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Hangama in Hotlanta

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January 2007
Hangama in Hotlanta

Nearby candles illuminate the turntables at Apres Diem, where salsa grooves dissolve into rumbling tabla. People of all races wind down at this Midtown restaurant and lounge while listening to world underground music on these "Beatz International" nights. The Monday night global mixes incorporate music by artists like tabla virtuoso Talvin Singh and Asian Underground composer Nitin Sawhney.

"Beatz International" instigators are among Atlanta-based deejays and entrepreneurs that are infusing South Asian elements into popular nightlife culture. These innovators are bringing Asian electronica, bhangra hits and Bollywood remixes to mainstream Atlanta night spots. Their events are drawing South Asians into popular clubs and lounges to dance to familiar desi songs as well as to experimental jams. Their parties are also turning on the regular clientele at these venues to South Asian music and dance, and expanding the fan base for these genres.

Currently New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are among the major hubs for desi parties in the U.S. Many of these parties have a core South Asian following and feature deejays spinning grooves with South Asian flavor. Other nightlife events that do not appropriate the "desi" label also showcase music with South Asian motifs. Rather than being dominated by South Asians, these events generally attract a more diverse audience.

Atlanta's desi party scene has rapidly grown since early leaders began to stir things up in the mid-1990s. Pioneer DJ Rup, who has since moved to Florida, set things in motion when he debuted his Hindi remix album "The Journey to India." At the time, bhangra music and Bollywood tunes were mainly sequestered to college parties and hotel ballrooms.

Since then this music has spread to local restaurants and nightclubs as well. DJ Kumar of Party Over Here Productions (POHP) and Kiran Bindra of Wicked Productionzz were both involved in cultivating the desi party phenomenon in Atlanta. These leaders brought South Asian sounds out from isolated parties into the broader nightlife circuit.

DJ Kumar began his career by spinning house music and hip hop in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He explained how he inadvertently found a niche in desi music: "I didn't start out as an Indian music deejay. There weren't really too many other deejays playing this music at the time, and I fell into it."

When he first came to Atlanta in 1997, DJ Kumar played a lot of non-desi gigs at landmark Atlanta clubs. Inspired by deejay extraordinaire Sunny Singh, he also spun bhangra and Bollywood remixes at the major desi parties. He manned the turntables at the Georgia Tech University's Holi culture show after-party, as well as regular parties held at the former Castelgate Hotel in Midtown.

In 2000 DJ Kumar connected with local deejays to build a deejay crew. It was around this time that POHP started to collaborate with club owners to hold desi parties at mainstream venues. That year the company threw a New Year's Eve party that brought a throng of 800 South Asians to the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Atlanta.

DJ Kumar believes that this event set a new precedent for the Atlanta desi party culture: "In the past there used to be a huge problem with fights at desi parties. Troublemakers would shut down the parties and people started to lose faith in the scene. The New Year's Eve party was a turning point. It was different because it actually succeeded without the craziness."

DJ Kumar described the growth of POHP after this smash event: "As DJs, we fed off of each other's momentum. And we got such good feedback from the parties we did." POHP rapidly expanded into a regional sensation, with its crew deejaying out-of-state events from the Carolinas to Florida.

While DJ Kumar entered into Atlanta nightlife through a musical channel, Wicked Productionzz CEO Kiran Bindra broke into the field by throwing her own parties. Bindra grew up in the midst of a fierce desi party scene in both New York and London. She noticed the limited mainstream presence of desi music when she first came to Atlanta in 1999: "Whether it was the desi scene or the international mix scene, there were very few options available." Bindra decided to take action: "I wanted to do something that had an Indian flavor that was open to everybody."

Bindra uses a multicultural approach to put her events together, which are usually held once every couple of months. In addition to showcasing deejays who play South Asian and world underground music, she has also invited salsa dancers, belly dancers, and live dhol players to perform at her parties. She kicks off some of her parties with bhangra lessons to create an open atmosphere for people of all backgrounds. "When people get out there, they should feel comfortable enough to stay the whole night," she said.

Bindra estimates that her crowd is 50-55% South Asian and slightly older than the average 21-and-over crowd. Graduate students and married couples attend her parties, and friends of hers bring their parents. "If their parents are down for it, the more the merrier," she said. Bindra's effort is to make people of all ages feel at home at her parties: "Some people get intimidated because they see a younger crowd hanging out. If I see somebody at my event who's a little bit older, I'll make sure they're comfortable. I'll take their music requests and find a song that they want to dance to, even if it's not popular on the radio."

