Reggae(ton) Bangara

Went for an afternoon trip up to Devon Ave’s “Desi corridor” yesterday accompanied by an anthropologist who studies the circulation of pirated media in India (mainly Bollywood/Filmi), and who was, as you can imagine, a perfect companion for a brief tour of the strip’s numerous “record” shops (which sold CDs, DVDs, videocassettes, and even plain ol’ cassettes — but no records, far as I could see). None of these seemed to be on the level of, say, London’s Raj Deep’s as described by Blackdown, but they definitely had plenty to satisfy my current curiosity.

For DVDs, I was looking for a couple of classics — the sort of films most people have seen more than any other, namely, Mother India and Sholay, which I found quite easily. For music, I was seeking some compilations of well-received (and hence, well-replayed) filmi soundtracks, so I picked up a decent representation of tried-and-true tunes from the 50s (Awaara and Shree 420), early 80s (Apne Paraye, Pyaas, and Jyoti), late 80s (Maine Pyar Kiya), and mid-late 90s (Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Hum Saath Saath Hain). [I’ve heard more 70s stuff than anything at this point, based on the predilections of compilers and remixers, so I wasn’t really checkin for that.] I’ve already heard some real gems on the discs I picked up, but those’ll have to wait for another post —

because the one disc that blew me away and which I absolutely must discuss right now is Bally Sagoo’s 1992 album Wham Bam 2, a disc I picked up on a whim, wanting to hear what London bhangra sounded like pre-Asian Underground, pre-Panjabi Hit squad, and knowing that Bally Sagoo was the big man back then. I wasn’t surprised to hear ravey synths and housey basslines, or M.A.R.R.S.-style sampledelia, or dusty breakbeats alongside clean-as-a-whistle Soul II Soul beats, and I certainly wasn’t surprised to hear Bollywood-esque strings, bhangra vocals, and raggamuffin rap over a digital dancehall skank. That’s the London soundscape for ya. But I was surprised to hear very little of the distinctive dhol drumming or tumbi playing that have since come to define the modern bhangra sound. Even more suprising, however, was the realization that the bhangra being made in London 1992 sounds remarkably similar, in a number of ways, to the “underground”/reggae(ton) that was being made in San Juan at the same time.

Even if the production quality differs substantially between the two and the distance between Punjabi/English and Spanish is so much that even with the Jamaican rhythmic delivery they sound very different to you, the parallels should be striking nonetheless. Go listen to Playero 37 over here, if you’re not familiar with the sound. Then take, for example, the stick-n-move groove of “Lut Ke Lae Gayee (Get Mental in The House Mix)” — an epic track, constantly shifting in musical texture and style, giving the rotating vocalists different rhythms to ride — not at all unlike those ol’ maratón session mixtapes from the PR underground.

Note, in particular, the point right around 1:35 when the bhangra vocalist enters along with what is quite clearly a replayed version of the well-worn bassline from the Drum Song riddim, which, just to absolutely cement the connection to classic PR melaza, is soon followed by a loop of the Bam Bam riddim, which — by my admittedly rough estimate — comes a close second to the Dem Bow as the foundational (i.e., most frequently sampled) riddim for reggaeton. (And don’t miss the call/response with a sped-up Tenor Saw about a minute later, thus bringing in the Stalag for good measure. &don’t get me started on naming all the hip-hop references, or picking out Mission Impossible melodies, etc.)

The use of the Bam Bam in this context, however, might remind some that “Murder She Wrote” (which so powerfully projected one version of the Bam Bam across every reggae soundscape in the world) was originally released on an LP called Reggae Bangara, so, yeah, this stuff just goes round and round and round, innit.

Both because this post deals with the sound of London and opens up into issues of musical mimesis, of versioning the foreign-but-familiar (and hence, second natch, the self), allow me to mention that at the end of this coming week, I’m actually going to be in London discussing this.very.subject at a Caribbean music seminar at Royal Holloway College, if focused more on reggae and hip-hop than bhangra or reggaeton.

I hope to share a little more about what I’ll be discussing before I go, but allow me to add now that in addition to participating in the seminar, and making it to London for the first time in a decade, I’m quite looking forward to linking up with some of my (now longtime) UK-based musical blogofellows. Moreover, I’m quite delighted to learn that I’ll be in town on the same weekend that two legendary local institutions — one old, one new — are gonna be in full session. Apparently, Friday night in Brixton is University of Dub, which Pete Murdertone describes as “probably one of the biggest raves in London in any scene,” and which this week will feature none other than Aba-Shanti vs. Jah Tubbys “with their full systems.” (Lordamercy.) And if that weren’t good timing enough, wouldn’t you know that Saturday happens to be the 2nd bday bash for DMZ? Nuff said.

