Bhangra band take infectious song and dance into rural neighbourhoods
Jackie Butler finds out about a musical fusion experience with its roots in the Punjab.
You might be excused for thinking that the joyful and interactive music and dance experience that is Punjabi bhangra is an imported phenomenon. While it does have its roots in ancient North West Indian dance form and cultural tradition, it's also a fusion of all kinds of contemporary sounds and its development and popularity have been honed in Britain before spreading across the USA and over to Mumbai.
Among the frontrunners of the genre are the extended family gang of RSVP who are about to bring the bhangra vibe right into the heart of Westcountry communities.
The Bristol-based ensemble, who first won my heart when they raised the roof at the Port Eliot Festival at St Germans a couple of years back, are playing a 15-date tour of villages through Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. It's an opportunity for audiences to get into a groove that fuses elements of reggae, gypsy jazz, hard rock, Balkan riffs and English rap with the traditional melodies and rhythms, and the colourful spectacle of bhangra dance.
"It is excellent for community cohesion. Music, arts and dance bring people together across generations and cultures to share the same vibe," says charismatic singer and frontman Dildar Singh, who likens one of their gigs to a barn dance with a whole live band and a Punjabi kick.
"The idea is to bring a friend, your dancing shoes and an open heart and mind and it will be a fun evening of song and dance.
"We are competent musicians too – we're just in a gimmicky band."
Learning the moves – often with the help of on-stage dancers – is a key part of the deal, and some of them are, surprisingly, entirely suitable for the rural farming areas where they are landing. Being a more urban outfit, RSVP tend to define the dance gestures that make up their routines with appropriate descriptions such as "screwing in the lightbulbs" when you raise both hands in the air and twist them in a circular motion.
"Punjabis are traditionally from a farming background, so it's actually about picking fruit from the trees," explains Dildar.
"We put a twist on them, but they are traditional moves. When we tell you to throw the frisbee, it's about sowing seeds; starting up your motorcycle is stamping in the seeds. Bhangra is about dancing as though you are intoxicated with happiness; and it's a celebration for the harvest of the crops."
The bhangra movement dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"Bhangra is what happened when Punjabis came here with their music and the scene was established in Birmingham," says Dildar, who was born in England. "We are as much British as Asian."
The genre really took hold in the 1980s and became a massive part of the left field music scene. In 2001, Punjabi folk, and its hip-hop form, folkhop, began to exert an influence over American RnB music, when Missy Elliott released the folkhop-influenced Get Ur Freak On; in 2003 Punjabi MC's Beware of the Boys was covered by the US rapper Jay-Z.
Back in Bristol, Dildar had always been passionate about music and performance. He gathered together family and friends to set up the band 25 years ago with the idea of playing at weddings and functions (which they still do). But news of their exciting shows travelled fast.Within a year they had performed at Womad and have gone on to perform regularly at Glastonbury and at a string of other festivals, including Torquay earlier this year.
With musicians drawn from three generations of Dildar's family, and friends, RSVP are wholly rooted in the authentic living tradition of bhangra – their latest album is called Keeping It Alive –but they are not afraid to innovate.
"We are more of an entertainment act now. People take us to their hearts because we are different, but at the same time we feel very privileged that we are ambassadors for Asian music," adds Dildar, who has wide experience of working in the government and voluntary sector with communities around Bristol and the South West.
The forthcoming tour – set up with Routes South West – builds on the group's heartening experience in Mevagissey last year, when RSVP spent three days in the Cornish fishing village as part of an Arts Council project, teaching the moves and ending in a community parade and performance.
"There were people aged four to 84 in the dance classes. It was absolutely fantastic."
RSVP are coming to Lostwithiel on September 27; St Erth on September 28; Porlock, Somerset on October 4; Evershot, Dorset on October 5; Meavy, Devon on October 11; Lympstone on October 12; Stockland on October 19; Berrynarbor, North Devon on November 16; Woolacombe on November 22; Chulmleigh on November 23; Sturminster, Dorset on November 29 and Castle Cary, Somerset on November 30. for more details visit rsvpmusic.co.uk.