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What is progress?

[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Fact: Apache Indian's "Arranged Marriage" (from that London lad's 1993 album No Reservations) is one of the most enjoyable, inventive, durable pop-music singles ever recorded. (Nifty multilingual typographic video, too.) But just as the saliency and identity of rags like Ray Gun, Spy, and Wired are forever linked to their typographic design, the specific genre "Arranged Marriage" typifies is crucial to its appeal. That genre, for those tuning in late, is bhangra, a melding of reggae and rap styles with traditional Indian instruments and vocals. To paraphrase the immortal words of "Arranged Marriage," bhangra artists "talk de Indian wit de patois."

Bhangra is wildly popular among South Asian youth in the West (and among cognoscenti of other ethnic origins too) for obvious reasons. It combines the past and the present, "roots" culture and popular culture, assimilated and "pure" (or even "native") styles. Racial and ethnic crossover is integral to pop music; to take an obvious example, white fans and practitioners of rock & roll, reggae, jazz and rap owe an immense debt to black Americans, and through them, to black Africans. Bhangra-heads owe debts to the rap, jazz and reggae axes as well as to classical Indian musicians. But bhangra is the signal example of existing musical forms uniting to create a new one (never mind those flash-in-the-pan rock/rap hybrids), a case of the musical whole surpassing the sum of its parts.

All the same, I've been disappointed by the mediocrity of much of the bhangra I've run across. No Reservations, admittedly the most commercial of bhangra albums, has scarcely a bum track, but the same cannot be said of the various radio shows and compilation albums I've heard. Finally, though, I've found a collection that's worth playing over and over. Its title asks the musical question What is Bhangra?

Judging by the songs on the album, bhangra is:

At root, though, Bhangra is the future. The young fellow wearing the turban, T-shirt, and leather jacket on the cover of What is Bhangra?, half of whose face has been Photoshopped into a shiny metal cyborg, is a veritable icon of this vibrant and still-young musical genre, a testament to the fact that, like other centuries-old cultures, India and its music will drink from whatever stylistic or technological trough may be necessary to survive and grow. And that's something bhangra can, must, and will do.

Solaar eclipse?

Rap meets language training meets the Continent: Lately I've been playing MC Solaar's new album Prose Combat a couple of times a day - and not just because I intended to write about it. I still can't figure out the words he's singing, and I don't want to cheat by reading the lyric sheet (not that I could, considering its tiny, overwrought type). But this kind of ignorance, if not exactly bliss, is at least agréable. I suspect it's how rap fans who aren't native speakers of English feel, given that MC Solaar (né Claude M'Barali of Senegal) is… a French rapper.

There. I've said it. I feel better already. But does the word "rapper" even fit? Somehow the even, almost metronomic delivery, the nasalized vowels and gently-stressed syllables of French, and the all-too-wilfully low-key "jazzy" horns and basslines all conspire to shatter the mental "rapper" archetype. The "jazzy" American trio Digable Planets is a thudding failure at this sort of narcotized rap (exception: Their video "Nickel Bag"), and Guru, with whom MC Solaar has, as they say, cut tracks, is about as dull.

Solaar's finesse and charm may, in fact, be structural: The quiet approach may be the only form French rap could take by virtue of the language itself. I'd gladly shake the Uzi- or Gitanes-toting hand of a French Ice-T or Chuck D, if one exists. But for now, maybe it's enough to make like a "foreigner" and groove to music that can't be pinned down, sung along with, or (easily) understood. Never mind fuzzy logic; MC Solaar gives you fuzzy listening.