Ok, not quite nuff: having heard the praises (and about the presence) of both, i&i cyaan wait to finally hear/feel such on their hometurf, inna London, through a proper sound and all o that. Soon fwd!

15 thoughts on “Reggae(ton) Bangara

  1. Crazy Stuff. So much stuff in there, as you say it sounds more like a mix/mash-up than a tune.

    Love those En Vogue samples…

  2. no doubt, droid. and i love the way that hearing the En Vogue sample (of James Brown’s “Big Payback,” of course) in this context emphasizes the degree to which it can be heard as a dancehall groove, playing that ol’ 3+3+2 — not unlike the guitar part in the Bam Bam, come to think of it.

    also, not sure whether this chat between me and becca clarifies some things about the post or not, but just in case (b/c, i mean, if she’s not following me on this, i don’t know who is) —

    Rebecca: i have a q re: your blog
    me: yeah?
    Rebecca: you leave it open whether there is a direct connection b/w reggaeton and bhangra of the era or whether they are both taking off of dancehall in (semi-)coincidental ways. do you have an opinion about that?
    me: it’s the latter, i think
    don’t think there’s much connection/conversation between the two
    don’t think i really leave that open either
    Rebecca: that makes sense.
    oh, really?
    me: at least not in my mind
    Rebecca: how do you think you close that off?
    you don’t really explain why they are so similar if they are unrelated.
    me: i guess i don’t, but c’mon, these are obscure recordings in two unconnected places
    Rebecca: i guess that’s what is in my (semi-)
    me: i thought it was implied in the sense of reggae soundscapes
    Rebecca: yeah, well i wasn’t talking about these specific recordings.
    me: and if one is familiar with my work on rton, i think that’d be obvious
    but yeah, i guess it’s not all crystal clear
    Rebecca: i guess what i’d like to know is why you think they pick up on such similar parts of the dancehall sound?
    me: they both pick up on the contemporary dancehall sound — that’s it
    Rebecca: right. and you say that’s not surprising.
    so what makes it interesting? just that it is fun to listen to?
    me: well, no, it’s interesting b/c it sounds like reggaeton (and it’s fun to listen to)
    Rebecca: but if they are both copying dancehall, it doesn’t sound like reggaeton, it sounds like dancehall and so does reggaeton. that’s where i got confused about whether you were drawing a causal link.
    me: no, no
    b/c they’re also both drawing from contmp hip-hop as well as bringing in their own thing
    so it’s like a parallel trinity
    Rebecca: i guess what is interesting is that the reggaeton connections are geographic and racial.
    the bhangra connections are colonial.
    me: so are bhangra’s
    Rebecca: but they have connections to the same places.
    me: no no — they’re both colonial — and racial
    not the same places: bhangra (JA/london/india) vs. rton (JA/NY/PR)
    Rebecca: yeah, but india connects to JA b/c colonized by the same people. PR to JA because in the same geographic location sort of. right?
    me: PR to JA via NY (it’s a colonial connection, too)
    Rebecca: what do you take to be the connectin b/w NY and London?
    me: nothing on the same colonial order — just two major metropoles
    w/ metropolitan connections — thus making, say, hip-hop big inna london
    but that’s media circulation more than demographic
    Rebecca: huh
    it is interesting that India’s connection is basically totally mediated by its relationship to England and PR basically has no relationship to England but they still end up in this parallel music development.
    me: it’s basically b/c the same thing’s going on in NY and London at the same time, if inflected differently
    this bhangra, btw, was made in London, not India
    Rebecca: right.
    ok, i better get to work.
    me: ok, me too — have a good one

  3. There are fairly similar (though obviously slower) sounds in a lot of early Kwaito, too. Aba Shante’s “Girls”, for instance. I really must get around to importing that “Kwaito Classics” CD that was released last year… Also, there’s a lot of Ghanaian Hiplife which also has that similar, ragga-circa-1992 sonic environment.

