It’s not unusual to hear bhangra music percolating out of storefronts along Main Street—although when you do, chances are that you’re south of East 49th. This week, though, Music on Main is teaming up with the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration to bring Punjabi pop to the hipster crossroads of Main and Kingsway, 40 blocks further north.
It’s an innovative undertaking, but it’s hardly experimental: as MoM artistic director David Pay notes, this is the fourth year that the two organizations have presented Bhangra on Main, always to good effect.
“The gist of it, for me, came out of conversations with the cofounder of the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration, Mo Dhaliwal,” Pay explains in a telephone interview from MoM’s new downtown offices. “When Mo and I first met, we talked about our desire to have more integrated audiences. Often in Vancouver our audiences are quite culturally segmented, and we wanted to find a legitimate and ongoing way for our audiences to get to know each other. So that was the initial impetus behind Bhangra on Main, and it’s been really fun—and, actually, super successful.”
The desire to develop audiences “that look more like the composition of Vancouver” is understandable. So, too, is the notion that Music on Main’s regular patrons might enjoy a break from the smart but challenging new-music fare that the organization typically presents. But what can Bhangra on Main offer those who might otherwise consume their Punjabi fare in a nightclub setting?
Pay and company have addressed that issue by booking singer Raju Johal, a rising star both here and abroad. But rather than reprise the amped-up excitement of videos like “Nachna Pasand” and “Dhol No Speak Americano”, he’ll perform acoustically, accompanying himself on harmonium. To further calm the mood, the booming dhol, or Punjabi bass drum, will be replaced by the smaller dholak and tabla.
“Bhangra has developed into a big, often stadium-filling form,” says Pay. “We wanted to show a more intimate side, or a more looking-at-the-origins side. Essentially, it’s like those old MTV Unplugged events, where you’re looking at a form that is often really amplified, but bringing it back to a more intimate setting.”
“It’s more of a sit-down thing that we’re doing, to showcase the more relaxed and chilled-out side of Punjabi music,” Johal concurs, in a separate telephone interview from his Surrey home. Nonetheless, the singer hopes to keep bhangra’s party atmosphere intact, even if he has to add extra information to his usual stage patter.
“I’ll do a little explanation before every single song, so that people from different backgrounds can get the gist of what I’m trying to say,” he notes, adding that many of his songs are rooted in boliyan, or Punjabi folk poetry.
“They’re little two-line or four-line poems that our culture has,” he explains. “You do them at parties, engagement parties, you name it. They’re about teasing—about guys teasing girls, girls teasing guys, drinking, having a good time in general—and there are a lot of folk boliyan as well, talking about love stories from Punjab and just generally relating to our culture.”
It’s clear, then, that while Johal’s Bhangra on Main concert might be quiet, it won’t be subdued.
Bhangra on Main takes place at the Fox Cabaret on Tuesday (June 2).