Bindra explained that drinking is an active part of the nightlife for the 21 and over crowd. She hopes that her own events will transcend stereotypes surrounding nightlife culture: "I want to give people a chance to experience something outside of just going to a nightclub, getting drunk, and dancing," she said. Bindra also addressed the question of illegal drugs at the average desi party: "Clubs are pretty strict about keeping the hardcore stuff out. I'm sure that there are people who indulge, but I haven't seen this at any of my events or the other desi events I have been to."

While Bindra's parties welcome people in their thirties and above, some people are not aware that parties like hers exist at all. Tanvir Sojiwala is the owner of an Atlanta video and music store. Her South Asian audio selection brings in international customers: "I get a lot of non-Indian people who enjoy these songs," she said. Besides this connection to music, Sojiwala is otherwise focused on her role as a parent: "I'm so involved in my own family life. I have no knowledge of the music that they play at nightclubs."

In terms of the music at Bindra's parties, bhangra and Bollywood songs serve as their backbone. She also incorporates Top 40 and international underground music to create her atmosphere. "I'm desi, but I would hate to go to a party that was all desi music," she said. "We live in a multicultural world. I want to hear my own sounds, but I also want to hear what's on the radio."

When Bindra first booked locations for her parties, many of the venue owners she met were unfamiliar with South Asian music. They responded with, "What kind of music is that?" or "Never heard of it." Since then she has noticed that general awareness of desi music has grown: "Now at all of the major venues, everyone knows about bhangra and Bollywood. They understand that there's a market out there, not only for people from India, but also for an international crowd."

In recent years a number of promotions companies besides POHP and Wicked Productionzz are contributing to the growth of the desi party scene. Among these are Bombay Gal Entertainment, Masti Entertainment, New Era, and Trendsetter Events. The companies rely on a variety of methods to promote their parties, including word of mouth, flyers, emails, and text messaging. Besides using their own websites for marketing, they also spread the word through online communities including facebook.com, friendster.com, and myspace.com, and event websites such as desiclub.com and desiparty.com.

Individuals from different promotions companies have worked together in the past to host events. Bindra teamed up with DJ Kumar of POHP to host her 2006 Bombay Fusion summer series at Compound. Global mixes from DJ Amix also featured in this weekly series at the Midtown nightclub. Nadira Merali, CEO of rising promotions company Bombay Gal Entertainment, remarked that some promoters are moving toward establishing themselves as individual entities. Emphasizing the importance of collaboration, Merali said "If all of us worked together, we should do so well."

Merali is actively working to reestablish ties among companies. One of her recent "Tempted to Touch Thursdays" at Aiko spotlighted DJ Mean, representing POHP, as well as Trendsetter Events deejay, DJ One. Jams at the Buckhead nightclub and lounge that evening included Top 40, hip hop, and reggae. Bombay Gal Entertainment joined forces with Trendsetter Events and Masti Entertainment to host the party, which was designed to target an international crowd. Rather than restricting their marketing to a South Asian target audience and to desi parties alone, many of the promotional companies involved sponsor parties like this one that focus on generating multicultural appeal. CEO Anish Patel described how his own vision has broadened since he launched Trendsetter Events over three years ago: "Earlier we were doing strictly desi events. We were restricted to doing monthly events on major holidays. Now we're doing weekly events at different venues, and anyone who wants to come out to our events is more than welcome."

While multicultural parties may mainly feature music from other genres, some deejays add South Asian zest to their musical sets. Patel said that Trendsetter deejays are spinning Asian-influenced singers like Jay Sean and Raghav at nightclubs such as Aiko and Compound. "People are starting to like that because the artists sing in English, and some of their songs have urban beats." DJ Kumar usually leaves out Bollywood songs when he plays Sutra Lounge, but he likes to wake up the crowd with a few bhangra cuts: "It truly is a mixed party, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. The music is mainly Top 40, hip hop, and reggae, but I bring a little bit of masala to it," he said.

A subset of desi parties attract mainly a college crowd. These events, which are often held at local clubs, are co-sponsored by university student organizations and promotions companies. Vandana Aggarwal, president of Georgia Tech University's India Club talked about the general popularity of college parties among her student peers. "Most college students don't go clubbing every weekend," she said. "Many of us who live in the area go home during the weekends. We also have fun doing more relaxed things. My friends and I also like watching movies, bowling, and playing poker indoors."

Aggarwal herself, who loves to dance, attends parties once or twice a month. She especially likes intercollegiate desi parties because it gives her the opportunity to meet her friends from other campuses. She has also invited friends from other backgrounds to these events. "My non-desi friends are not intimidated because the parties are not exclusively Indian. They really enjoy themselves because they get a blend of American culture and Indian culture."

