August 7, 1996
Pop Review: Hip-Hop and Reggae With Punjabi Twist
By JON PARELES
NEW YORK -- Musicians are born to borrow, no matter where they come from. On
Sunday and Monday, New Yorkers had a chance to hear English performers with
Indian roots playing international hybrids that gleefully scrambled their
On Sunday Central Park Summerstage presented two Punjabi rock bands from
Birmingham, England, the Safri Boys and D.C.S. And Monday night at Wetlands,
Najma sang blithely eclectic songs by the Indian film composer S.D. Burman.
The bands at Summerstage came to party. They are bhangra bands, modernizing
traditional Punjabi music, a process that is accelerated where Punjabi
immigrants gather in Britain and North America and hear their neighbors'
music. Bhangra forges connections between the short, repeated phrases of folk
music everywhere, the numerous ways to subdivide and orchestrate a 4/4 dance
beat, and the contours of Punjabi songs.
Both D.C.S. and the Safri Boys are steeped in reggae, funk, hip-hop sampling
and hard-rock power chords. The whole Safri Boys band wore fluorescent clothes
-- green T-shirts for the musicians, hot-pink embroidered robes for the lead
singer -- while the lead singer of D.C.S., in hunter's-orange trousers,
strutted around the stage and danced like a Western rocker, sunglasses and
Yet their lyrics were in Punjabi, their tunes used the scales and inflections
of Indian music, and their rhythms were fired up with the high-speed salvos
of traditional drumming. At the center of each band was a pair of two-headed
Punjabi drums, the dholak and the larger dhol, which sputtered in precise
double- and triple-time.
The Safri Boys began songs with hip-hop-style samples and sound effects, from
boastful recorded announcements ("We're going to do a song that you never
heard before!") to sirens and booming drumbeats.
Then most songs settled into mid-tempo grooves, carrying reedy, impassioned
lead vocals that rose with the microtonal curls and slides of Indian tradition.
Tidbits of East and West punctuated the songs: fast Punjabi drumming, or
techno-style tape loops, or call-and-response shouts, or keyboard lines with
the rich but airy timbres of 1980s rock.
In one song, a keyboard melody sounded like a Celtic pennywhistle; in the
next, the guitar buzzed and twanged like a fusion of a sitar and a rockabilly
While keyboards dominated the Safri Boys, D.C.S. came across as a guitar band
and even more mutable than the Safri Boys. Its songs leaped from vocal
improvisations without a beat to reggae to disco to galloping Punjabi rhythms
to spiraling lead guitar solos.
At one point, the band performed a traditional boliyan song, with a sure but
unhurried beat, then turned it into bhangra by layering on a reggae beat, a
funk rhythm guitar and rough, insistent guitar jabs; eventually, the band
exhorted, "Jump! Jump!" Audience members, in turbans and T-shirts, danced on
Najma's music was gentler, with its international borrowings tucked behind
the decorous, girlish delivery of Indian film singers. In songs by the Indian
soundtrack composer S.D. Burman from her new album, "Forbidden Kiss"
(Shanachie), Najma made her voice sweet and weightless, letting melodies
ripple like tall grass in a breeze.
Some of the songs used the short, paired phrases of Western pop, others the
expanding lines of Indian songs; some had a 4/4 beat, others used odd meters.
The backup group, led by Chris Rael, an American student of Indian music,
echoed flamenco, the Allman Brothers and the world-jazz group Oregon.
In songs from other albums, and in an improvisation, Najma let her voice grow
fuller and, for a duet with the tabla drummer, suddenly percussive. But it
was always graceful, floating above mere boundaries.