Vancouver-area bhangra is on the brink of something big.
The first indicator that the West Coast/British Columbia bhangra and desi music scene is on the verge of wider recognition came with 2016’s “Suit,” a massive hit throughout India that was recorded and released by Indian singing sensation Guru Randhawa and Canada’s own Aneil Kainth, a.k.a. DJ Intense.
“Suit,” as of this writing, has surpassed 65 million YouTube views, and Kainth says he couldn’t ask for a greater professional impact in his music. “It has definitely taken my career to a height that I didn’t think was ever possible in my life,” laughs Intense, who composed and produced the bilingual track, which boasts a danceable, polyrhythmic beat, and a foundation of electronic sounds. “Basically, being here, from Canada, and experiencing that in India, it’s broadened my horizons and broadened my reach… So far, the opportunities and the people that I’ve been able to meet have been unreal.”
Some of those include India favourite Jasmin Sandlas – whose “Haaniyan” kicked off Intense’s 2016 album 124, and has racked up more than two million YouTube views – as well as Canadians G.S. Hundal and Karan Aujla, the latter a teen sensation.
DJ Intense isn’t the only Canadian success story making global inroads: bhangra bands Delhi 2 Dublin and En Karma, rapper Horsepowar, DJ Khanvict, dhol (an Indian double-headed drum) and harmonium specialist and DJ Raju Johal, Dave Bawa, and producer and performer Harj Nagra are just a few of the current and future bright lights of the joyous, upbeat Punjabi music being embraced by India, and its population of 1.3 billion people. The West Coast scene itself encompasses a territory that ensnares Richmond, Surrey, and Burnaby in its lower mainland grip, and sports an estimated South Asian population of more than 300,000.
There are also bhangra and desi music pioneers in greater Vancouver, who’ve laid the groundwork since the late 1980s, and have made their presence known abroad: Surrey-raised superstar Jaswinder Singh “Jazzy B” Bains, the self-styled “President of bhangra”; Surrey-based religious singer K.S. Makhan; actor and singer Sarbjit Cheema; Richmond, BC, brothers Kamal Heer and Manmohan Waris; and Burnaby’s Harbhajan Mann.
But despite a lengthy history and a highly concentrated talent pool, bhangra musicians go virtually unnoticed in their Canadian homeland. It’s a perception Delhi 2 Dublin founder and leader Tarun Nayar, who doubles as the artistic director of the City of Bhangra Festival held annually in June, hopes to change. To that end, he’s produced a Telus-financed documentary Bhangra City, which documents the music so overlooked in the province, premiering June 12 at the Van City Theatre, during the 2017 festival. SOCAN A&R Administrator Melissa Cameron will attend a desi music incubator during the festival, on June 11 at the Surrey Arts Centre.
“It’s about what’s going on with this hidden sub-culture of Punjabi music in Vancouver, that has produced some of the biggest names in Punjabi pop: people who are getting tens, hundreds of millions of plays on YouTube, and yet are totally unrecognized in Vancouver,” says Nayar. “All of them have a home base in the lower mainland, but they’re absent from what we think of as the music industry. The bhangra scene here has been relatively strong since the early ‘80s, so there’s a huge resource of people here that haven’t really been tapped into.”
Nayar says it’s discrimination, due to outdated perceptions, that has kept key Vancouver clubs from booking bhangra acts. “As a brown person in Vancouver, [I say that] probably because of this somewhat inaccurate perception of South Asian people being tied to gangs – there was some gang stuff that happened here in the ‘90s and early 2000s – it’s very, very difficult for brown people to get gigs in clubs in Vancouver,” Nayar explains. “So this scene can’t exist in public spaces, with very few exceptions, even though many of these DJs from Surrey have tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, and every show they play is jammed. But they’ll never be able to get a Friday or Saturday night [gig] in the city.”
However, that doesn’t mean that the local bhangra movement lacks for outlets. Another unexpected circuit has picked up the slack. “The whole thing has shifted to wedding culture,” says Nayar. “The biggest DJs and the biggest names in the scene are playing weddings, because that’s where they can play. It’s also where a lot of money can be made. Punjabi and Indian weddings are big affairs: there are 1,000 to 2,000 people at these weddings, and there’s a scene there. But because it can’t blend over into the mainstream, these weddings turn into raves, basically, with huge robots, and confetti cannons, and lasers, and smoke.”
