Exploring the Chicago Bhangra Scene and its Growth

Exploring the Chicago Bhangra Scene and its Growth
Ryan Singh, a long-time volunteer and Dholi is shown playing the dhol in the McDonald's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Chicago. PCS of Chicago annually hosts a float in the parade and this past Thanksgiving, DePaul, Hareepa and University of Illinois at Chicago Bhangra teams all joined in on the festivities.

Bhangra is a popular form of music that finds its origins rooted in Punjabi folk music. Developed in England by Punjabi immigrants during the 80s, it has become internationally recognized and has come to express South Asian culture in the West.

The UK and Canada has produced many successful artists from Jazzy B, Sukshinder Shinda and Malkit Singh. I’d like to explore bhangras’ reach in the US especially in Chicago. I interviewed Pardeep Singh Deol of Punjabi Cultural Society of Chicago to give me a detailed insight into the bhangra scene of Chi Town.

Define bhangra music in your words?

Bhangra music is an up-beat fusion of what some would say is a mixed type of music. That alone does not do the genre justice with its deep cultural Punjabi background that stands on a caliber of its own. Bhangra music is now known worldwide and is starting to be recognized and incorporated within the western culture. Bhangra music gets its deep beats from instruments such as the dhol. Additionally, many rare musical instruments such as the sarangi and thumbi are used to give the music an authentic sound that reaches deep into the souls of those who listen to it.

How popular is bhangra music amongst teenagers and young adults? Is there a bhangra culture?

In Chicago, about 15% to 20% of the Punjabi youth do not listen to Bhangra music. Majority of us have been exposed to it for some time especially due to all of the different Punjabi organizations in Chicago. These organizations organize events several times a year varying anywhere from Punjabi artists to Vaisakhi programs. The number of non-Punjabi music listeners is held constant mainly because of parents not exposing their children to the culture or music although this problem can be found in any culture or religion.

Does the appeal of bhangra music reach outside of the Punjabi demographic in Chicago?

It's no doubt that it has now reached outside of the Punjabi demographic. However, I wish that those who do listen to it would know the history behind it that makes it so rich. Especially in the college/university communities, all types of Desis love Punjabi music. If you look at the bhangra teams from these colleges/universities, you will see that many consist of 50% Punjabis and the rest being of other demographics.

Is bhangra music appealing to different ethnic communities in Chicago?

I find that within the different ethnic communities in Chicago, it is slowly starting to get around. Some are starting to incorporate beats often found in bhangra music although it has not officially been known just yet. Anytime they hear it though, they always start dancing, especially the African American community which is known to love the sound of bhangra. I have actually been told before that out all of the different types of music out there, we (Punjabis) know how to use bass in our music correctly.

Tell me about Bragging Rights and how it came about?

PCS night used to be an annual Bhangra and Gidha Competition held in Chicago. A few years back, PCS Night was put on hold primarily due to the economy and what seemed as a drop in demand for the competition. It was usually a banquet style dinner with the competition included. About a couple years ago, we were contacted by many teams asking us about it. We then decided to take on the task of reestablishing it in Chicago with new type of program inspired by the youth. As a director with PCS, I was given the task to lead a team of youth in organizing this event. We then changed it from a dinner banquet to a theater style program. My team consisted of Amardeep Deol, Paramveer Dhillon, Manpreet Kaur, Amrita Randhawa, Ishita Saran and Harleen Saini. This past year was our first year as a comeback program and we learned so much as a group. The name “Bragging Rights” came from a conversation a group of us were having about who actually held the rights to brag in Chicago for being Chicago’s top team. This is when we decided that for this past year we could name it “Bragging Rights”.

One of Chicago's elite teams, Ministry of Bhangra is shown competing in PCS Chicago's Bhangra Competition "Chicago Bragging Rights"

One of Chicago's elite teams, Ministry of Bhangra is shown competing in PCS Chicago's Bhangra Competition "Chicago Bragging Rights"

What can the average Chicagoan expect if they were to attend Bragging Rights?

The average Chicagoan can expect a night full of bhangra explosion, with top notch elite teams from all over the United States. We're an organization that has done this for over 10 years and now we have turned it to an event dedicated to the youth of Chicago. This competition is now youth organized and run while being supported and advised by people who have great knowledge about our Punjabi culture and the arts, the directors of PCS who have been doing this for years.

Is the Chicago bhangra scene thriving like it is in its Sister City, Birmingham?

Almost every University in Chicago has its own bhangra team. Bhangra is on a great rise. Many colleges that have never had a team are now starting to establish them. India nights that are held in clubs and parties are also now starting to incorporate bhangra music more. Other dance events and competitions are also starting to host bhangra teams.

Is there any notable names leading the Chicago Bhangra Scene?

Currently Ministry of Bhangra (MOB), Northwestern University Bhangra and University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC Bhangra) hold the top positions in Chicago. Other teams in the Chicagoland area include the newly established DePaul University Bhangra, University of Chicago (Balle Bhangra), and Hareepa Bhangra.

Are there any Chicago based bhangra artists?

We do have some that perform at our Punjabi Cultural shows and melas. However I don’t believe they have any music out yet.

Are you a fan of any bhangra artists based in Birmingham?

When it comes to my personal taste, I am more of an old school bhangra listener. Birmingham based artists that I can occasionally be caught listening to include the Safri Boyz, Jaz Dhami, Malkit Singh, B21, Bally Jagpal and Dippa Dosanjh just to name a small portion.

In Chicago’s night life, what clubs/venues can bhangra music be found in?

There aren’t any clubs in Chicago that host bhangra music regularly however there are a couple clubs that have “desi-fusion” music which incorporate bhangra on different nights throughout the city regularly. In addition to this, different school organizations, bhangra teams and different alliances hold bhangra nights all over Chicago. This is typically during the school semesters, which falls between August and June.

Thank you for your time Pardeep, and keep up the good work!

Like Punjabi Cultural Society of Chicago for regular updates on their activities via their Facebook page by clicking the link below and visit their website:-

Punjabi Cultural Society of Chicago – Facebook page

Punjabi Cultural Society of Chicago

Read my previous article on bhangra in Chicago by visiting:-

Meet UIC Bhangra from University of Illinois at Chicago!


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