Non-Stop Bhangra Seven Year Anniversary
Oct. 15, 2011
Better than: Sweating it out at a Bikram yoga studio
It all started in the 14th Century. Bored wheat farmers in Punjab (a region in Northern India and Pakistan) created a dance based on the motions involved in harvest. That dance was called bhangra, and it's been passed down to the present through tradition. Today, it's a force in popular culture, commanding a loyal following with high-profile endorsements from the likes of Jay-Z and Missy Elliot. Yet, contemporary bhangra is much more than hip-hop and folk dances; the scope of the Punjabi diaspora has allowed the music to encounter and assimilate aspects of such diverse styles as dancehall and electrohouse.
Here in the Bay Area, the best place to catch this hybrid form of music is at the long running Non-Stop Bhangra party. Based around the Dholrhythms dance troupe/studio, it's an evangelizing force that has formed the crux of the local scene through instruction, publicity, and a national touring schedule. It was the party's seven-year anniversary last Saturday and, never having heard bhangra in a club, Kahley and I decided to give it a shot.
Going to Rickshaw Stop was an exercise in memory repression. The large converted TV studio on Fell Street was opened in the early '00s and played host to some of that period's most ridiculous excesses (think Von Dutch hats, white belts, all black, and electroclash). I hadn't been back in a while, so imagine my surprise when we walked up to find a fairly modest (but enthusiastic) "business casual" crowd milling around. We waited in the line for a minute and passed through the front door.
Inside, we walked in to find an undulating mass of arms in the air. The room was an anemone, with multiple tentacles all working in time to the music. Looking around, everyone seemed to be smiling, and the room had a loose, freewheeling vibe that I usually only associate with private parties. One of the most striking things about this vibe was that it encouraged people to dance, and specifically, to try to dance bhangra steps.
Not wanting to look like wallflowers, we got into the throng of people. Immediately a funny thought hit me -- that the girls were not dancing very much. Moving through the crowd, there were a lot of men doing intricate dance moves, but not nearly as many girls reciprocating. I later learned that this is due to bhangra's traditional work-dance roots.
The music throughout the evening was all over the place. Jimmy Love, the resident DJ, played his music house-style, with blends and mixes that seamlessly connected his tracks logically. He played a wide assortment of styles, including mash-ups and classics that filled the room out with a relentless percussive onslaught. Dub Mission's DJ Sep followed him with less success. Her style of DJing lacked any rhyme or reason, with a couple off-beat, mid-chorus transitions that stopped the room at peak time. These moments highlighted another issue that nagged at the entire evening: the sound. Though I don't think anyone's ever associated the Rickshaw Stop with good sound (after all, it was once the epicenter of the 90kbps-MP3 "blog house" phenomenon), the system was especially poor on Saturday night, with tinny and distorted highs and not much bass to speak of. This lack of low-end was made up for, however, by the live drumming provided by Non Stop Bhangra's "dhol" drummers.
It was a culturally eye-opening experience. Yet, one that ultimately gave me ear fatigue. We left at about 1:30 right after someone got on the mic and shouted, "Do we got any Punjabi's in the house?!" The answer from the crowd? A resounding yes.