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Bhangra tunes from foreign shores

Alienated from their roots, these music artistes of Indian origin made the western world fall in love with Punjabi folk tunes. Now, they are set to revive its magic in their native land by Usmeet Kaur.

brunch Updated: Aug 23, 2013 17:20 IST

Punjabis are omnipresent and so is Punjabi music. But, who expected the western world to fall in love with bhangra music? In the last decade, Asian music industry in countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia has grown by leaps and bounds and is sold out on Punjabi folk music.

It owes its expansion to not just a shrinking global space, but also to some music artistes of Punjabi origin who are dedicatedly infusing traditional notes to electronic guitar, rap and jazz strains. Now, collaboration with Bollywood brings these artistes closer home. We talk to the top five that you’ll be hearing a lot more of in the coming days.

‘Punjabi music is everywhere!’

Nindy Kaur, singer

Based in: Toronto, Canada

Starting up: Nindy is remembered best for collaborating with UK-based band of British Sikh brothers RDB, for the title track of 2009 Hindi film Aloo Chaat. Many Bollywood songs later, the singer is raring to go where Punjabi music is concerned.

Having loved music since she was a little child, Nindy grew up listening to Punjabi beats. “My dad used to listen to a lot of old school bhangra tunes by singers such as Kuldeep Manak, Mohammad Sadiq and Surinder Shinda, so, I used to often sing along,” she recalls. When Nindy got married to Manj (one of the three brothers comprising RDB), he heard her constantly hum these tunes. “One day, out of the blue, Manj asked me to sing some hook lines (part of a song, sometimes the title or key lyric line that keeps recurring) for a song called Desi Fly Chick in 2009. That started my journey as a singer. From Bollywood to stage shows, it’s been great, I would say Manj is my mentor,” the singer gushes.

Debut and beyond: From her first gig at the age of 16, which Nindy performed in the US along with Shehzad Roy and Sukhbir on her first single Aaja Sajna (from RDB’s album Danger 3) to releasing many other singles that went on to top the music charts, including Akhian featuring Blitzkrieg, 2 Seater (feat. Angle) and this year’s Deewani (feat. RDB), BBM (feat. Raftaar) and Gal Mitro (feat. Raftaar), Nindy has had a smooth run. In Bollywood, she has numerous hit songs to her credit, including Aloo Chaat (title track; 2009), Kambakht Ishq (for the song Om Mangalam, feat RDB; 2010) and Yamla Pagla Deewana (collaboration with singer Sonu Nigam, RDB; 2011).
Nindy believes her biggest asset is that she is a British-born and yet speaks and writes fluent Punjabi.

Punjabi music’s global outreach: Nindy believes being a Punjabi singer is the ‘coolest trend’ these days. “From Bollywood filmmakers to mainstream US artistes — everyone is incorporating Punjabi music. I was listening to American singer Selena Gomez’s new song the other day and it has a Punjabi hook line! Even Hindi film Singh is Kinng’s song Sheran Di Kaum saw collaboration with Snoop Dogg (now Snoop Lion) and Ludacris.”

Next up: Nindy has a collaboration planned, but can’t reveal much at the moment. “You’ll have to wait for that!” she chimes.

Early life

Nindy’s journey from being a British Sikh to a known Punjabi-Hindi singer hasn’t been easy.
“After I finished education, we moved to Canada to help settle my brother. My parents were very hardworking factory workers who went on to own their own clothing business in the UK. But, life while growing up was a struggle. We lived on rent in one bedroom when I was little,” Nindy says.

She married Manj in 2002 and it’s been 11 years of an amazing marriage since, she smiles. For the initial three years of her marriage, Nindy was juggling two jobs and Manj performed at the ‘minimum price’, she tells us. “We once had only five pounds in our account,” she recalls with a sigh.

“Punjabi music is going global. It is already mainstream in India”

Bikram Singh, Singer/songwriter

Based in: Long Island, New York, US

Starting up: Born in India, Bikram shifted to the US after his father migrated to New York City in the 1980s. An attorney in New York, Bikram says he tries to visit India as often as he can to stay connected to his roots.

His training in music started by practicing kirtan on the harmonium at a local gurdwara. “Music has always been a part of our house. Growing up, I heard and sang along to famous Punjabi songs; Malkit Singh being my favourite singer. I developed an interest in writing as well and wrote a lot of poetry and Punjabi songs,” he adds.

