The driving, high-energy Indian folk dance known as “bhangra” has a long history that takes it from the fields of northern India and Pakistan to modern-day dance halls. It has become the connection to the Punjabi culture for a generation of Indian Americans who have grown up far from home. Spark goes inside the Dhol Di Awaz competition held at Cupertino’s Flint Center and meets one of the Bay Area’s top bhangra teams.
Founded in 1999 by the Berkeley Sikh Student Association, Dhol Di Awaz — which translates as “the sound of the dhol [an Indian drum]” — is the oldest bhangra competition on the West Coast. With participating teams that hail from as far away as Canada, it has also become one of the largest events of its kind.
Vigorous and dynamic, bhangra arose out of dances that Punjabi farmers once performed while working in the fields during the spring harvest. From there, it gradually evolved into a popular folk dance for festive occasions, such as weddings and parties. Although originally it was danced primarily by men, in modern competition it’s not unusual to see co-ed groups dressed in colorful outfits — the men usually in long tunics called “kurtas” and the women in bright baggy pants, or “salwar kameez.” Bhangra dancers traditionally bound and bob to the relentless beat of the dhol, a two-sided Indian bass drum, accompanied by such other instruments as the stringed sarangi, the jingling chimta and the sups, which resemble a long section of a wooden folding gate.
As young people of Southeast Asian descent rediscover their roots, they’ve found that bhangra’s heavy backbeat and coordination of nonstop foot and hand motions has made it a natural match to other styles of dance and music, and its distinctive rhythms have filtered into dance clubs and fused with reggae, raggamuffin, house music and hip hop, all of them breathing contemporary life into an ancient style. No longer confined to just the Punjabi area, bhangra fusion can be heard in Apache Indian’s ragga hit “Chok There,” on Missy Elliot’s 2001 Get Ur Freak On in “Beware,” in Jay-Z’s remix of the bhangra song “Mundian to Bach Ke” and even in Britney Spears’s “Me Against the Music.”