DJ Asad Khan, known to his followers as Khanvict, says Indian weddings are much different in focus than Western weddings. “If you’re at a Western wedding, the DJ is not really the spectacle of the wedding,” he explains. “The focus is on the couple, the big decor and the food. Whereas with Indian weddings, dinner is an afterthought. The DJ is front and centre, and is the main man… and by the way, dinner is available if you want to have a bite… A wedding is almost like a rave.”
Khanvict says that many DJs who are regulars on the wedding circuit get pigeonholed for their involvement. But ask him which pay scale is the more lucrative one, club or wedding, and you might be surprised. “It’s been difficult to get club gigs because once you get weddings, people look at you in a different way,” says Khanvict, who owns Decibel, a service company that employees 16 DJs. “The hard truth is that at a wedding, I’ll make almost 10 times what a guy makes at a club. In the same night, the guy who gets $200 to play in a club, I can charge $2,000 to play at a wedding. People playing this music are more appreciated, so you’re going to be drawn to a market that appreciates you and pays you well.”
Since many of the wedding guests fly in from around the globe to attend the nuptials, word-of-mouth is an additional benefit. “When you have that kind of crowd, you’re going to get people that are traveling, and if they hear you and they like your work, they’re going to go back and talk about it,” says Khanvict, who has appeared in countries ranging from Mexico to Indonesia to Australia.
But not everyone has been shut out of the club scene. Jasleen Powar, a.k.a. Horsepowar, is one of the exceptions when it comes to being hired in local clubs. Hailing from Richmond, she has a strong feminist bent, and occasionally humourous approach, in her outspoken hip-hop. Its uniqueness allows Powar to diversify when it comes to landing gigs.
“Because I’m a rapper, it’s a little bit easier to find those venues,” says Horsepowar, who played a couple of SXSW shows in 2016, and whose biggest YouTube hit, “Queen,” has amassed more than 90,000 views. “I’m lucky. Because I’m not just part of the South Asian scene, it’s like bridging the gap – which is the true hybridity of the child of the diaspora, that East Meets West – and I get to play mainstream shows.
“I’m still figuring out the Horsepowar sound and the Horsepowar look, and I try to make it as true as I can to who I am as a person. But I’m always torn between styles and tastes, because I grew up listening to Black Sabbath, and Ben Harper, and had my emo phase. Then I went into the hip-hop world, and I’ve always had the Bollywood thing, so it was never like I fit this image. For the desi/South Asian scene, I feel like I resonate with them just for who I am. So I felt I fit into so many different worlds when it came down to getting shows.”
However, Horsepowar acknowledges that the Vancouver music scene can appear to be divisive. “In general, I think Vancouver needs to work on inclusion,” says Powar. “When I go to Oakland, or Toronto, or L.A., I feel like there’s this inclusion, where they just want good people around, and if you’re cool, you’re cool. But here I feel like you’ve got to prove it.” Or, as Nayar recently told The Vancouver Courier, “I don’t expect a capitalist system to be altruistic. But it does piss me off that there is money to be made, there are great stories and great music, but a huge demographic of our city isn’t being served by conventional models.”
DJ Intense says the potential of the Vancouver bhangra and desi scenes have already been proven elsewhere, as markets such as India continue to search for fresh sounds. “I think because I’m from abroad, it made a big difference,” he explains. “In the whole Indian music market, they’re looking for something fresh and something new. They’re always trying to go as Western as possible. And who better than somebody from the West Coast? I would say Canada is literally on the brink of being the next big Indian superpower when it comes to music.”
Locally, there’s a glimmer of hope that acceptance is beginning to happen. In addition to playing in Delhi 2 Dublin, running the VIBC, and releasing the new Bhangra City film, Nayar is in a side project called Desi Subculture that’s working with Vancouver-based promoter Blueprint to stage nights of showcases at the city club Celebrities. “They recognize the need to bring South Asian culture into the mainstream of Vancouver, so we’ve been working with them,” says Nayar. “The demand is there. It sells tickets. And we want to help the industry realize there’s an economic opportunity here… We’d be stupid not to be involved.”