Debut and beyond: In 2000, Bikram put together a demo CD with five songs and put it on a website developed by his brother. “I sent the link to several record labels as well as production companies, including Tigerstyle from Scotland. They showed a lot of interest in working with me and I flew over to Scotland to record our first single called Taakre,” he says.

In the same year, Bikram performed his first gig at the New York University’s Sikh association event held in New York City.

His first album was American Jugni in 2005, of which a song called Kawan featuring female artist Gunjan was a huge hit.

Bikram has collaborated with the likes of DJ Rekha, American rapper/songwriter Wyclef and American alternative hip-hop group Das Racist apart from Punjabi artist PropheC from Canada.
“My songs have been featured in numerous Hollywood projects including A Mighty Heart featuring Angelina Jolie, NBC’s TV series Outsourced, Fox’s series New Girl and many other TV shows,” says Bikram.

Punjabi music’s global outreach: “Punjabi music is now mainstream in India. It is how hip-hop was once underground music, played only in certain clubs or areas. Punjabi music is also becoming global,” believes Bikram.

Next up: Bikram is currently working on his next album, to be released at the end of this year. “We have already done six tracks and two videos. The first single from the album is called Billo Rani, with music production by Sunil Sehgal. We recently released another track called Boliyan Paavan. I have also collaborated with Mentor Beats for a single titled Pabh Chak,” he tells us.

“I first learnt to respect and value Punjabi culture and heritage”

Ishmeet Narula, singer/lyricist
Based in: San Francisco, California, US

Starting up: Born in a Sikh family in Delhi, Ishmeet’s first music teacher was her father Surinder Singh Narula, who helped her recite the Gurbani and pick the right knowledge of the raagas when she was five years old. “He was part of the epic tune of the shabad Koi bole Ram Ram on the TV programme Sarab Sanjhi Gurbani, and that was the first musical piece and shabad that I learnt. I was also trained in Indian classical music by Ajit Kaur ji in Delhi,” she says.

Later, Ishmeet was tutored by Ustad Abdul Aziz Khan Sahab (who belongs to the family of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahab from Kasur Patiala gharana). “He taught me not just classical Indian music, but also Punjabi folk music,” she says. Ishmeet counts her exposure to Punjabi and Urdu languages and her interest in Punjabi culture as her strongest points. “I have grown up listening to epic stories of Punjab including Heer Ranjha and Sassi Punnu and to voices of legends such as Surinder Kaur, Gurdas Maan and Kuldeep Manak. Music, for me, is much more than singing. I first learnt how to respect and value Punjabi culture and heritage,” she says.

Debut and beyond: Ishmeet’s first performance on stage was at the age of five, when she sang Tutak Tutak Tutak Tutiyan, a popular Punjabi song by singer Malkit Singh. “As a professional singer, I have shared the stage with bigwigs including Shankar Mahadevan, RDB, Malkit Singh, Sukhwinder Singh, Anup Jalota, Geeta Zaildar, Surjit Bindrakhiya, Mika and Sukshinder Shinda,” she informs with pride.

In 2008, she appeared on Zee TV’s music reality show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. Ishmeet sang professionally for the first time in music director Gaurav Dayal’s song, but shot to fame with the song Ik Jindree in 2010, by UK-based producer/DJ DDS. “It was a beautiful folk tune written and composed by Bikram Singh. The song was recorded in the US and shot in the UK. It was a huge success and remained on top of BBC Asian music charts for quite some time,” she adds.

Ishmeet believes her music is a mix of many things — life in general, inspirations, emotions and lyrics. “I try to experiment with genres and instruments, so knowing how to play the harmonium and Tumbi helps me in composing music,” she adds. Currently, Ishmeet is a part of two bands in the US. “One is a Punjabi folk band that goes by my name and the other is a fusion band called Eastern Brew,” the singer informs. “I always try to do things that I feel happy about. If I am not happy or satisfied with my music, how will I make others happy with it?” she asks.

Punjabi music’s global outreach: “Living in California, I know how much Americans love Punjabi music. It is also fascinating to know how the Punjabis living here have kept their culture alive. I feel immense satisfaction when I go to bhangra competitions and see American-born Indian students doing amazing bhangra. Right now, the Punjabi music industry needs quality music and lyrics. The audience these days is aware and does not want to hear meaningless or tasteless music anymore,” she says.

