Panjabi MC lights up Bollywood Bhangra

Panjabi MC




A type of popular dance music combining Punjabi folk traditions with Western pop music, fusing traditional drum-based music with elements of reggae, ragga, hip-hop, rock, soul, and dance.

World music promoters Cultural Cannibals have been putting together the extremely well-received Bollywood Bhangras since January of 2010, but this Friday's event is the biggest by far. The brightest star of the bhangra scene, Rajinder Singh Rai (known by his stage name Panjabi MC) will visit Indiana for the first time to play the event.

“Indian people are very passionate about music and the energy at the Bollywood Bhangra parties is like nothing else I've ever seen in Indianapolis; people are lifting each other on their shoulders and the entire room just explodes into dance,” said Kyle Long, a founder of Cultural Cannibals.

Visual artist Artur Silva is the other founder of the organization, which aims to use the arts as a force for social change; they've done events featuring the music of Haiti, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mexico, Cuba and Colombia this year.

Although previously wildly popular in India and the UK, Panjabi MC was catapulted to international stardom when mega-star Jay-Z remixed his track “Mundian To Bach Ke.” We spoke to him about making music that crosses borders, combines languages and interweaves new and old sounds.

NUVO: You've been making music a long time. How have you seen recognition of bhangra music change since you've been in the industry?

Panjabi MC: Bhangra was invented in England so it's always had many non-Indian followers. It has become a little more mainstream in later years. My music has gone from being labeled as “world music” to “dance music,” so that's good. I think there is an obvious language barrier which doesn't really exist in other underground music.

NUVO: Do you feel like something is lost when your fans cannot understand the language of the music they are listening to, or does it truly not matter?

PMC: I think it can work both ways. Sometimes finding out what the lyrics mean can even spoil the song. This has happened to me in the past. With my music I try to use concepts and samples which may give you a clue what a song is about, just in case you don't understand it. Also, I use the ultimate universal instrument, the dhol drum. Anywhere I go in the world, people always want to dance to this prehistoric sound.

NUVO: Describe the differences in fan bases/shows between India, the UK, the US and other European countries.

PMC: There are many crazy vibes and movements happening all over the world. India is becoming a big place for clubbing and DJ shows. I play my sound and mix it with the vibe that people are feeling. I always improvise something new for each show. There is no races or religions on the dance floor. I play a huge variety of crowds. With the Internet, there are global tracks in the charts everywhere.

NUVO: How did it feel to be singled out by Jay-Z?

PMC: It was great for me and the whole bhangra industry in general. It was the first time that a global name got involved in our music. It took the music to another level. I've always mixed hip hop and 'desi and to get a huge rap artist on that dhol beat was amazing.

NUVO: What album are you listening to right now? What book are you reading right now?

PMC: I'm reading manuals all the time. I like to try all the software that's out there, which means reading the online manual and tutorial. I'm listening to loads of old tracks lately and they seems to sound so much better me lately. Norah Jones - don't know why. Blackstreet. I just downloaded albums by The Police, Pink Floyd and Ace of Base!

NUVO: What performers do you admire?

PMC: I've always wanted to do a whole rap album. My next album, 56 Districts, started as a rap album. Then [I'll] get an amazing DJ and do some stage shows. Get my rapper look on! I think Busta Rymes is one of the best.

NUVO: Your music mixes traditional and very contemporary work. Which do you tend to listen to?

PMC: That's true, I've always wanted to get the best of both worlds. I think that traditional instruments and vocal styles have a power which hits the soul. Mix them with some bass and that's my sound. The “Been” instrument in “Snake Charmer” was recorded in India with a real snake in the studio. Then, I added an 808 kick drum and a lot of sub bass. I knew that the frequencies would work in the clubs.

NUVO: As an international artist, where do you feel most at home performing?

PMC: I love Canada, the USA, Punjab, and Russia but equally everywhere else I go. UK has the biggest bhangra scene. However, in Europe the crowd doesn't get as [many performers], so it is always lively.

NUVO: Have you been in Indiana before?

PMC: Actually I haven't been before. I am really looking forward to coming. I'm bringing my exclusives! Right now I'm playing my exclusive “Moorni Remix,” featuring Warren G, and my first single from the new album, "Bhari Barsi."


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.