Early in the diaspora’s memory, there existed this place–in someone’s basement, DJ Rekha spun bhangra beats and brown kids danced.
Basement Bhangra has been a longstanding tradition on the East Coast. For 20 years, DJ Rekha held down the South Asian community in New York City with monthly parties at SOB’s. She invited dancers, performers, artists, and creatives to join her on stage and lead mostly brown audiences in dance and catharsis. The space she created was always alive–with people, with wants, and with music.
And now, after two decades she’s winding it down to a close. Tonight she’s playing her last Basement session, flanked by Horsepowar, Sikh Knowledge, and others. Sunday will be the final sendoff on the Summer Stage in Central Park with a massive concert featuring Panjabi MC, Madame Gandhi, Anik Khan, Apache Indian, and more. In honor of these last days of Basement, I spoke with two long-time Basement attendees about saying goodbye to this cultural touchstone.
But first some history about Basement and the culture it came out of: last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian-American studies at University of California, Davis, and author of the book Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture In New York City, for a piece I wrote about the competitive Bhangra dance scene. Her book profiled the rise of Bhangra remix culture in the ’90s, when places like Basement Bhangra where landmarks and havens for South Asian kids to explore their culture.
“Bhangra emerged along with a need for a kind of cultural space in that generation, as they were expanding in the ’90s with greater immigration and coming of age,” said Maira told me.
Music, dance, fashion, it all came together in these spaces as a heady cocktail raw with emotion and driven by the beat of the dhol. Basement Bhangra was no different. The popularity of Rekha’s parties helped spearhead the Bhangra movement in the West, leading to the Bhangra dance teams we see now on every college campus and the influence of Bhangra on Western music (most notably, Panjabi MC’s “Beware of the Boys” which featured Jay-Z).
“Watch how you speak on our name tho” ____________________ Catch myself alongside @djrekha and @djpetra at @basementbhangra this Thursday, June 1st! Only three more BB’s left before the final mic drop! ____________________ #djrekha #djshilpa #djpetra #basementbhangra #basementbhangralove #sobs #femaledj #dj #djlife #manhattan
“The first time I went to Basement was in the late ’90s,” WNYC host and journalist Arun Venugopal recounted. “I’d moved to New York after spending a few years in Bangalore and Delhi, and I’d heard about this exciting scene: Desi artists, filmmakers, musicians, etc. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I only knew that I wanted to be here and somehow be part of something.”
“But when I finally got to Basement I felt hopelessly out of my depths. My group included a columnist for the New York Times and the daughter of a prime minister (neither of whom I knew). And the line outside the club was so stylish (also, really long) that I felt like a total FOB. The city shimmered and I felt completely unworthy of it. And we didn’t even go in! We turned around and left because the line was so long. But I made it back, and by that point was a reporter and journalism [was] my shield.”
Venugopal’s later trips were more successful. And his loyalty to Basement and his work led him to make close friends out of the artists and creators that frequented the event, including Rekha herself.
Tanuja Desai Hidier, musician and author of the novels Born Confused and its sequel Bombay Blues, considered Basement Bhangra a “boundary-pushing stereotype-smashing” space which brought together not only so many people of ranging identities (whether in terms of “race/culture/gender/sexuality”), but which also often “brought a little harmony to our individual inner divinities/demons/dharmas/drives/desires [and] our own seemingly broken or disparate selves.” Her time at Basement went on to influence her work as well, and the party itself was the muse for the scenes in Born Confused.
“When I walked into my first—the first—Basement Bhangra 20 years ago, it was as if I’d found the music I’d been waiting to hear my whole life. I’d found home. And have every time since,” she told Kajal. “Basement was a safe space, an alchemical place, where the walls turned to windows: portals leading our histories harmoniously back to our present-day selves. Where we could dance our hyphens from borders into bridges. Where we recognized each other. And that lightbulb we screwed on, over and over for two decades, provided a crucial spark for my own writing path–and illuminates it to this day. Basement helped transform our cultural neither-here-nor-there into a You Are Here. With so much JOY!”
“Thank you, the one and only Rekha,” Desai Hidier continued. “For launching not only the moves, but the movement. For letting us in, listening…and making sure the world heard and hears us still.”
Despite this being the end for Basement, it’s not the end for the work it has done. Rekha herself won’t be stopping here. She is going to keep DJing and continuing her work as “artist, educator, and curator.”
“I think she’s wise to bring it to an end, on her own terms. As an artist it doesn’t get better than that. At the same time, seeing this chapter come to a close has been a deeply moving experience,” Venugopal said. “I think as we take stock of cultural institutions like Basement, it’s clear that they’re powerful and have changed a lot of lives. And I find that quite romantic, especially at this moment in time. This is our history and these are the people shaping it.”
Basement Bhangra had an excellent run. It was 20 years of solid music and knowing where you belong. My own time at Basement felt like coming home–nowhere else have I seen so many people I know and whose work I value in one spot. One day, I’m sure I’ll find a place where I get that again. It won’t be Basement but it may still be home.