January 13 2014
Something of a ‘bhangrameister’, Kuljit Bhamra talks about his work on the forthcoming ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ musical and his mother’s unlikely role in the development of what was a totally new British musical genre…
BHANGRA is all set to explode in the West End of London this summer when the “Bend it Like Beckham” (‘BILB‘) musical finally takes to the stage.
Based on the hugely successful independent film written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, the latest spin-off has brought together one of the pioneers – perhaps even a godfather – of bhangra, Kuljit Bhamra and well-known West End music impresario Howard Goodall (pictured middle above). He is credited as the composer, while Bhamra and Goodall share the credits for ‘Orchestrations’. Bhamra produced the song “Rail Gaddi” which appears in the soundtrack of the film and has worked with Chadha since her first feature, “Bhaji on the Beach” (1993).
The cast was officially announced on Friday (January 9) and features a sprinkling of new names (Natalie Dew, Jamie Campbell Bower) and established ones (Ronnie Ancona, Preeya Kalidas) and there is much anticipation that the show, which previews in May, will break new ground much as the film did and be a big crossover hit.
Bhamra, who has had a very successful, busy and musically spiritual 2014, told www.asianculturevulture.com: “It will be the first time that Punjabi musicians will perform in the West End in such a way.
“Howard has allowed me complete freedom to bring in whoever I wanted. Rather than just say, ‘let’s use a synthesizer to play a bit of Indian sitar’, we’ve actually got real Indian musicians. It’s very fulfilling.
“The orchestra will contain a unique mix of West End musicians and Punjabi ones as well.”
No man is, perhaps, better qualified than Bhamra to bring the sounds of Southall (where the story is set) to the West End.
Given an MBE in 2009, for ‘Services to Bhangra and British Asian Music’, he was one of the leading figures to develop the style, which originally referred to a dance from the Punjab region of India.
Bhamra was one of the first people to produce a distinctly British bhangra sound in the 1980s and some members of the biggest bands of that time will feature in ‘BILB‘ now.
“It’s a very authentic sound,” explained Bhamra. “I’ve chosen some musicians from the original bands – Alaap, Premi and Heera.”
Bhamra himself will play tabla and percussion and there will be an 8-9 piece member band.
Goodall, who has a lot of experience of adapting works for the musical stage (“Love Story”, “Two Cities”, “A Winter’s Tale), and TV and film (“Vicar of Dibley”, “Mr Bean” and “Blackadder”), has been working on the musical version of ‘BILB‘ for around three years, while Bhamra has spent just a year less.
A mix of western and more Indian sounding music, Bhamra said they’ve had more time to work on the music than they would normally have – but they have also faced challenges other productions have not.
“Howard wanted authentic Punjabi music and it was the first time he was exposed to it. It’s an authentic sound and I haven’t compromised my own integrity. The creative team have listened to what I have to say. Normally, you would not have the luxury of exploration time,” Bhamra told www.asianculturevulture.com at the tail of end of last year, meeting a few days into practice sessions with the musicians.
He said he was delighted producer ‘BILB‘ musical producer Sonia Friedman had created a week-long opportunity for Goodall and himself to experiment with orchestration ideas – something that would not normally happen.
Warm and engaging, Bhamra revealed: “West End musicians, as I call them, are very good at reading music, which is why they don’t need extensive rehearsals. They get the notation handed to them and they can play it immediately. Indian musicians do not read music, but they are experts at improvising. So the questions is ‘How are they going to be able to play the same music every night?’
“We’ve had to develop a way of capturing the essence of Punjabi music, but being able to negotiate where we are and notate the nuances of musical styles been a very big challenge.”
In essence, it was the challenge for the Indian musicians to produce a sound that was consistent each time they played – in the Indian tradition, each rendition, though purporting to be the same piece, can be, and often is, subtly different.
