Banking on Bhangra
Indian farmers seek fame and fortune through Bhangra beat.
AS Balbir Jagga drives a tractor around his farm in north-western India, he dreams that the fields he tills will propel him to international music stardom.
Jagga, like thousands of other amateur singers in Punjab, sees Bhangra music as a route out of rural life – and he is saving all his income, and even selling off a small plot of land, to make his debut music video and album.
“For years, I have been a mundane farmer, buying seeds, waiting for the rains, harvesting crops, season after season,” says Jagga at his farm in Pathankot, 240km from Punjab’s state capital Chandigarh. “But in the evenings, I am a super Bhangra music star, recording songs for my album and planning a video shoot,” he adds with a smile.
Jagga, 30, is one of many Punjabi villagers trying to repeat the success of Jasbir Jassi, Mika Singh and other big names as Bhangra dance music has become a major international music trend over the last 15 years.
He has penned more than a dozen songs in the Gurumuki script used to write the Punjabi language and now he hopes his music video will be the next step to stardom.
Jagga admits that he is taking a big gamble investing all his savings in the video, which will cost more than US$10,000 (RM31,000).
“You may laugh at my venture but for the people of Punjab, music is the biggest high and I am addicted to it,” he says.
Bhangra originally began with Sikh farmers like Jagga singing folk songs to celebrate the arrival of the harvest season, before developing into popular music.
It spread across India via Bollywood, where actors like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan have often danced to its energetic beat, and has gained popularity in many other countries where Indians have emigrated.
Today it often symbolises the extrovert, party-loving side of South Asian culture and attracts an international audience with dance competitions and radio stations in Britain, the United States and Canada.
“Bhangra is an integral part of Punjab’s everyday life,” says one of Jagga’s heroes, Jasbir Jassi. “We are crazy for our music and we have made the world go crazy for it too.”
In Punjab itself, at least 45 channels play non-stop Bhangra music – often with videos from amateur singers hoping to make it big. MY first reunion gig was the Velvet Underground in 1993. At the time, bands didn’t reunite much; legendary bands certainly didn’t. And after the gig I glumly wished they hadn’t.
It wasn’t just the well-lit lager’n’hot dogs ambience of Wembley Arena in London. Or the sole “new track”, something called Coyote, which involved Lou Reed doing wolf noises. Ultimately, it was the massed lighter-waving during Heroin that made me write reunions off as a bad idea.
It’s been hard to sustain that feeling – either I’m less snobbish these days or reunions are just a lot more common. Pulp’s announcement last week of a series of gigs next year with their definitive mid-90s lineup was met with delight but not any particular shock.
When bands split now they enter the revolving-door afterlife familiar to superheroes and soap villains – it’s only a matter of time before they’re back.
Not that all reunions work. Here’s my five-point plan for any band thinking of
Punjabi singer Jasbir Jassi posing with a model during the shooting of a music video for his new album on the outskirts of Pathankot, Punjab. The singers’ telephone numbers are flashed on the bottom of the screen to allow viewers – or perhaps even professional agents – to book them for weddings and other festivities.
“I have decided to get out of my Punjabi attire, wear a three-piece suit and shoot the music video in my village,” says Jagga. “My songs portray my love for Punjab.”
Industry experts and owners of recording studios estimate that more than 10,000 Punjabi music albums are produced every year. “It is a mad race among farmers, A customer looking through CDs and DVDs at a music store in Amritsar, Punjab. Bhangra is big in Punjab. students and even housewives to establish themselves as a singer. Everybody here wants to be signing autographs for fans,” says Ramandeep Singh, manager at Josh, a 24-hour music channel in Chandigarh.
Ramandeep says many artists currently ruling the Bhangra scene in India such as Satinder Sartaj were once farmers. “Some clicked and became stars, but most have been forgotten and faded away,” he says.
Ramandeep is now producing an album which will feature 12 farmers singing about the struggle and distress of amateur performers who cannot break into the glamour world they crave.
Deepak Bali, owner of Plasma Records production company, admits that the music industry has given a false hope to many Punjabis. “All the hype and over-exposure surrounding the billion-dollar market has the potential to kill the craze for Bhangra,” he says. “The quality talent has gone missing. Every village seems to boast three singers and four lyricists.”
But the dream lives on for many, including Sukhdev Kaur, a housewife and a mother of two who is due to release her album Adventure Meri Life (My Life Is An Adventure) next year. She sold her gold jewellery to produce the album, on which she sings love duets with her neighbour’s son.
“My husband is a farmer, he refused to help me so I decided to sell the gold,” she says. “We are farmers but that does not mean we cannot be Bhangra stars.” – AFP least make your return an event. This is where Pulp – like Blur before them – are scoring well, suggesting a handful of specialoccasion gigs rather than a wholesale return to action.
And finally, don’t jump the gun. Bands stop because they get sick of each other or an audience gets sick of them. Those conditions take time to heal – the best part of a decade in most successful reunion cases.
Even if you check all these boxes you might find lingering opposition to the idea. When bands get back together they can kill the romance of a group by overwriting precious memories.
Reunions can also imply that an individual’s artistic growth since a band split isn’t worth very much – it’s noticeable that Damon Albarn has been very keen to counter that notion by positioning the revived Blur as simply another project, rather than any kind of homecoming.
Revivals add to a conservative streak in pop culture, the sense you get when scanning music magazine racks that the past is more worth celebrating than the now. – Guardian News & Media 2010