Next up: “You will hear my next album towards the end of the year, a collaboration with Tigerstyle and Indian lyricist Bunty Bains,” Ishmeet tells us.

‘Punjabi music has the X-factor that adds spunk’

Tigerstyle (comprising Amritpal Singh Burmy (Pops) and Kulraj Singh Burmy (Raj); music composers

Based in: Glasgow, Scotland

Starting up: Together, brothers Pops and Raj, known better as Tigerstyle, have created a style of music that they like to call ‘digi-bhang’, also the name of their latest music album. Their first album, The Rising, came out in 2000 and brought them to the attention of the UK bhangra industry.

One of its tracks, Nachna Onda Nei, remained at the top of music charts for almost eight weeks. After working on a host of Bollywood films and collaborations with international music artistes, the group is now creating its first Punjabi film soundtrack. Born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland, Pops and Raj come from a traditional Sikh family that migrated to Scotland in the 1970s. Pops studied architecture at the Glasgow School of Art while Raj pursued music from Stow College and University of West Scotland, Paisley.

Debut and beyond: Pops and Raj began learning to play the tabla at nine and 10 years of age respectively. “Our ustad, Vijay Kangutkar had just moved to Glasgow from Mumbai and we happened to be his first students,” says Raj. Apart from learning to play tabla, the two also learnt to read and write Punjabi at a local gurudwara, where they were taught to recite poetry and Sikh prayers and sing kirtan by the granthi.

They started as DJs in the late ’90s, playing mostly at private parties. “Our first major gig was at a club night, arranged by our own money. Luckily, the night was a success and we were soon holding regular club events,” shares Pops about their early years. Tigerstyle (which they named themselves after they turned music producers in 2000) have shared the stage with internationally renowned artistes such as Lily Allen, Talvin Singh, Damian Marley, Jay Sean, The Dub Pistols, Fun-Da-Mental, Misty in Roots and Panjabi MC. They are one of the few Asian acts to have recorded a live session for the legendary late Sir John Peel on BBC Radio 1 and also performed at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Their 2013 album Digi-Bhang features collaborations with Punjabi singers Labh Janjua, Raj Brar, Jaspinder Narula, Rani Randeep and others. Tigerstyle’s Bollywood debut came in the form of remixes of the songs Bas Ek King and Bhootni Ke from the 2008 film Singh is Kinng. “We worked along with music composer Pritam on films such as Love Aaj Kal, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, Crook, Action Replayy and Mausam and were subsequently approached by music director Ram Sampath to work on a remix of Bedardi Raja from Delhi Belly and Fuk Fuk Fukrey from Fukrey,” says Raj.

Punjabi music’s global outreach: Tigerstyle believe Punjabi music industry is constantly progressing.

Next up: Working on their first Punjabi film soundtrack, the two are also producing a song of an upcoming Bollywood film.

‘I try to help preserve Punjabi folk music’

Tru-Skool, music producer/sound engineer
Based in: Derby, UK

Starting up: Sukhjit Singh Olk represents Tru-Skool and is a UK-based music producer who is adept at playing the tabla, Dholki, Dhol, Naal, Tumbi, harmonium and Algoza among other instruments. Born in a traditional Punjabi household, Olk had a passion for music early on.

Debut and beyond: “My journey in music started when I was three years old. My paternal uncle Ranjit Singh Olk was a bhangra dancer, so I took an avid interest in percussion instruments. I would skip my mid-morning and lunch breaks to play the drums and create hip-hop beats with my friends,” he says. When he was 14, Olk became a part of a rap group called Outta Orda and played drums at school concerts. His first album as a music producer was Word Is Born in 2004, in which he collaborated with Specialist, with whom he later created another album called Repazent in 2006.

“I can claim that Word is Born brought the use of Dholki back in most Punjabi songs. I genuinely believe that Tru-Skool and Specialist made the industry return to Punjabi folk. Also, Jatt Khaarku from Back to Basics was at No. 1 on BBC’s Official Download Music Charts Top 40,” he says.

Punjabi music’s global outreach: “Parts of England are moving towards the Punjabi folk scene, but I believe people in Punjab lack respect for Punjabi folk music, which is very sad.

I will always try my best to preserve Punjab’s folk music,” he states.

Next up: “I have just completed a track for upcoming Punjabi film Jatt Boys — Putt Jattan De, that is expected to release late August 2013,” says Olk.

First Published: Aug 17, 2013 16:05 IST