DJ Rekha took the Black Cat by storm on Saturday throwing down Bhangra-bolts like the hip-hopping Zeus that she is. A little background: DJ Rekha has been throwing monthly “basement bhangra” parties in New York City since 1996. So she’s been DJing longer than many of you knew that was a thing. And wait, what is Bhangra again? DJ Rekha blends Bhangra, a style of folk music from the Punjab region of South Asia (between India and Pakistan), with various beats ranging from hip hop to dancehall. Oh yeah, and she was recently NYU’s artist in residence, probably for highlighting Bhangra/South Asian culture in a unique way. Or maybe for being a baller, I can’t speak with complete certainty to NYU’s reasons.
In a pre-show interview lost forever to technology, DJ Rekha (otherwise known as Rekha Malhotra) first and foremost griped about the neighborhood’s changing landscape. It’s happening in all major cities, she said with some disdain, this gentrification. Back in the day she was a regular feature at the Black Cat, and now the club seems like it doesn’t belong across the street, for example, from a Room & Board furniture store. The Black Cat is now the odd relic, the hold out from the old days. And, there used to be a really good Mexican place nearby she’d eat at before a show, but it’s gone now; the story of DC. Although, when asked if she was in DC because she got another invitation from the President to play at the White House (as she did in 2010, when Mr. Obama said that she had “been spinning a little East Room Bhangra for everybody mixing a hip-hop beat with the sounds of her heritage; making a uniquely American sound that may not have been heard in the White House before”), she said she wouldn’t turn it down. She hoped there was another inauguration performance in her future.
DJ Rekha also mentioned the Bhangra scene she dips into for new tracks is out of East London. One Bhangra song remains popular among the masses in North America, after it was sampled by Jay-Z (so yeah, you’ve probably heard it): Punjabi MC’s “Mundian To Bach Ke” from way back in 2003. As such, that song is remixed heavily into the track “Basement Bhangra Anthem,” first track off DJ Rekha’s 2007 (and only) album, “Basement Bhangra Compilation.” As it stood Saturday night, this poppy mix of traditional cultural heritage sounded really danceable. If you weren’t sure the Bhangra scene was alive and well in the district, the packed upstairs room of the Black Cat would have let you know, yeah, it’s here. Dance circles cropped up in the center of the crowd and while people tried to outdance one another, cheers and jeers erupted for their performances, as well as DJ Rekha’s. Particularly notable were the wobbly, warbling female voices that competed for space with the dominating, heavy bass Rekha floated over them. The hooks and choruses of traditional songs repeated over and over, each round gaining a new instrument or sound, layering beats into the grooves Rekha laid down years before she came to DC this time. DJ Rekha herself described the feeling of the evening in a tweet during the show: “the gift that is this dj life to be able to transition from biggie to seeti. thank you, DC.” Thank you, Rekha.