“Indian music is often in the moment,” explained Bhamra, 55. “It’s free and doesn’t have a defined structure and length. For example, when a conductor says (in rehearsals), ‘Let’s go from Bar 23′, the Indian musicians would say: ‘Oh, what is that?’.”
“We’ve developed and designed special charts for these Indian musicians and I’ve also invented a tabla notation system, so that we can follow where they are in the score. We’ve conquered that, that’s the exciting thing.
“Howard and myself are very proud of what we have done.”
The Indian musicians play tabla, Indian dholak, dhol, Indian violin, guitar and mandolin.
In some ways, Bhangra’s coming home – Bhamra was one of the first producers to shape a more professional and polished sound which developed out of a rustic Punjabi folk dance tradition.
And to some degree, Southall and West London was its home, (Birmingham and the West Midlands, also had a distinctive bhangra scene in the 1980s and 1990s).
It is different to Bollywood music – which Bhamra described as “glamour, glitz, filmic and made up of massive dance sequences – Punjabi music is more folk-based, I would say Bhangra was invented in England”.
So Bhangra and traditional Punjabi music will be given its rightful dues and pride of place in BILB.
“What we are trying to do is create a soundscape of Southall – which is not Bollywood. We are bringing it up to date and integrating it with western music,” said Bhamra.
Chadha and Goodall say much the same thing in a promotional video on the show’s own website (see link below).
It will be the first time that a West End theatre will rock to a more consciously bhangra sound – the successful “Britain’s Got Bhangra”, created by Watford Theatre Palace-based group, Rifco Arts, made it to the Theatre Royal Stratford East in spring 2010, but since then there’s been something of a gap to “The Far Pavilions” (2005) and the very first Indian music inspired one, AR Rahman/Julian Lloyd Webber’s “Bombay Dreams” (2002-2004).
Bhamra has seen the rise of Bhangra (and fall, in terms of live performance) – which is something separate to what is happening in the wider contemporary British Asian music scene.
He was among a handful of musicians who popularised bhangra among Punjabi communities in Britain and his mother Mohinder Kaur was at the forefront of social change that paved the way for bhangra to develop.
A qualified Giani (or gyani – a title given to Sikhs who are learned and knowledgeable about the holy texts), she was quite probably the only woman singing Kirtan /Shabad (hymns) in gurdwaras in Britain at that time. The family had emigrated from Kenya in 1961 and moved to Southall in 1968 after a spell in Stepney Green in east London.
Bhamra explained: “My mother is a a scholar of Punjabi literature and she used to sing in the Sikh temples. My father tried to learn to play tabla with her but he was not very good musically and the story goes that when I was three I crept into the living room where the tablas were kept and started to play – and they noticed!”
Bhamra is not formally trained and is largely self-taught, and learnt to play in his young days by watching others.
His younger brothers joined him when they were ready and they played as a family band and perhaps the music they performed would have remained traditional and recognisable in temperament but for an unusual development.
It was 1969 and the editor of the then “Des Pardes” (one of the first Asian publications of its type in the UK and still based in Southall), the late Tarsem Singh Purewal asked Bhamra’s mother to conduct his wedding.
As Bhamra’s mother was proficient in Gurmukhi, the language of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the marriage vows were a series of hymns contained within, it was not an usual request in itself (though there cannot have been too many women who presided over such ceremonies at that time).
“The editor also told her that he also would like her to sing some songs afterwards. She was a bit apprehensive – most songs were about love and she didn’t want to do that in front of my Dad.”
“But she sang (some others) and the guests (poets, writers and members of Sikh high society) loved it. They began to book us at weddings and that is how it developed.”
However, there was no dance floor and at that time, only men could hear the songs as women were kept apart and there was strict segregation of the sexes.
“My mother said she wasn’t going to sing any more, until women were allowed into the room. That was scary, I still remember the moment. We didn’t know how the men would react, they were drinking and dancing and being boisterous but my mother could see the women were peering through the door.”
They were let in and a significant barrier had been broken.
