When I review music, I try to place it within some sort of context. This enables me to judge its merits based on more than just my personal opinion of the work. Of course, whether I like it or not is going to enter into my judgement of the material, but in some cases, my opinions are pretty much irrelevant to the material.
There are musical styles from other cultures that are beyond my ken, so how could I fairly say I like them or not? I haven’t developed a body of knowledge sufficient to appreciate what the performers are doing. It’s one thing to write a review about music that’s been part of your culture and heritage both consciously and unconsciously for your whole life; you have gained an appreciation for when the work is done well or poorly.
What do you do when faced with music that has its roots in a culture that you either know very little about, or are just starting to learn about? You admit up front that your knowledge is limited and that your opinions are based on an awareness that has nothing to do with what you’re reviewing.
This is exactly the situation I find myself in reviewing World Music Networks latest edition in its Rough Guide Series: Bhangra Dance Having begun making my own investigations of Indian House Music by listening to Asian Dub Foundation and groups of a similar nature, I was expecting something along those lines. While there are some similarities, the differences, to my ear, are more obvious.
Bhangra music hails from the Punjabi region of India. Like most of what we would refer to as “folk” music, it has its origins in community festivals. In this case, the music and the accompanying dance were part of both harvest and New Year’s celebrations. (Usually the same event in most cultures except for ours, but I’m not sure of that in this instance. All I could find out was that it was used for both festivals. I’d be grateful for a comment that could clarify that matter for me.)
Bhangra translates as hemp, which is one of the major crops produced in the Punjabi. The dance steps that accompanied the music were actually stylized representation of daily farming activities like planting and harvesting. It’s transition from almost ritual status to popular music came about via Indian immigration to Great Britain after World War Two.
As generations of Indians started being born in England and other Western environments they of course came under the same cultural influences that everybody else growing up in those regions felt. It’s only natural that their traditional music would begin to feel the influence of the popular music that the young people would be listening to in their daily life.
Such was the case of Bhangra in England. It was already dance music, so I guess it was only natural that it would cross over into the world of Western dance music easily. Electric guitars, and keyboards were the first instruments added, and as dance music went from disco to reggae to rap to house, and hip hop, all these were added to the mix.
All the while, it maintained its grip on the traditional instruments, and language of the Punjabi, creating music that was both faithful to its roots and reflective of the people’s new surroundings. On this disc alone, you can hear reggae, disco, and dub effects along with a variety of other Western pop influences making a seamless blend with traditional instruments.
While some of the tracks on this disc are representations of the pure sound of the Punjabi, “Mehndi/Madhorama Pencha” is music for a ceremony that forms part of a traditional Punjabi wedding where the bride has her hands and feet painted with henna decorations, the majority demonstrate the modern adaptations. Performers have taken on rap-sounding appellations like “Juggy D”, or “Binder” and wear the ever-present baseball caps, athletic clothing, and “Bling” that have become the uniform of rap the world over.
While there are exceptions, the majority of the music sounds just like so much of everything else out there in pop music land. For too many of the songs included on this album the only difference seems to be the language and the choice of instruments. Bland pop/dance music is bland pop/dance music no matter what language it’s sung in or what instruments it’s played on.
Unlike other musical hybrids that have come out of South Asia, judging by the tracks included on this disc, the Bhangra dance music that is being played in clubs in England is just as bland and formulaic-sounding as dance music does in any country. Once the novelty of the language and the instruments wore off, I was no more impressed with it than I would be if it were in English and sung by whoever is the flavour of the month in North America.
That being said, for those of you who like dance music and are looking for an introduction into something different, this compilation is perfect for that. The Rough Guide To Bhangra Dance is up to World Networks’ usual high standards of presenting a wide variety and selection of what’s out there in this genre.
Not only that, but the enclosed information booklet supplied nice biographies of each performer represented on the disc, and substantial background information on Bhangra itself. (All the background information for this article came from that booklet.) If you put the CD into your computer and open it through your CD-Rom drive, you can access a data file that supplies even more information on the music and the performers.
This is a very well-produced package and provides a good introduction to the world of Bhangra dance music. Unfortunately, I found Bhangra dance music itself, to be well produced but unlike this disc, of little or no substance.