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Friday 23 September 2011

Bhangra For Beginners

I hate bhangra music. Show me a dancefloor playing a mash up of bollywood, drum & bass and early 90s indie and nothing will drag me away, but when a bhangra tune comes on I hide in the loos or join the drinks queue (a good opportunity since this is when most people are strutting their stuff.) Bhangra gets people moving…just not me. So when I heard about Rifco Arts latest production Britain’s Got Bhangra, I was half intrigued and half scared but decided to face my fears and go and see the musical theatre masterpiece, which when it first toured last year was a sell-out show that won numerous awards and tonnes of praise. Back for more, this second run of the ‘hit’ production claims to be even bigger and better with a slightly new cast, new numbers and an all singing, all dancing, shiny new set. And WOW. What a set.

I was astounded by it - it was just so beautiful. As it switched between the fields of the Punjab and the bustling markets of 1970s Southall, a temple, council house and even a scene set in heaven, the story instantly came alive and the music performed by the band housed inside a giant dhol drum at the back of the stage blended in perfectly. 
Before I go any further, I want to point out, I’m not one of those reviewers that tells you the plot – there’s no spoilers here. All I’m going to reveal is that the play is about a man who moves from the Punjab to London in search of a better life and bhangra music proves to be the answer. 

So bhangra…what is it? It’s music that originated in the Punjab, India with lyrics sung in Punjabi, but it’s made by British artists and has been for over 30 years. It’s a huge scene if you’re in to it but the average Brit has either never heard it or if they have, most probably only know Panjabi MC’s ‘Mundia To Bach Ke’, which samples the Knightrider theme tune. Though strangely I never succumbed to its ‘charm’, I’m clearly insane as it sold 10 million copies ...

It was a packed house at Watford Palace Theatre where I was watching BGB (and where Rifco Arts are the resident theatre company). I was surprised that the audience was so diverse, Asians were completely outnumbered by non-Asians. I couldn’t work out whether these people were simply Watford Palace regulars OR were they actually people who liked Bhangra even though they weren’t Punjabis?

Ten minutes into the production, any thoughts of analysing the audience and wondering if maybe I should have brought my ear plugs along vanished. I was well and truly hooked,  mesmerising by the set, rainbow coloured sparkly costumes and the tunes...oh my, what tunes!!! Was this really bhangra? Or was it bhangra that’s better than normal bhangra. You see for someone who hates bhangra I instantly fell in love with the music. It was upbeat, positive, catchy, fun…and as for the vocals. They were to die for.

The lead character is real life bhangra star Shin from one of the UK’s biggest bhangra bands, DCS. He has one of the most outstanding and versatile voices I’ve ever heard. It was like getting two shows for the price of one – you got to watch a brilliant piece of musical theatre AND a live concert from an incredible solo artist all in one night – amazing!

A word that could also be used to describe the cast of 11 who were all superb. Worthy of a mention is Michael Taibi…..a European gentleman who had the most authentic Asian accent; it was so spot on, (was he Punjabi in a previous life?) 

Natasha Jayetileke played record company owner Shinde…who hammed up playing a diva so well, her character was pure evil but her high powered ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude made her an inspiration.

Rakesh Boury was the super cute DJ Lovely, a local Southall lad and king of remixing, he was like every single rude boy stereotype rolled into one and perfected it down to a T.

And the lovable Jason Denton…, such an angelic voice, soulful, jazzy and very listenable.
Britain’s Got Bhangra (BGB) was not at all what I expected. I knew Rifco were an impressive and original company (they’ve been breaking Asian stereotypes and making diverse theatre shows for a decade) but there’s always that fear that this could be the show where it all goes downhill.
Thankfully I was proved wrong (soooooooooo wrong). BGB is complete theatre perfection, it’s everything you want from a night out. Just like a good book, it takes you on a complete journey where your emotions are tested and you develop genuine feelings for the characters. The show has everything; drama, romance, comedy, tears….several unexpected weepy moments as well as glitz, glamour, action filled choreography, a proper storyline and music that lifts your spirits (I know that sounds like a cliché but remember this is coming from an (ex-member) of the anti-bhangra camp.)
I wouldn’t say I’ve converted to bhangra but I feel so much more open to it. Maybe it’s not as bad as I think it is. Maybe next time I’m in a club and a bhangra tunes comes on I’ll reach for the lightbulb and hollar ‘balle balle’ to my friends. Who knows????
What I do know is that BGB is an excellent production, one that deserves international exposure as it has universal appeal. You don’t need to know anything about bhangra (or like it!) to enjoy this show. It’s sleek from start to finish - good old fashion family entertainment. I’m up for watching it again. Who’s joining me?
Britain's Got Bhangra is currently on tour in the UK until November 27th and will be playing in Dartford, Leicester, London, Windsor, Leeds, Oldham and Coventry. To find out where to book tickets visit www.rifcoarts.com
And if you fancy a sneaky peak, check out this medley from the original version of the show.
 All show photography was taken by David Fisher  (thanks!)


  1. Wow, you're on a roll, this much fun should be illegal :)and of course I'd join you if you're up for it again

  2. He he...well the proof will be what happens when we hit the dancefloor this Thursday night, will I dash to the loo as soon as the bhangra comes on or will I take to it like 'Sheila Ki Jawani'... : )

  3. It's a great post you have done