Bhangra music – and dancing – is getting big in Portland
For millions of Americans, their first exposure to bhangra and Bollywood music was that exhilarating dance number at the end of “Slumdog Millionaire.”
And the fist-pumping hook of that chorus to A.R. Rahman’s Oscar-winning song,
Turns out Portlanders took these beats to heart years ago. Portland DJs Anjali and the Incredible Kid have been pulling in 300 folks a night for their Indian-fueled dance parties, Andaz. At eight years, it’s the longest-running monthly dance party in Portland.
And earlier this year, Mumbai transplant Prashant Kakad launched his “Jai Ho!” dance nights. Now twice monthly, the new parties at Lola’s Room are firing up another wave of appreciation for bhangra and Bollywood in Portland as well.
“I just love it! When he was showing us the dance steps I didn’t want to him to stop,” says Trish Kirchhoff, 52, who attended a recent “Jai Ho!” party for the first time with a few dance-curious girlfriends.
Kakad, who is DJ, emcee, dance instructor and sometimes singer at Jai Ho!, is the founder of Bollywood Dreams Entertainment, which produces the parties. Bollywood Dreams also brought top Indian soundtrack remixer DJ Suketu to the Roseland Theater this past spring. Tonight, India’s DJ Akbar Sami makes his Portland debut at Jai Ho!
Kakad’s own story sounds like something conjured up by Bollywood or Hollywood screenwriters. Think a Hindi “Flashdance” or “Step Up.”
Picture a kid growing up in Mumbai who loves singing and dancing, and even wins an Indian talent competition at age 12. He remains a “good middle Indian child” (Kakad’s own words), heads to the U.S., graduates with his master in chemical engineering from Cornell University, invents and patents an engineering device he describes as a “pregnancy test for bacteria” and lands a job at Intel.
But during all this time there’s a second life, hosting parties, DJing, teaching Indian dance classes and dreaming of becoming a Bollywood rock star.
Last summer, after hosting and performing all day at Portland’s India Festival, Kakad said it was time to make the dream a full-time reality. With supportive parents on the other end of the phone in India (“If I had been with them they probably would have said, ‘You have gone out of your mind,'” he says) he quit Intel.
His classes and gigs have been enough to keep him afloat, for which the 27-year-old yells a personal “Jai Ho!” (in Hindi, the phrase means “be victorious”).
“To survive and be as busy as I am in a foreign country?” Kakad says, astounded. “This was victory for anyone who thought of the crazy idea of quitting a job and doing something they love.”
It may be perfect timing for Kakad to bet on bhangra — and Portland.
Around 200 regulars have been showing up every second and fourth Saturday to his Lola’s Room parties. And 800 turned out to dance to the spins of DJ Suketu.
“This was the most people he pulled in on his tour in the U.S.,” Kakad says — a that tour included New York City and Dallas, cities with larger Indian American populations.
So what kind of music are we talking about exactly?
“Bhangra’s been a sort of catch-all term for all Indian music,” says Stephen Strausbaugh, half of the team of the Incredible Kid and DJ Anjali (Anju Hursh), purveyors of Indian dance music in Portland for a decade.
But it’s actually folk music of northern India, tipped off by Punjabi vocals and specific, percussive beats.
Bollywood refers to the soundtracks or music from the 800-plus films produced in each year Bollywood (Mumbai). The soundtracks can feature a variety of genres. Think of American movie or TV soundtracks, which usually include a love song, a sad song, a dance song. Bollywood lyrics are usually sung in Hindi.
The song “Jai Ho,” since it wasn’t produced in India, you might dub “Bollywood-eqsue,” Strausbaugh says.
Along with Andaz, Strausbaugh, 38, and Hursh, 37, (who is half-Indian) also host a weekly radio show on KBOO dedicated to Indian beats. The pair has been closely tracking the progress of bhangra and Bollywood into mainstream American music and culture. They never had doubts it would hit big.
Genres cross over
“I feel like Bollywood has done a better job of crossing over then bhangra,” Hursh says. “Because Bollywood is pushing its way into L.A.”
And vise versa. English-language pop stars from Kylie Minogue to Snoop Dogg have been popping up in Bollywood films and cutting tracks for the soundtracks.
“‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ which wasn’t even a Bollywood film, kind of really reached out farther than an all-Indian production could have,” Strausbaugh says. “They have their dance scene at the end, which is kind of a wink-wink tribute to Bollywood, and that was a lot easier, I think, for America to digest than a full-on Bollywood film.”
“Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny)” featuring vocals from Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger nearly cracked the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles. But Hursh and Strausbaugh are quick to highlight other crossover milestones, such as U.S. singer Truth Hurts’ 2002 top 10 hit “Addictive,” which sampled the Bollywood song “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai,” and Jay-Z’s hit remix of Panjabi MC’s “Mundian To Bach Ke” in 2003. M.I.A. borrowed extensively from Indian musical culture for her 2007 album “Kala.”
“I think that (Jay-Z’s hit) was more exciting to us than all the attention ‘Slumdog’ got,” Hursh says. “We were like, ‘I can’t believe this is on 95.5!'”
They’re also excited by recent cross-cultural milestones closer to home, including the revamped programming of the Joy Cinema in Tigard, which began showing Bollywood films this spring.
“It’s kind of big for Portland,” Hursh says. “And forever it was a little pipe dream I had that Portland would have its own Bollywood theater.”
Last summer, she was hired to DJ a non-Indian wedding for the first time. “They just wanted me to do my thing,” she says. They credit the open-mindedness and beat-hungry feet of Portlanders for Andaz’s eight-year marathon.
“The loyalty from the South Asian community really goes up and down. Sometimes the night will be 50 percent brown — and that’s awesome,” Hursh says. “But sometimes we’ll look out and just see five desis (Indians) I know. But I think Portland is so unique in so many ways.”
“Now, especially with ‘Slumdog,’ people are getting a taste of Indian culture,” noted attendee Paymon Hossini, 27, during Andaz’s recent anniversary party at Rotture. “And when they come here and feel the music, and dance, they can feel what it’s really all about.”
Originally published on The Oregonian by Lee Williams