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January/February 2006 issue


Bhangra beat
Blending techno with tradition, musicians in suburban Surrey, B.C., are transforming the folk music of the Punjab to produce a sound all their own
Excerpt of story by Charles Foran

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A propulsive, hard-on-the-beat song blasts from the speakers. Audience members, some clearly friends and family, emerge from a stupor of inattention to welcome a group of dancers onstage. It is midway through a showcase of South Asian dance at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition last August, and the UBC Girlz bhangra team, a dozen young women wearing blazing smiles and dazzling costumes, launches into an energized and brash routine. More than eight minutes long, the drill involves, by one count, nine tempo changes and nearly as many shifts in style. The performance blends traditional bhangra — centuries- old dances from the Punjab region of northern India — with the latest hip-hop moves and the rolls and throws of American cheerleading. Handclapping to the beat, dancers line up in opposing camps and imitate a courtship joust, complete with shrugging shoulders and wagging fingers. They also spin one another and drop into squats. The team ends by constructing a pyramid and holding the pose, chests heaving and free arms outstretched. "Hey-hey-hey!" someone in the audience shouts, employing a Punjabi shout of appreciation.


In India, such a performance could well be misread as disrespectful — of both South Asian culture in general and Punjabi customs in particular. For sure, the UBC Girlz, like the dozens of university and private dance squads that have emerged across North America in the past 15 years or so, don’t dance as their ancestors danced. How could they, being second- and third-generation Canadians raised on hip hop and Janet Jackson videos?

CG In-depth:
The ground of music

Our musical landscape, so instrumental in our daily lives, strikes a vibrant chord in the sweeping composition that is Canada.
Likewise, the medley of tunes to which the squads dance isn’t drawn only from the northern Indian state where farmers once sang songs and evolved drum rhythms to accompany their workdays. Again, why would young musicians of Punjabi descent, who are hearing everything from rap to reggae to rock ’n’ roll, not toss these influences into their musical mixes? Cultural art forms weaken and eventually expire when they cease to have meaning in people’s lives. How young women attending the University of British Columbia (UBC) decide to dance and the necessarily raucous music they choose are both indicators of the vitality of the culture — not of the Punjab, transposed 11,500 kilometres away, but of the new Canada, in one of its many singular and evolving manifestations.

With its large East and South Asian populations, Vancouver is the natural setting for cultural evolution from within these groups. More than half of Canada’s 285,000 Punjabis call the Lower Mainland home, making the region the logical epicentre. More exactly, it is to the sprawling satellite city of Surrey that the majority of young Punjabi Canadians return after rehearsal at UBC or Simon Fraser University. In the suburban basements and community halls of Surrey, a new sound is coming together. And although the official cross is of traditional bhangra and various Western beats, the real encounter is between inherited markers of creative identity — those grounded, so to speak, in that fertile Punjabi soil — and notions that belong to the cultural soil directly beneath our feet. If that makes bhangra hip hop at once a product of tradition and innovation, past and future, East and West, so much the better. Complex identities make for complex and interesting art. The challenge, as it often is, is to reshape the tradition — labour done most easily and naturally in those basements and community halls — and then somehow bring it out to the wider world, fresh and smart and ready to command any dance floor in any Canadian town.

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