Spanning, spinning global beats: DJ Rekha

Boston Globe, January 30, 2008

NEW YORK—She’s as conversant in the arcana of classic, early-’90s hip-hop as she is in the folk music of her family’s native Punjab, India. Spinning on her turntables today, you might find Bollywood anthems, baile funk from Brazil, or neo-Balkan brass-band grooves from her adopted Brooklyn.

Rekha Malhotra, known to one and all as DJ Rekha, is as globalized, hybrid, diasporic – all those adjectives that attempt to encapsulate the cross-fertilizing spirit of our time – a cultural figure as you could ask to encounter.

Her monthly dance party, “Basement Bhangra,” is an institution in the club scene here, having recently entered its 11th year at the downtown nightspot S.O.B.’s and still packing the house with its signature mix of South Asians and their multicultural friends. (She headlines the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge tonight.)

Now she has a brand-new album, also called “Basement Bhangra,” that, for the first time, documents the sound of the scene. It’s an exhilarating mix of club anthems battle-tested on the dance floor at her parties, alongside new tracks that she helped to conceive and produce with collaborators in the United States and the United Kingdom.

At her Brooklyn apartment on a recent evening, Rekha is amid her record crates, assembling materials for a quick weekend swing to Utah, where she’ll open for rapper Rahzel, and then Colorado, where she has a gig with the activist-MC Michael Franti. Earlier this month, she spun in St. Thomas at the opening of a reggae club.

“I love the challenge of these situations,” she says, taking a break over a whiskey and soda. “I walk in there with a bag of tricks. I got it all, right? Because my musical tastes are diverse. But I bring them onto my side eventually. I won’t walk out of there, usually, without playing desi music.”

Desi (pronounced day-see, it means “from the homeland”) is the self-identifying term of young South Asians in the diaspora. As that community has gained visibility, Rekha has done as much as anyone to shape its soundtrack.

At the heart of her sound, of course, is bhangra – a traditional folk music from the agrarian Punjab region that emphasizes repetitive lyrical forms called bolis, to the beat of shoulder-slung drums called dhol.

The first stage in bhangra’s mutation took place in the immigrant communities of the English Midlands, amid the influence of house and other club styles and, perhaps most of all, Caribbean sounds. But with the spread of the diaspora and the rise of instant electronic collaboration, she says, the music is now made all over. One song, for instance, features Gunjan, a singer who flew up from North Carolina to record vocals in New York for a track assembled in Glasgow.

The taste for bhangra comes naturally to Rekha, who grew up in a Punjabi family, first in London and then, from age 5, in and around New York City – though she also points out that at home, Bollywood was more the fare.

“Being Punjabi definitely had some benefits, having some familiarity with the lyrics,” she says. “And having ties to England helped a lot, having a cousin there, having that easy connection, in terms of access to music pre-Internet and all that.”

Rekha feels bound neither by the “traditional” Punjabi folk sound nor by the strictures of the UK scene, which she finds insular and competitive. As perhaps bhangra’s foremost ambassador in this country, she offers a take on the sound that is more attuned to the American desi experience.

“There’s more hybridity here,” she says. “We grew up listening to different kinds of music, whereas even the third-generation kids in the UK, the ones that listen to bhangra, only listen to bhangra.”

That outlook helps explain the enduring success of Rekha’s party, says Dave Sharma, a producer who has collaborated with Rekha for several years.

“She’s found that formula that keeps Indian kids coming and they feel it’s an Indian party, and hipsters from downtown and Williamsburg feel welcome,” Sharma says. “No other party even comes close to that.”

As bhangra, hip-hop, reggae, Bollywood, and other forms of what she calls “international aggressive dance music” lap up against one another in the sets she spins, Rekha worries less about authenticity than about the way it comes together on the dance floor.

“That’s the fun about doing a live DJ set,” she says. “You get to build that bridge. And to me the art of DJing is like that, when you are truly eclectic and really can just go anywhere. It’s a question of figuring out the balance and bringing them in.”