A

t 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the inside of the Manhattan nightspot Sounds of Brazil is an oasis of unhurried, rehearsed activity.

The club’s elderly janitor slowly mops the checkered floor back and forth, around the elevated stage, around the small tables cloaked in animal print. The barman, in a series of quiet, quick moves, wipes down a long wooden countertop, straightens out a line of liquor bottles, and pours milk into a martini glass for the club’s fleshy cat Samba.

The slap of a wet mop against the floor, the hum of the bar’s aging refrigerator, the gentle purr of a tabby cat sipping a milk martini: all sounds a far cry from those that fill the club on Thursday nights, when New York’s ruling rani of the underground Bhangra scene takes over the turntables.

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Rekha Malhotra (you know her as DJ Rekha) is widely credited with leading the South Asian American underground music movement of the 1990s. Jane calls her “one of the genre’s most important players,” and New York magazine thinks she’s the city’s best DJ. The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, CNN and NPR have all featured her work. And yet she occupies the spotlight with a certain hesitance. She hasn’t asked for any of this attention. In fact, it often makes her feel uneasy.

“The danger of mainstream press is that it can be about the fulfillment of a certain type of ethnic curiosity,” she says, “and about the fetishizing of culture”—something she wants no part of.

So if you’re waiting to see her sell out and cash in, forget it.

For DJ Rekha, it has always been about respecting the music.

Daughter of Bhangra at Sounds of Brazil

Born in London to Punjabi Delhite parents, Malhotra grew up in Queens and Long Island. Her cousins first introduced her to the art of turntablism in the 1990s. Immediately smitten, she DJed throughout her years as a student at Queens College, and, in 1997, launched Basement Bhangra (“BB” for short): the party that would single-handedly put New York City on the desi music map.

Balle-Balle Bonanza (Bruuuah!)

Get your Bhangra on this Friday, April 20, when BB celebrates its 10th birthday in style at the Manhattan Center Studios, Hammerstein Ballroom on 311 West 34th St. DJ Rekha will be joined by special guests Panjabi MC, The Dhol Foundation and New York’s own Bikram Singh. Tickets are going fast. Expect to pay $35 for general admission, $50 for balcony and $100 for premium, VIP box seats. Visit Ticketmaster to get yours, or call the SOB box office at 212.307.7171. Doors open at 9 p.m.

Thanks to her, no longer would British Asian artists exercise an unquestioned monopoly over the production of diasporic Bhangra beats. There was a new DJ in town. One who laced hip hop tracks with Punjabi folk songs in this enormously inventive way. One whose brilliant, blink-and-you-miss-it scratching and mixing of beats, sensibilities and cultures was changing the very sound of New York City. It was nothing less than history in the making.

A year after the launch of BB, the buzz continued to build. Crowds began gathering at Sounds of Brazil, wrapping around the club’s exterior, waiting, sometimes for hours at a time, to get in. Today, the line that is now a decade old shows no signs of dying out. Kyle Allen is a fan, and has been to “about 10” Basement Bhangra events. He says a lot of people are actually repeat customers. “The line begins at 7 p.m. sometimes. It’s crazy. Rekha has a following—and they’re not just South Asian, either. Wherever she goes, they go.”

This Friday night, you can bet they will be following her to New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, the iconic Manhattan performance venue where Malhotra expects to entertain a capacity crowd of 3,000 in celebration of Basement Bhangra’s 10th year. Not bad for a girl who got her start spinning for peanuts at local desi parties.

So did she anticipate this?

“Never,” she says. “Ten years ago I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. I was just trying to get out of college.”

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From the Pind to the Political

Even though she might be surprised by her success and its longevity, it’s no accident that DJ Rekha ended up here. Strong-minded and very sharp, she is a creative genius with a fierce ear for music and a healthy amount of ambition. It was she who discovered Punjabi vocalist Bikram Singh, she who recognized Panjabi MC’s talent—bringing him to the city in 1998, even before his now-classic debut album dropped. It is her we have to thank for gently introducing Bhangra into the musical fabric of this country.

Two years ago, for the first time, turntables outsold guitars in the U.S.—quite different from the days when Malhotra was just getting started and dance culture wasn’t anywhere near where it is now (early on she mixed at desi parties where people just wouldn’t dance). Her original vision for Basement Bhangra was less about throwing a good party, and more about the crafting of a community and a creative space for youth to gather. She remembers getting two directives from club-goers early on: “Don’t play black music and don’t play Bhangra. They called Bhangra ‘Indian cab driver music’,” she says. “To me, that spoke volumes about our community.

Thanks to DJ Rekha, no longer would British Asian artists exercise an unquestioned monopoly over the production of diasporic Bhangra beats.

She didn’t listen, and instead recognized the need to promote cross-cultural dialogue, using music as a vehicle to help bridge gaps.

Today the beats she drops echo globally, from Montreal to Mumbai to Manchester. Malhotra understands that she isn’t simply throwing vinyl on a record player but is engaged in the important work of cultural production. And she shows no signs of slowing down. “I always thought I’d stop at 10 years. Now I think I’d get killed if I stopped now,” she jokes. “The future holds more, definitely. People are emerging artistically. It’s very exciting. We are just getting started.”n

Rishi Rich remixes always get Hilal Nakiboglu Isler onto the dance floor.
Published on April 16, 2007.
Photography: Courtesy of DJ Rekha.

More Information

DJ Rekha Official Web Site

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  1. September 11, 2008, 4:05 am shimi

    thnx 🙂