NEW YORK – For 20 years, DJ Rekha, AN Indian American, made everyone dance to her hip-hop and bhangra fusion beats at Basement Bhangra. But, she has decided to call it a day, to pursue other creative projects and further studies, marking the end of Basement Bhangra, although she won’t stop spinning.
Before Panjabi MC made everyone in New York City groove to his song “Mundian To Bach Ke,” Rekha started Basement Bhangra in 1997 after the first wave of immigrants arrived from India and Pakistan.
“Suddenly you were hearing bhangra coming out of people’s cars in the summer time in New York City,” said Vivek Bald, an MIT scholar and DJ who collaborated for years with Rekha on a club night called Mutiny adding that for much of the 20th century, the U.S. had barred immigration from South Asia, which changed in the 1960s, resulting in many immigrants moving to the U.S. from India and Pakistan.
“And in the 1990s, the children of that wave of migration were reaching their 20s and 30s, getting involved in music, film, activism, forming community-based organizations, etc.,” he told wnyc.org adding that “Rekha was part of that surge of cultural and political energy in the 1990s and Basement was an outgrowth of it.”
“When I walked into my first Basement Bhangra in New York City in 1997, it was as if I’d found the music I had been waiting to hear my entire life,” Tanuja Desai Hidier told wnyc.org, who set parts of her first book called “Born Confused” in and around the sounds of Basement Bhangra.
At a time when the children of South Asian immigrants were coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, Bhangra was re-imagined amongst the diaspora and it still continues today.
“The other desi parties were way more heterosexual, way more of a meaty, meat-market vibe” whereas Basement drew “writers, activists, artists, community organizers, teachers, people in queer circles,” said Swati Khurana, a writer and artist.
Bald said Basement successfully took ephemeral ideas about multiculturalism and embodied them.
“There is nowhere in the world where so many different kinds of South Asian art takes place on any one given night. I think in New York City there’s an environment that breeds that kind of art. And that’s why in so many ways Basement Bhangra could only happen here,” Rekha told Brooklyn Vegan as she always felt empowered to play anything she wanted to.
“It’s a good place to stop, to know that that’s out there. It definitely felt like there was a moment happening in New York City at that time,” she added.
Rekha told wnyc.org that she is leaving on her own terms and not because of rising rents and has also issued a parting endorsement for the city that embraced her and her work.
Rekha gave her final performance on Sunday, August 6, at a SummerStage blowout in Central Park where other artists performed along with her including Anik Khan, Madame Gandhi, Horsepowar, Sikh Knowledge, Apache Indian, DJ Petra, DJ Shilpa and Bhangra legend Panjabi MC.
There were also special guest appearances from bhangra dance troops, director Gurinder Chandha, comedian Aparna Nancherla and Heems.