Emory University, Georgia Tech University, and Masti Entertainment promotions collaborated to host such an intercollegiate party at Taverna Plaka last month in December. The organizers chose the Greek restaurant to give students the chance to socialize with friends before end of the semester final exams. Over 400 partygoers danced to an eclectic mix that included hip hop, Bollywood remixes, dance grooves, and bhangra beats.

The dance floor was packed with South Asian students, mostly ages 18-23, some of whom brought along friends of different backgrounds. Other people got up to dance on the dining tables, which is a tradition at Plaka. The younger group shared the floor with some of the regular restaurant customers who stayed for the dance party vibe. Shehezad Patel accompanied his sister to the party to celebrate her birthday. Commenting on the degree of diversity at the party, he said, "I prefer more of a mixed crowd."

Georgia State University student Karma Mehta, who was one of the revelers at Plaka, also talked about the turnout: "When word gets out that we're getting together, it's usually a lot of the same people that come out to support each other." Claire Pelletier, who happened on the party while waiting for a friend, commented on the tight-knit atmosphere: "This is very different from the typical club environment because everybody seems to know each other. It's easier to break into a crowd like this if you have Indian friends."

In addition to college parties, promotions companies also organize desi theme parties for the 21 and over bracket. These entice people who specifically want to hear South Asian music to come out to the clubs, and also provide an opportunity for regular clubgoers to hear new sounds.

Last month, 500 people came out to Aiko for "Bombay Lounge." The event, which regularly takes place on the second Saturday of every month, featured POHP deejays DJ Kumar and DJ Mean. DJ Mean pumped up the crowd with hip hop and reggae. DJ Kumar took over during the latter part of the night. He overlayed hip hop beats with classic and contemporary Bollywood hits. He also played Arabic music and rapper 2Pac alongside vocalist Raghav.

A few familiar faces from the college party at the Taverna Plaka party reappeared at "Bombay Lounge." Patrons sat back into the couches to sip their drinks and enjoy the complimentary hookahs. The dance floor occasionally swallowed up pockets of people who were sitting at the bar.

Partygoers from different backgrounds were popping and locking to Jazzy B's dhol beats. Some called out in response to the bhangra beats by rolling their tongues, a trademark sound in bhangra music. Others belted out the lyrics to favorite songs, such as a remix of A.R. Rahman's 1995 film song "Muqabala Muqabala." Taking a breather from polishing her bhangra moves, Bosnian native Tatjana Tomovic spoke about her affinity for "Bombay Lounge." "I love the music. It's different from what you usually hear at clubs," she said, "and some of the songs remind me of my country's music."

Besides desi parties, unique South Asian rhythms can also be heard in restaurants and lounges. "Indian electronica and global electronica–that's my sweet spot," said DJ Tamil. He, DJ Swivel and DJ Terri Holloway spin world underground music at Apres Diem restaurant and lounge on Monday nights, called "Beatz International" nights.

Bartender Heather Black commented on the average turnout for the event: "Even though a lot of people don't go out on Monday nights, people come here specifically for this night," she said. "It's atmospheric, it's something genuine. You can't go anywhere else in Atlanta to hear this kind of music."

DJ Tamil began as a world music deejay and later found inspiration in Indian and Middle Eastern music as well. He is the former host of "Radio Madras" on Georgia State University's WRAS 88.5 FM. The show brought a plethora of South Asian music to the airwaves, including classical and contemporary songs. His sets featured pieces by artists such as renowned Qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bhangra pop innovator Bally Sagoo.

Both DJ Swivel and DJ Tamil have spun at a few desi parties as well. In his experience DJ Swivel has found that the desi party audience usually wants to dance to a particular type of music. "The crowd wants to hear what they're familiar with." He described how a song by R&B artist Usher got a better response from the crowd than a cut from Nitin Sawhney: "His hot curry was too edgy for the crowd."

In addition to playing at Apres Diem, DJ Tamil and DJ Swivel also work with Atlanta-based composer and deejay Sharaab. Sharaab specializes in what he has dubbed "ethnoclash," which integrates traditional South Asian sounds with electronic music. Sharaab, DJ Swivel, and DJ Tamil make up the deejay collective, Radio Om, which recently collaborated with Indian electronica artist Karsh Kale.

DJ Kumar talked about the continuing presence of South Asian music in mainstream Atlanta venues. He hopes that his new venture, Samskar Events, will continue to bring people of different backgrounds together, within and beyond the walls of nightclubs. "Even if we're at Sutra Lounge where 80% of the people are not South Asian, it's an opportunity to promote South Asian music and cultural understanding."

By SUPRAJA NARASIMHAN


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