Desi Dance

The music is called bhangra, and it's the sound of a whole new way of being Indian. Or Pakistani. Or Bangladeshi.

There's a new dance in clubland. It begins with a solid wall of dholak beats emerging from a swirling mix of hip-hop and disco. Then out snakes a groove of tabla, and all the dancers let out a loud whoop and throw their arms high in the air, as if welcoming guests to an abundant feast. Then the feet begin a syncopated stomp, and the shoulders a downbeat shimmy, and the chin sways from left to right like the chin of a coy Hindu goddess who won't say yes or no, and the arms stay up, up, up, and the wrists -- really, the bhangra is all in the wrists -- give a peculiar little thrusting wave over and over, Come in! Come in! Sit down! Sit down! Ek ... do ... teen ... char ... STOMP-shimmy-chin-wave, STOMP-shimmy-chin-wave.

Hold on to your turban, stomping fool: It's bounty time in the old country, in Punjab, land of the five rivers, because besides being fairly new, bhangra is also a traditional harvest dance, and very, very old.

You can dance the bhangra at Houston's trendiest clubs: at Revere, at the Roxy, at Crystal, even at Club Blue Planet out on the Richmond Strip. At one time, you could dance the bhangra at Pete's Wild Life, but then it closed down. But you can't dance the bhangra on just any night. It has to be a Desi night, a Desi (pronounced "daisy") dance, when the club is filled with Punjabis and Malayalis, Pakistanis and Gujaratis, Bangladeshis and Ismailis and Konkanis -- anyone from the subcontinent is a Desi -- when, at the peak of the evening, 15 to 20 minutes can pass before you hear an American song amid the bhangra, the Hindi filmis and the qawwalis.

But for all of that time, for all of that 15 or 20 minutes, you'll hear a familiar beat, a Western beat, because this is fusion music, remixed to dance floor specifications, Hindi movie songs from 20 years ago with added spice -- that's what they call it, spice -- from Madonna, MC Shy D, the Digable Planets and NWA.

It's an early Sunday night at Club Revere off Kirby Drive. Renu and Ritu, the twin sisters of the Desi scene, are the only ones dancing, wearing long dark hair and trendy flared pants. The DJs, a posse called Kumba flown in from Los Angeles for the occasion, are warming up the turntables with some basic

American disco. They've yet to get serious. Their leader, Hooter, is a Mitsubishi engineer. Another of the DJs is a computer technician. Tonight is their casual night: baseball caps pulled backwards, Hilfiger clothes. Their hangers-on, L.A. college boys, are looking for a place to get high -- after all, the word bhangra comes from bhang, meaning hemp -- though the DJs don't know that. Lights are flashing, and the video screens say: Welcome to Music Masala Night!

This is the classiest club in town, Sunil Thakkar, the man behind Music Masala, told the DJs when they arrived from the airport. Right in the middle of River Oaks. A slight exaggeration. Still, it is very classy -- plush cushioned ottomans and funky light fixtures -- and it's filling up. A phalanx of dark-skinned men line the bar, facing the dance floor. They wear khakis, jeans with belts, polo shirts, Gucci-style loafers. One Pakistani with a Chippendale's body and Jheri-curled Fabio hair hangs back, arms folded across his tight, shiny, zippered T-shirt, watching. They are all waiting, waiting for bhangra, when men can dance together shamelessly, welcoming each other to their great feasts.

The women are in the bathroom, dressed in little tops and short skirts, midriff-baring blouses and low-slung trousers, their lipstick carefully applied. "And then my parents found out he was a Gujarati..." They are business majors. Every single one of them is a business major. A short -- actually, tiny -- girl who claims to be 19, wearing a thick ponytail and platform shoes, shrugs sweetly. "I come here to meet the cute Indian boyzzzzz. It's fun, it's cool," she says. At the bar, two female Muslim college students sip forbidden alcohol -- their parents don't know they're drinking, but their brothers and cousins are here to keep a slightly more relaxed eye on them. One of the girls has straight, long hair and a cheeky smile; the other has eyes the color of the sea. They've come to dance, not to meet cute boys. "Are you kidding?" Miss Cheeky Smile says with cutting disdain. "Do you think any of the men here are actually attractive? They're FOBs!"

Fresh off the boat. Nothing could be less desirable, but never mind, never mind, the first bhangra beat of the night starts up, and everyone crowds onto the dance floor, arms in the air as a high-pitched Punjabi voice hollers over the sound system.

To anyone familiar with traditional subcontinental culture, which does include bare midriffs but doesn't include club kids, the whole scene is a bit surreal. Things which go hand-in-hand with clubbing -- pills and powder and heavy drinking and sex -- are all still more or less taboo here at Club Revere's Masala Night. Many of the guests are in the know simply because they're on the right e-mail list. This scene is not a product of traditional subcontinental subculture. No, it was made in London, which has a large Desi population, and as it caught on there it spread to Toronto and New Jersey and Chicago and L.A. and ultimately Houston, all these being the places where the Indians are, and suddenly there was Outcaste and DJ Jiten and Apache Indian and DJ Sunil and DJ Spice and Kumba. And the second generation, the Indian baby boom whose parents emigrated in the 1970s, is coming of age, and South Asian girls who didn't use to be allowed to go out are persuading their parents to let them go clubbing at night, at least on Desi nights, and their parents are letting them go.

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