music journalist since 1992 | educator since 2004 | podcaster since 2020 | Iranian American since birth
DJ Rekha interviewed for her album, DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra, for Venus Zine:
DJ Rekha: Basement Bhangra
With a cache of new Bhangra beats in her repertoire, the critically acclaimed DJ serves as a musical ambassador on her first release
By Lily Moayeri
Published: October 26th, 2007 | 2:11pm
There’s a lot of noise in the background as Rekha Malhotra, professionally known as DJ Rekha (pronounced Ray-ka), shouts down the phone from an office in lower Manhattan’s premiere world music club SOB’s (Sounds of Brazil). SOB’s is where Malhotra does her monthly night, Basement Bhangra, and where at this moment, Wyclef Jean and his people are celebrating, as Jean has just been appointed the roving ambassador for Haiti.
This is the right place and time for Malhotra, whose public image is primarily tied with her Basement Bhangra night and her work as a crowd-educating and crowd-pleasing DJ. The music Malhotra has brought to the masses, Bhangra, is from her Punjab roots in South Eastern Asia. Originally a dance, from which its music form evolved, the visceral movements of the sound —combined with dancehall, hip-hop, and anything else with hard beats — is what you’ll hear at Malhotra’s Basement Bhangra the first Thursday of every month.
But you’ll also find Malhotra DJing at spots like the Brooklyn Museum’s Rotunda Gallery, Central Park’s Summerstage, P.S. 1’s Warm Up series, or anything else that’s free and outdoors. “I love the unconventional,” she says. “What’s great about those situations is, as much as I’m playing the Bhangra stuff, the amount of love I’m going to get dropping a dancehall set is going to be equally as great.”
Things aren’t always this easy for Malhotra in non-club situations. There’ve been moments when she’s had to roll with the challenge of the setting: playing to 100 frat boys one week, the Arab-Israeli coalition or Seeds of Peace the following week, or a spoiled kid’s birthday party the next. “I have to make the whole room work,” says Malhotra. “My goal is to get them dancing no matter what I need to do. I feel like I walked in there with a bag of tricks and I had to see what would work.”
What does work is her first compilation, DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra. A collection of Bhangra tracks from around the globe, Basement Bhangra serves a multitude of purposes. Firstly, it allows regulars who are always asking Malhotra where they can buy a certain track to be able to have it. Secondly, it brings the experience of the club night, whether you have ever been to one or not, to the music enthusiast. Thirdly, it reflects the styles of artists who have either performed or had their music played at the club.
Standouts on Basement Bhangra are Malhotra’s own tracks: “Basement Bhangra Anthem” with Sunil Sehgal and featuring Bikram Singh and Wyclef Jean, which kicks off the disc, and “Bhanghall” with Dave Sharma, which ushers in the album’s close. Completely different from each other, the former is about shouting out the party with as much energy as possible, the latter about slowing things down and seeing who has the stamina to last.
The majority of the music providing the inspiration for Malhotra’s activities is made in the U.K. The large South Asian community in that region, along with the influence of the Caribbean community and the inherent dancehall-dub-reggae vibe, has allowed the Bhangra created there to have its own flavor and energy, which matches what Malhotra is trying to do.
“I used to make trips to the U.K. all the time, before the digital era, to record shop,” Malhotra says. “It’s hard to find enough good new stuff. Finding it is to find the people that make it. There’s a larger global movement of diasporic communities making sense of their traditional, historic music, and mixing it with their environments. There’s something specific to making music outside of its origin. People need to take music and culture with them and have it give meaning.”
But Malhotra also runs the risk of being viewed as an ethnic curiosity, a way for people to feel like they’re getting a bit of the culture, while she herself becomes an anthropological subject. “For me, this music has cut across all lines,” she states firmly. “I try to present this in the most honest way. I try to be careful about any of the decisions I need to make. I try to not play myself or exploit culture in any way. That’s as much responsibility as I can take.”