When Rekha Malhorta first started splicing electronic style with bhangra, traditional Punjabi music, in the basement of the Knitting Factory not 10 years ago, the audience wasn't sure how to respond. To the stolid listeners, steady in their seats, DJ Rekha called out, "This is a dance party. No anthropology allowed."
Some DJs are content to let you relax into the billowing, almost psychedelic sounds of bhangra, but for Rekha it's all about dancing. These days young urbanites form a line that stretches down the block from S.O.B.'S, Manhattan's hottest hip-hop club, for the chance to crowd Rekha's dance floor at the monthly Basement Bhangra. Around 200 are turned away, mostly men. Those lucky enough to make it inside are packed into the mass of Desis, kids of South-Asian descent, all bouncing and gesticulating, mimicking dance steps from popular Bollywood movies. The room vibrates to the thudding drum line as high-pitched feminine and dulcet masculine voices flutter up and down the scale, intertwining with the rhythm. It feels like a hip-hop party, only the demographics and cultural accoutrements are different.
In her early thirties, Rekha has already been through her first round with the mainstream media wringer, interviewed by the likes of New York magazine and The Washington Post. The Desi community is poised on the edge of the mainstream as their numbers--and spending power--grow high enough to attract the attention of the media. For Queens-reared Rekha, music, the impulse to dance, is the means by which she can create a public forum for the Desi community.
American pop culture has become so homogenized; the listening audience is handed one teen pop star after another, all poured from the same mold. Is it any surprise that many music lovers are turning to other cultures to add a little "spice" to their benumbed palates? While music may be a facile tool for transcending cultural barriers, the media, and as a result the typical American consumer, is inclined to exoticize music from other cultures.
Editors from what Rekha termed a hipster magazine, interested in writing a profile on her, recently attended Basement Bhangra and Mutiny, another party produced by Rekha which tends to be much more racially mixed. Much to Rekha's consternation, the magazine decided to cover Basement Bhangra. Bristling at the reporters' interest in the ethnic angle, she concedes, "you can't beat the exposure being published in a magazine gets you."
When trying to wade through any conversation about the history of a cultural hybrid, verbal gymnastics ensue. Ask Rekha what she thinks about the term Desi, and she'll make a face. Ask Rekha what she thinks of terms like Asian Massive and Asian Underground, and she's quicker to express her disdain. Terms that attempt to classify art emanating from a broad geographical swath typically ignore a great deal of cultural variation, but as Rekha is fond of saying, "He who names it claims it."
As cultural movements first garner attention in the press, it is often an outsider, typically a white middle-class journalist, who names it. The handle dubbed by the outsider gets picked up by other media outlets and the larger audience.
Though Rekha is irritated with a general lack of nuanced reporting, she doesn't see the popular consumption of bhangra as a necessarily negative thing: "Nobody owns culture. I think it's about respect. It's when people discover things that exist...that's what's upsetting. Ultimately, when you bring something to a larger audience, that's a good thing, but it's how you do it."
Rekha also takes issue with the way many people, from within and outside of the community, have cast her as a pioneer or founder of the Desi music scene. "I'm not aiming to create a community; it already exists," she says. "My goal is to create a space."
The Desi community does pile onto her dance floor, and, as with any community, it comes with baggage in tow. Rekha admits, "[Basement Bhangra] is not safe for queer people. It's not safe for women." She has no desire to scare women away from the event, but acknowledges "it's a reality in any dance club. It's about age and alcohol."
In October, Rekha was invited by the Pakistani club at Queens College, Rekha's alma mater, to spin for a women's only party. Unlike Rekha's parents, who are Hindu and Sikh, most Pakistanis are raised in an Islamic tradition that forbids women to dance in front of men. Still, with no men to dress up for, with no men at which to flutter their lashes, the young Pakistani-American women crowded the mirrors in the ladies room that night, adjusting their glittering, gauzy gowns and meticulously applying their mascara. They even wore painfully elegant strappy heels and fashionable platforms--but only until the music started. Shoes and restraint left aside, the women lost themselves in the music, their bare feet slapping the floor as they bounced and posed. Though the inclination of most Americans, raised under the illusion that gender inequity is largely a thing of the past in our culture, may be to read this traditional division of the sexes as oppressive, it is easier for most women to lose themselves in the moment without worrying about a wandering eye or hand.
Rekha always hesitates when making critical statements, even if true, about the Desi community, recognizing that some rivals within it would use the opportunity to accuse her of divisiveness. It is a common concern for a female artist operating in a male-dominated field.
The bhangra music scene in South Asia is as daunting for women to enter as the electronic music scene in New York. "They're both really male in a lot of ways," says Rekha. While the bhangra scene is insular, Rekha believes that technology is the primary obstacle for women entering the New York scene. Educational biases within the American system lead most women to feel less comfortable with technology than the average man. Additionally, it would be naive to assume that we have reached the point where women artists can feel at ease participating in a masculine environment.
At the 2000 CMJ Music Marathon, Rekha and a panel of popular women DJs hosted a session that was advertised as an introductory course in spinning for women. Ninety percent of those who showed up were men who, when asked, admitted to being experienced DJs. Rekha felt as if the women DJs were being tested. "Why are you guys here," she wondered. "You just want to make sure we know what we are talking about?"
No longer the bug under the glass, Rekha is losing her novelty as a female DJ as more women edge into the field. Even the Desi subculture is losing it's flavor-of-the-month appeal in the press. As Rekha puts it, "How many times can you discover something?"
The way she sees it, normalization is a good thing. Once the luster of exoticism is wiped away, all that is left for the audience are the intricate and encompassing sounds of the music.