Various Artists

East 2 West: Bhangra For The Masses

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The second phrase -- "Bhangra for the Masses" -- nails this CD dead-on. This is mainstream bhangra geared for the mass Anglo-Indian dance audience, not artists pushing the creative envelope within the style. That's not a criticism per se -- bhangra was dance music for Anglo-Indian subcontinent teens first and became an important identity and liberating element for the generation that came of age in the '80s and early '90s. The liner notes clue you in with an excellent capsule history and social/cultural context for songs originally released on the Birmingham-based Nachural Records label. It's a generous introduction to bhangra, with its trademark rolling percussion rhythm played on the Indian dhol -- much the same beat pops up with the derbouka in rai, Brazilian samba school batucada, the second line of New Orleans R&B and brass bands, even in the conga and cowbell continuum of D.C. go-go funk. Listen to Eshara hit "Bachke" running with pounding percussion and "Hey" shouts for a good example of how viscerally exciting bhangra can be. But rowdy rootsiness is the exception on East 2 West: Bhangra for the Masses to dance music orthodoxy and the desire to drift off in glitter ball bliss. Achanak's flowing "Nukhe Chake Javana" is so atmospheric it reaches chillout bhangra, and Avtar Maniac's "Jaaina" goes bhangra- house with baritone sax blurps for variety against the dominance of sweeping polysynths. "Saqui"'s dancefloor friendly tracks build up a head of disco steam, TSB Golden Star is atmospheric but ultimately slight in an electronica vein, and Johnny Zee comes across as some uptown slick dance club dude with a disco diva on each arm. The most impressive group is Achanak, partly since they're the most accomplished, versatile musicians, and partly because vocalist Vijay breaks the norm of young, near-androgynous sounding singers here. His strong, clear voice puts melisma into play and gives "Dum Dumk Dumk" and "Jee Karda" a rai flavor, whether from direct influence or just a shared adaptation of Islamic melodies to a pop/dance framework. The last also gets rockin' in classic bhangra mode with keyboard washes and synth punctuations, steady heavy bass and percussion; "Kuria" "heys" and bhangras and heavy guitars it up, and "Hai Margae" veers more ragga with horns. But Anakhi wins the prize on the guitar front for the Thin Lizzy-style harmonies in the solo to "Sun Mundeya." East 2 West: Bhangra for the Masses offers an intriguing glimpse into bhangra when it started looking to break out to a broader international audience from its Anglo-Indian youth base. There are some fine performances here and at 79 minutes, it's a generous intro, but take into account the music is largely governed by the conventions of late-'80s/early-'90s dance music orthodoxy.