The current Wikipedia page claims that bhangra was developed in England by Punjabi expatriates, and that “Birmingham is considered to be the hub of Bhangra music.” The essential property that defined bhangra was “a need to move away from the simple and repetitive Punjabi folk music” and consequently “folk instruments were rarely used.” Another web page asserts that “In a sense, bhangra music is one of the few immigrant music genres of the world that is absent in the home country.”
The talk page also had no consensus as to where the name came from. Some claimed that it derived from the word bhang, “an intoxicating drink made from marijuana.” Others claimed that this idea was “more folklore than anything else.” Some commenters on the talk page speculated that bhangra could be a part of Punjabi culture that predates Islam and Sikhism. The Bhangra page proper, however, describes the “prehistory” of bhangra as dating back only to the 1960s.
When I asked Daler Mehndi whether bhangra originated in England, he replied, “Absolutely not! Unfortunately you are ill-informed. Bhangra is from Bhangu clan (one of original Jat tribes)—from the inner most hearts of Punjab.” Mehndi certainly has a more plausible story for the origin of the name, but his definition of it is almost opposite of the one in the Wikipedia article. For him, bhangra is Punjabi folk music that British artists are moving away from. Mehndi claims, “I have the credit of taking bhangra global.” Some British bhangra fans, however, argue that Mehndi’s music is not really bhangra at all, but should be called “folk pop.”
Consequently, at one point in the editorial process, his name was completely removed from the Bhangra Wikipedia page, a decision that was criticized by a referee as reflecting only individual bias. “I personally think Daler Mehndi has twisted bhangra into a Bollywood mockery but I have kept him on there along with others.” Another referee countered by saying “I’m only an ignorant gori (girl) but I like Daler.”
The referees were using album sales to distinguish important bhangra artists from “somebody’s brother-in-law,” and by that criterion it made no sense to exclude Mehndi. Most top selling Bhangra albums reach sales of around 50 to 80,000. The one exception was Malkit Singh, who was listed in the 2001 Guinness Book of Records as having sold a total of 4.9 million albums. Mehndi, however, sold 20 million copies of a single album (Bolo Ta Ra Ra) thus making it the top selling non-filmi Indian album of all time.
Why then was Malkit Singh, and not Mehndi, listed as the top selling Bhangra artist? What is it about Mehndi’s music that so deeply offends bhangra purists that they refuse to even grant him the name? These “purists” reject the need for folk instruments, and some even claim that the 90s introduction of authentic folk music into bhangra remixes lead to the death of bhangra. They clearly don’t object to synthesizers, glittery costumes and flashy cars, or Mehndi’s pioneering use of green screen computer animation for his hit video “Tunak Tunak Tun.”
At the risk of offending at least one side of this controversy, I will speculate about the innovation in Mehndi’s music that both infuriates his detractors and delights his fans. Whatever other changes were added to Punjabi-British bhangra, it always kept the slow loping keharwa beat that was necessary for the traditional dances. Mehndi kept that beat, and most of the phrasings, vocal techniques and scales of traditional bhangra, but he sped it up to the tempo of Disco music. At that speed, the syncopated pickup of keharwa became intoxicating to fans throughout India, enabling Mehndi to sell 250,000 albums even in Kerala, where essentially no one speaks Punjabi.
Punjabi-British bhangra stars like Jazzy B often dress and act like rappers, and thus it appears that they express the voice of angry youth rebelling against parental tradition. In fact, the rebellion is actually aimed at the Anglo-Western culture that rejects both Africans and Punjabis as outsiders. Many of the dancers in Jazzy’s videos seamlessly combine hip-hop and break dancing with traditional Punjabi dancing, as if to say, “We’re here, but we’re still Punjabi.” This cultural synthesis would be difficult, perhaps impossible, at the tempos Mehndi uses. Nevertheless, there is still much affinity between Mehndi and his Punjabi-British colleagues. Although Mehndi always wears the traditional Sikh turban, his videos and performances often show a similar love of glitter, bling and attractive young women. This is not as big a break from Sikh tradition as one might think. Folk bhangra was rural party music, with flirtatious lyrics that glorified partying and dancing, and the Sikh religion has always rejected yogic practices that mortified the flesh. Consequently, it is not uncommon for Punjabi-British bhangra performers to return to traditional dress for certain performances, not out of regret and repentance, but as an acknowledgement that both the sacred and the sensuous have their place in God’s Universe.
Mehndi came from a family that performed and taught sacred and classical music for eight generations. He was not even allowed to listen to Punjabi folk and dance music when he was growing up. At the peak of his success, he is now returning to his spiritual roots. His most recent album features lyrics from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh sacred text, and a new instrument he has designed for accompanying sacred music he calls the Swarmandir.
Most importantly, he has devoted much of his time and wealth to the charitable work which is the heart of Sikh practice. He donated 85 million rupees to establish the Daler Mehndi Green Drive to help make a cleaner environment in Delhi, and built 16 houses in Gujarat after an earthquake there. He has also performed concerts to raise funds for the victims of natural disasters throughout India. None of this, however, will ever conflict with his desire to party with his fans. There is a time for this world and a time for the next, and the Sikh religion has long recognized that there is no necessary conflict between the two. On this point at least, bhangra fans can hopefully agree.
Teed Rockwell studied with Ali Akbar Khan for many years, and is the only person in the world to play Indian classical and popular music on his customized touchstyle veena. You can see and hear videos of his musical performances atwww.bollywoodgharana.com