking out at all of them. I’ve read comics all my life, but this gave me the most visceral feeling of the Spider-Man concept. I could look out and see, and even feel what it would be like to be, the impossibly agile young man, swinging through the towers like a playground. Since I had never seen New York from this perspective in real-life before, I had media-instilled visions of spacecraft, tidal waves, monsters, or bombs, destroying everything around me as I felt myself fall with the building, as it crumbled to the ground. The company was great, but we left after dawn, and watched the beginning of the day as we strolled through midtown. We slept a great portion of Saturday but managed to make it out to the five year anniversary of Desilicious, New York City’s queer South Asian party. That story will have to wait until after I get some sleep.


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