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The Original Bhangra King

chandigarh Updated: Jul 01, 2012 19:18 IST
Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Punjabi pop singer Channi honoured by Queen Elizabeth

Channi Singh, lead singer and founder of the illustrious Alaap music group was in the news last week for being honoured by Queen Elizabeth with the Order of the British Empire (OBE). This honour was bestowed upon him for his contribution to bhangra, charity and the community in Hounslow, UK.

Channi had shot into fame in the late 1970's for pioneering Punjabi hip-pop music. He remains one of the earliest exponents of pop bhangra after he introduced western instruments to traditional Punjabi songs which had led to a revolution in the Punjabi music industry and its fusion with various other genres of music. He, along with producer Deepak Khazanchi, introduced the synthesiser along with traditional instruments such as the dhol, tumba and ektara created modern music which they called melodious Punjabi tunes. This new music, which evolved from Southall (London), not only guaranteed the diaspora beats which they could boast of to their western peers, but it also saved Punjabi music from annihilation, as Punjab, because of terrorism, had almost been culturally divorced from the rest of the world.

Son of a police officer, Haracharanjit Aka Channi was born in Salar village in Sangrur district. He moved to UK in 1975 after completing his education in Malerkotla and DAV College, Jalandhar. His lucky break came in 1976 at a party in UK when his sister-in-law requested the invited ghazal band to allow Channi to sing a few songs. The host who happened to be a guitarist, impressed with Channi's voice, immediately floated the idea of starting a band. The ghazal player at the party, acknowledging Channi's voice also decided to join in since he could play the accordion. A tabla player was soon brought on board and Alaap, meaning the first note, was set up.

Surprisingly, the band started its career by performing in temples and Gurdwaras where people responded well to the introduction of the guitar and the accordion to the recitation of the religious hymns. The band's first performance was at the Ramgarhia Gurdwara in Southall and the hymn was Awal Alla Noor Upaya, Kudrat Ke Sab Bande. Soon the word spread and folks started turning up in huge numbers to listen to the new melody. As their popularity grew, the band started getting invites to universities, colleges and private parties and became hot property at multicultural events.

To cash in on this success, Channi quickly floated the idea of releasing an album. By then, another member who played the Punjabi instrument, the tumba, had joined the group. The group collected 2,000 pounds for the recording and handed 300 records to an agent to sell. He, however, returned the records with a note that he was unable to sell this hip-hop music. The matter was left to Geeta Bala of London Broadcasting Corporation who, after hearing Channi's music, decided to broadcast it on radio. Tables turned for the band and Alaap's first album, Teri Chuni De Sitare, a song inspired by the beauty of his wife, Dhanwant Kaur, changed Punjabi music forever.

The song, Bhabiye ne Bhabiye, from his second album confirmed Channi was no fluke, and established him as the pioneer of Punjabi pop, a genre which has grown manifold.

The columnist ia a Punjab-based author and journalist. He can be contacted at singhkhushwant@hotmail.com