“People used to book us knowing that if we came, the men and women would both get a chance to dance and enjoy themselves,” said Bhamra.
That’s how at weddings, there would be a dance floor and Bhamra not only played but began to produce as well.
His mother had been recording since the 1970s but always in India. Bharma, a civil engineer by profession, hired a studio in Hayes, and produced his mother’s album in 1976.
“I started to be fascinated by recording studios and how you could put music together.”
They pressed their own records, designed their own LP sleeves, and Bhamra himself would cycle round to local shops and sell them to retailers who would stock them next to the potatoes and onions.
The 1970s were dominated by the sounds of disco (The Bee Gees, early Michael Jackson) and Bhamra was keen to give Punjabi music a slicker sound with drum kits and bass guitars added.
“Bhangra wasn’t a defined genre, it used to be a male dance in Punjab and the music was just accompaniment and more like a dance drama, but then we changed it into a musical genre.”
A lot of Hindi and Bollywood music at the time sounded “shrieky and shrill”, according to Bhamra.
“I started to add drum kits and bass guitars to the tabla and dhol – and they sounded like western records but without any compromise in the music. I wanted my sound to be as lively as anything else around at the time.”
In 1983, a band called Premi asked him to produce an album and along came Heera a little while after. A pirate radio station that later morphed into Sunrise Radio played these cassettes virtually non-stop, ensuring there was an audience and sales.
But it wasn’t until 1994 – and two platinum discs later – that Bhamra went into music as a full-time professional.
“They all thought I was crazy, it didn’t seem like a proper job to them but now they look back and realise it was good thing to do, the right thing.”
Last year, Bhamra produced two albums which took him in a slightly different direction.
In the first part, he produced a ‘Sikh spiritual reggae album’, “The Dub Simran Experience” by UK based artist, Dubtician.
It proved to be a hit and broke boundaries, adapting Sikh hymns and mixing them to a slow, mesmeric and more reggae based beat.
Similarly, Bhamra also helped Hindu spiritualist vocalist, Ram Metook, produce his first album, “Sanctuary”.
Made up of Hindu spiritual chants and innovative in introducing the Mumbai Choir on one track to accompany Meetook’s deep and low voice, the album showed that traditional Hindu meditative chanting could be reworked and made relevant and calm and contemplative listening to a modern ear.
“It was a rich process and about eradicating the ego,” commented Bhamra.
Bhamra is also on a mission to “demystify” Indian music.
He is producing a range of educational tools that he hopes will help new people (and fans of BILB) into Indian music
“How many white or western people do you see play tabla or sitar? I think there’s a conspiracy where the guru-disciple system (where you learn under a master) is not serving everybody. It’s very selective.
“I am creating a video series and educational aids to demystify and explain Indian music in a way that people can understand it.” He feels that the current learning systems scare people off by making things look overly difficult.
He said the process of introducing Goodall to Indian music and bhangra has inspired him to go forth on his mission.
“It’s music at the end of the day, not magic,” he declared. “However, the virtuosic nature of Indian musicians and their need to wow western audiences seems to prevent interested people from finding out about how it all works.”
In the right hands though, music still has the power to lift us out of ourselves and introduce us to a world we barely knew existed.
* ‘Bend it Like Beckham‘ – Phoenix Theatre, 110 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H OJP. Previews from May 15, runs until July 11.
Kuljit Bhamra http://www.kuljitbhamra.com/flash.html
‘The Dub Simran Experience‘, Dubtician http://keda.co.uk/keda/item_details.aspx?album_id=641&cssClass=genre_1
‘Sanctuary‘, Ram Meetook – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sanctuary-Divine-Chants-Kuljit-Bhamra/dp/B00PDDIIAS
‘BILB‘ cast announcement http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/bend-it-like-beckham-musical-cast_36876.html
Kuljit Bhamra tribute to Bollywood singing legend, Mahendra Kapoor – http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/bollywood-singing-legend-mahendra-kapoor-special-tribute/