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June 5th, 2002 Zach Dundas | Music Stories
 

Hunting the Wild Bhangra

India's funkiest musical export infiltrates Portland.

     
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IMAGE: MATT PASTERIS
The sample is contagious like swamp flu. A half-dozen-note sitar hook revolves over skittering beats, like bongos on helium. Bass booms below, fierce lyrics lacerate up top.

Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," which splashed down last spring, is another coup from hip-hop super-producer Timbaland. The track's exotic echo of another continent lifts it above the mundane; as Missy Misdemeanor gets down on the mic, hip-hop fans everywhere may briefly wonder, now just where did they come up with that?

A year later, the "Get Ur Freak On" sample packs CD bins in mega-multinational Vancouver, B.C., where a Portland DJ recently set out to bag some bhangra. A frenetic dance beat rooted in ancient harvest-festival music from the Indian state of Punjab, bhangra has spawned many mutant offspring in the global club scene. There is bhangra-plus-hip-hop, bhangra-plus-techno, bhangra-plus-dub--all centered on the high-pitched dhol drum. Bhangra lives large in London, New York and Toronto, and Vancouver's huge South Asian population makes the city another logical hunting ground.

Stephen Strausbaugh, who spins as the Incredible Kid alongside partner-in-crime Anju Hursh (a.k.a. DJ Anjali), reckons he dropped about $500 on bootlegged bhangra CDs. All of them, he says, seem to have at least one track based on "Get Ur Freak On."

"Timbaland sampled bhangra, so now bhangra's going to sample Timbaland," Strausbaugh says. "It's like they're paying tribute back."

Along with Bollywood's melodramatic filmi music, bhangra's become the international party soundtrack of expatriate India. In Portland, the genre is an infant, underground phenomenon. However, in a metropolis where the percentage of foreign-born residents doubled in the '90s, a hunger for transnational sounds is growing.

"Every year, more Indians move here," says Hursh. "Kids from all over India love bhangra, so you're going to see more and more of it."

The Portland region's high-tech industry recruits heavily on the Subcontinent. According to just-released 2000 Census data, about 7,500 South Asians live in the Portland-Vancouver area. Of that population, roughly two-thirds live in tech-rich Washington County suburbs, which means bhangra's growth happens out of the sight and mind of Portland's "traditional" music scenes.

"We focus on Hillsboro," says Murad Pirani, a Portland State student, bhangra DJ (a.k.a. DJ Dunkin) and promoter. "Hillsboro's like a Little India. We don't focus on the east side at all--there are just very few Indian people there. We'll hit PSU, Hillsboro and then Washington Square and Costco. You know where the Indian stores and restaurants are, so that's where you go."

Portland bhangra thrives at house parties, cultural festivals and one-offs like a PSU spring-break party that drew around 700 people. Until recently, Strausbaugh and Hursh teamed up for a recurring Tuesday night gig at Blackbird. The event frequently produced fascinating frissons, as sharp-dressed Indian kids and the Sandy Boulevard rock club's scruffy, nearly all-white core clientele mingled--or didn't.

"Sometimes groups of Indian kids who I didn't know would come, walk in, take one look around and leave," says Hursh.

"It wasn't really integrated," says Strausbaugh. "More like, two radically different groups coming face to face. To me that's really exciting, but I'm sure for some people it's kind of weird."

Sometimes, the DJ tandem's volatile mix of bhangra, hip-hop, techno and other genres blasted the cultural divide and filled the dance floor. (The Blackbird gig has been mothballed; Strausbaugh and Hursh now spin considerably more mellow bhangra-based sets on Wednesday nights at Kalga Kafe.) Strausbaugh, Hursh and Pirani all say they hope bhangra's growth in Portland will lead to such splicing of cultural scenes.

"Our last event, we had Asians, Caucasians, Africans, everybody," says Pirani. "Everyone wanted to find out where they could buy bhangra CDs. It's amazing to see Indian movies in the theaters and hear bhangra samples on 95.5--it's really blending into American culture, and that's cool to see."