    What’s interesting, to me, is just how much local urban genres start to confluence in the nineties compared to previous decades. Sure, you can bring up your afrofunk and afro-reggae, your disco-influenced raï, your dangdut, your Bapphi Lahiri soundtracks and many more as examples of earlier mimesis. But compared to any other period there are so many new lasting genres with so similar qualities surfacing 1990-1995 in so radically different places that you have to wonder what happened then that made it all come together. Surely the appearance of Bhangra, Reggaeton, Hiplife, Kwaito, Bubbling Beat, Chutney Soca, Rio Funk, Maori R&B etc. etc. in a very short timespan is not just a coincidence?

    What’s the deciding factor? Cheap access to electronic instruments? New ways of communication? Ragga briefly hitting the western mainstream? Hip-hop finally trickling down into disadavantaged communities after a decade?

    (Obviously this stuff keeps on pushing up new genres after more than a decade. Heard any Cabo-Love Kizomba lately?)

  4. Oh, and Bongo Flava. That’s another early-nineties hip-hop jumpoff (not so much ragga in that one) that’s totally taking flight now.

  5. Good points, Birdseed. I’m sure we could add others to the list, too. Dutch bubbling comes to mind, for instance. And, shit, plenty of the UK rave music at that time had a similar aesthetic as well. You’re right — there’s something interestingly explosive about that early 90s moment when sampled breakbeats, reggae elements, and various other strands (depending on the locale / artist) cohered in various ways in various places. I suspect it does have a lot to do with the advent of accessible sampling tech, etc., not to mention the global rise and spread of hip-hop and dancehall. A lot of the stuff that /rupture and Maga Bo compiled for Sonar last year has this kind of sound —

    Don’t know what to say about that “Cabo Love” track though. Some pretty tame zouk there. I mean, sure, it’s got the ol’ boom-ch-boom-chick, and maybe a lil bit of interesting synthy stuff, but otherwise I wouldn’t really compare it to a lot of the stuff discussed above, which is more sample-heavy in nature — directly indexing influences, confluences, etc.

  6. Yeah, Sorry, I was genre-hopping randomly and thought I felt a connection in some of the tracks (though inevitably not this one). That hyped angolan genre last summer is a definate candidate though.

  7. Actually, as long as we’re striving for precision here, & attempting to describe what might be genuine techno-musical trends, I might argue that that hyped Brazilian genre of a couple years ago — with its wide-ranging and illicit samples, its references to a great many pop genres, and its basis in hip-hop production techniques — would better sit alongside the genres listed above (mostly w/ a mid-90s aesthetic) than last year’s Angolan hype.

    Funny you bring that up, as I’ve been planning to leave a comment here to the effect that kuduro, grime, hyphy, juke, contemp DIY reggaeton and lots of other fruityloopy genres of the last couple years perhaps represent a similar but distinct techno-musical flowering than that which might group together modern bhangra, proto-rton, bubbling, hardcore rave, etc., a decade (or more) ago. It seems to me, though, that this newer formation is more aligned via their simultaneous use (and, again, not necessarily in conversation) of the same software and synth presets rather than shared predilections for the same sample sources. But maybe that’s splitting hairs.

  8. I guess that makes sense – although inevitably there’s a bit of crossover and the machines would have influenced the former group as well. By the way, with artists like J12 there’s a distinct drive towards the “new” sound by younger Bhangra producers… Perhaps it’s inevitable as the next step, many the old genres getting the new flavour.

    (Oh, oh, and talking about hype – 2005 hype Baltimore Club is surely a candidate for category 1?)

  9. No doubt. Bmore definitely fits the criteria for zeitgeist #1. And I hear you on the crossover thing — that’s sort of what I was getting at by noting that contemporary reggaeton is quite aligned with group #2, though “proto”-rton is vv group #1 (and yeah, by painting in broad strokes here, we’re bound to create room for all kinds of exceptions) — though it’s notable that something like Bmore remains so sample-based despite the widespread advent of synthy sequencer software.

  10. I better stop now before I start boring everyone, but one more fairly interesting thing is how much genre-starting/genre-less/experimental wake category #2 is leaving here in Sweden, hardly known for its hard african-diaspora influences. Stuff like Skwee (although some of it tends more towards bitpop/video game music), eurocrunk and whatever genre Basutbudet professes to be part of (Minimal Ghettotech House? I dunno).

    If I have to guess at the next development it’s towards the slower, more laid-back sounds of Screw and Snap next. Again, to take a probably irrelevant example from Sweden, we’re all grooving along to Million Stylez’s “Miss Fatty” at the moment which I think shares a lot of the properties of, say, DJ Unk. But then again I’m probably totally wrong. :)

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