If you’re wondering why this year’s City of Bhangra Festival has added everything from a burlesque night to an all-female showcase that includes a couple of cutting-edge rap fusionists, all you need to know is that Tarun Nayar has stepped in as the event’s new artistic director.
As the tabla player in the culture-mashing band Delhi 2 Dublin—which fearlessly fuses everything from Celtic to bhangra to dub—he’s all about building bridges and blurring borders between art forms and ethnicities.
“It was my intention, coming onboard this year, to mess with shit a little bit,” he says with a laugh from a gas station south of Seattle, where his band is touring before the fest starts here.
Then Nayar—who is also a DJ, producer, and writer—adds: “I’m a huge fan of the fest, and Delhi 2 Dublin has collaborated with it and has been heavily impacted by the fest for years. But also, I didn’t grow up with bhangra music, but with Indian classical music, playing tabla. And I only discovered it late. So I have the benefit of being heavily part of the scene, but I’m a bit of an outsider. So I approach it very much as an art form.”
In short, Nayar wants to take bhangra—the beat-heavy folk music and dance of South Asia’s Punjab region—to even more people.
“I think of my white friends saying, ‘I love South Asian music and I love Indian music,’ but they really don’t have a way in,” he notes. “Bhangra is unstoppable. It does something to the body that is so unique, so we want to open up the music to a wider audience.”
Among Nayar’s bolder initiatives is Bhangra: SHE, an evening of female activists, artists, and educators speaking about their struggles to succeed (June 16 at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Surrey). Featured at the free presentation will be a number of singers who will also be performing at the fest’s downtown stage, including Vancouver rapper Horsepowar (Jasleen Powar), who melds hip-hop and Desi sounds, and singer Jasmine Sandlas, who fuses R&B, Bollywood, Hindustani classical music, and Punjabi rap.
“This year I chose to focus on gender. It seems like there is that kind of sentiment in the air,” Nayar explains. “It’s been a really rough year for gender-based violence in India and here. Also, there’s such a glut of talented female artists in the South Asian community. I’m interested in normalizing that—so a young girl growing up in Surrey or Richmond can say, ‘I could do that. That could be my future.’ ”
Elsewhere in his bolder programming is Where Not to Do Bhangra (June 12 at the Rio Theatre), a variety night featuring the South Asian sketch troupe I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Chicken alongside burlesque performers April O’Peel and Socratease (Munish Sharma).
City of Bhangra isn’t abandoning its roots, however. At the free outdoor stage downtown on June 17 and 18, more than 325 local, national, and international talents will perform bhangra music and dance. And on Tuesday (June 14), Music on Main features one of the form’s top virtuosos, Punjabi multi-instrumentalist and singer Vijay Kumar Yamla—the grandson of the legendary Punjabi folksinger Lal Chand Yamla Jatt, a pioneer of the stringed tumbi that’s central to today’s bhangra sound. “He can play all the instruments—he’s this genius. He’s the real deal and he’ll be downtown as well,” Nayar says.
Still, he adds: “I think it’s so important to push in whatever way we can, otherwise we risk redundancy. After 10 years, you really need to mess with stuff to maintain interest. As we become more comfortable in our skin…and as we feel we belong, we can begin to take those liberties. It’s important not to get caught up in ‘What is authentic and real?’ ”
To explore that question, he turns again to his experience with Delhi 2 Dublin. “The band was just in India and that adaptation and innovation is happening all the time there,” he says. “We can get caught up as an immigrant community, but at the source they’re not as concerned with authenticity.”
The City of Bhangra Festival runs from Saturday (June 11) to June 18 at the Vancouver Art Gallery Plaza and venues around Vancouver and Surrey.