THE NEWS
Hiss and Vinegar

GRUDGE MATCH: PORTLAND ORGANIC WRESTLING VS. THE MAN

A busy bureaucrat may try to take Portland Organic Wrestling to the mat--but brash pseudo-wrestlers claim they'll body-slam the State!

POW's monthly fiestas of bunkum beatdowns, creepy characters and sodden hilarity have thrilled hundreds of beered-up acolytes at Satyricon. Fans are hotter than a Texas cheerleader about the installment scheduled for this Thursday, June 6. Cleaver faces The Devil for the POW title--and anti-promoter Vinnie Cleanhands says the outcome is already known to the Organic braintrust. "It's not a real contest," notes this Machiavelli of the mat.

Not so fast, says Oregon Boxing and Wrestling Commissioner Jim Cassidy. On May 14, Cassidy fired off a letter to Satyricon owner George Touhouliotis, threatening "civil penalties and fines" if the Old Town nightclub continued to promote POW.

At issue: Is POW's depraved slapstick "theater," or is it "real wrestling"? If it's "real wrestling," state law gives Cassidy's office jurisdiction over the event, and requires POW performers to submit to physical exams. But what's the difference between "theater" and "real pro wrestling," anyway? Even Cassidy admits it's a question of near-theological murkiness.

"Pro 'rasslin' is basically theater," quoth the quotable commish. "I certainly don't want to open up some can of worms by saying, 'Hey, you thespians can't do this.'" Still, Cassidy says he worries POW's presentation might deceive punters into thinking they're getting "real wrestling" instead of a stage show.

Cleanhands scoffs.

"You can't go to this show without realizing it's satire," he says. "And I can't present a satire of wrestling without mirroring the industry in some ways."

This squared-circle circus reared its mulleted head once before; last summer, Cassidy agreed that POW's shtick was satire, and POW adopted the ungainly official name "Satyricon Theater Troupe Presents Portland Organic Wrestling." This time, Cleanhands and company say they'll see Cassidy in court if he moves against POW.

"The state goes by this fiction that wrestling is real, when in fact everyone knows that's not the case," says John Sarre, an intern for lawyer Alex Hamalian, who's working Satyricon's side of the dispute. "We're going to argue that the Legislature and the Boxing Commission don't have the authority to regulate what POW does, because it's speech, not conduct."

While the Cleanhands camp plots possible injunctions, restraining orders and the like, Cassidy says he plans to head down to Satyricon on Thursday--with a state's attorney in tow. Beyond that, the commish insists he hasn't decided what action to take.

"I can't say what's going to go down," says Cassidy.

Watch this space! Meanwhile, Portland Organic Wrestling performs Thursday, June 6, at Satyricon, 125 NW 6th Ave., 243-2380. 9 pm. Cover.

OBSERVED

A fledgling effort to turn an abandoned downtown building into an all-ages venue and community center seeks help. Email savepdxmusic@yahoo.com for the 411...Dahlia and Auditory Sculpture knobmaster Keith Schreiner announced his engagement to local artist Elena Hawley during Dahlia's regular show at Ohm last week. Congratulations, kids!...YOUR BAND COULD BE FAMOUS, but only if you play MusicfestNW. Swear to God. Download the free app to the WW-sponsored festival at www.musicfestnw.com.

When I say "Kashmir," do you think, "Sweet, dude--Zeppelin rules"? You are the reader we want. Email tips, gossip, whatnot to hiss@wweek.com.


DJ Anjali and the Incredible Kid spin bhangra and more on Wednesday nights at Kalga Kafe, 4147 SE Division St., 236-4770. 9 pm-midnight. No cover (food or beverage purchase required).

Desipalooza II, an event at PSU's Shattuck Hall on Saturday, June 22, will feature DJed bhangra, Hindi pop, a live bhangra performance and more. 9 pm-1 am. $5.

For more info on bhangra events in Portland, email badmaashproductions AT hotmail.com.

 
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