Spring is here, time for Bhangra dancing

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2008

How do you describe sound? I was recently working on a choreographed bhangra dance, and was thinking about how to describe the music to someone who's not familiar with it when I heard a short piece on National Public Radio where listeners contribute descriptions of sounds using visual images or ideas that invoke feelings. It's a challenging exercise, trying to describe a sound without saying, "it sounds like..." Some of the entries were pretty entertaining, and they all left me with the impression that sound, like art, is a very personal experience.

So a description of bhangra music and dance might go something like this: bubbles and bouncing balls work a field of flowers as a butterfly deftly weaves through their midst. Once you've heard bhangra, you could very well come up with a different description, but that one will work for now. The butterfly is the melody or one of the melodies of a modern bhangra song, which manages to wind its way through layers of beats and bouncing alternative melodies. Somewhere in the field of flowers, which serves as the agricultural background from which the music and dance form initiated, there's one giant, heavy ball that pounds out the underlying beat - that's the dhol, a traditional drum.

Originating in the Punjab region of what is now modern India, bhangra began as folk music and dance done by farmers to commemorate the coming of spring and the new harvest. The time of year is known as Baisakhi to followers of the Sikh religion, and marks the rebirth of the earth. Traditional musical compositions include vocals backed by the dhol and dholki, a smaller drum, and melodic instruments such as the single-stringed ektara or tumbi. Bhangra lyrics often are centered around love, marriage, and stories about Punjabi culture or heroes. The corresponding athletic, proud dance was most often done by men.

As with many folkloric music styles, bhangra is experiencing a renaissance as contemporary musicians try to find modern relevance in traditional music. Today's bhangra still includes the dhol, but may include sampling, rap, fusion with reggae dub, and electronic sounds. It's a big, beat-heavy sound, but seems to always include at least one and sometimes several light-hearted, catchy melodies. The vocals can provide the melody or, just as often, additional percussive energy depending on how they are used.

The dance has similarly retained its folkloric roots under its newest interpretation as a complement - and sometimes rival - to hip-hop. It's highly energetic, with most of the moves being performed while bouncing on one foot or jumping on both. The moves are proud, with strong arms and upper body echoing one or more of the rhythm lines. Hip-hop moves and even break dancing are sometimes incorporated. Bhangra dance competitions are now held across the United States, with female dance groups growing increasingly common.

Never heard of it? Not surprising if you don't leave Juneau often; yet it has been referred to as the fastest growing music and dance form in the world. Next time you find yourself in an urban metropolis down south, look up a class or competition and go experience the intense energy of bhangra.

In the meantime, a YouTube search will yield more bhangra than you can shake a stick at.

• Samia Savell can be reached at samiasun@hotmail.com.

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