A passage to India

DJs Bobby Friction and Nihal Arthanayake take British-Asian music to India. Rahul Verma witnesses the gig of their lives
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The Independent Culture

Sean Paul's clarion call to dance, "Shake that thing!", fades into the background as his "Get Busy" video comes to an end. It is followed by an interview with the rising British R&B/hip-hop star Jay Sean, who is promoting his recent debut LP, Me Against Myself. Such content may be familiar on TV sets across Britain, Western Europe and North America, but it's a Friday afternoon of channel-hopping, in Mumbai, India, when I stumble on Sean Paul and Jay Sean on Channel V - the South Asian equivalent of MTV.

I'm in the home of Bollywood, covering a two-week visit by Radio 1's champions of Asian-influenced music, Bobby Friction and Nihal Arthanayake. Thanks to their unrivalled platform on prime-time radio, Bobby and Nihal are the ambassadors of British-Asian music, or "Desi Beats": which is why the British Council has brought the two 33-year-olds to India for gigs and workshops.

Desi beats, and Bobby and Nihal's radio show, range from the sugar-coated urban pop of Jay Sean and Raghav, to envelope-pushing bhangra hip hop by Panjabi MC and Timbaland (Missy Elliott's producer) and the conscious rap remixes of Mos Def and Roots Manuva, via breakneck drum'n'bass incorporating Indian percussion. It also encompasses established artists including Nitin Sawhney and the 1999 Mercury prize-winner Talvin Singh.

This diversity is possibly the biggest single reason for Bobby and Nihal's meteoric rise. Beginning with a Saturday morning graveyard slot in October 2002, Bobby and Nihal's show was promoted to peaktime in the summer of 2004, sandwiched between the station's flagship broadcasters Zane Lowe and John Peel. In between they won a Sony Award for best specialist radio show in 2003's Radio Oscars.

But how will this genre be received in the country where much of it is rooted? And what of Bobby and Nihal's reception outside Mumbai?

The MTV India Awards are a snapshot of the Indian music landscape and the first opportunity to gauge the reaction to Bobby and Nihal, who are playing at the post-show party. The outdoor ceremony, in the Juhu beach suburb, reveals Bollywood's hold over the industry: of the total 22 awards, nine are dedicated to a film category. The post-show party is apparently no different to what you might find in a swanky city bar in the UK - short skirts and fitted t-shirts, and not a salwaar kameez or sari in sight. Bobby and Nihal step up and drop the tempo, allowing everyone a breather after scintillating performances from the Canadian bhangra trio Josh and Sukhbir. The synergy between Bobby and Nihal is palpable; they bounce off each other, taking it in turns on the decks.

Hip hop is proving popular, especially DJ Sanj's bhangra-fried remix of Dr Dre and Snoop's "The Next Episode". But that's nothing compared with the rapturous reception to Panjabi MC's 2002 UK Top 10 smash, "Mundian Te Bach Ke" (Beware of the Boys). The party reaches fever pitch as Jay Sean joins Bobby and Nihal for an impromptu PA.

Sean's a natural, performing "Nacha Tera Naal" (Dance With You) and "Eyes On You" with blanks for the audience to fill. Then he beatboxes Usher's infectious "Yeah", and it seems that no-one's seen anything like it.

Sean's well on his way in India, thanks to Bollywood: "Nachna Tera Naal" is on the soundtrack to one of 2004's big budget movies Boom. His debut LP, Me, Against Myself, has shifted a respectable 25,000 copies and secured him three weeks at No 2 in India's international artist chart. For eight weeks at the tail of 2004, the top slot was held by Bobby Friction's Friktion compilation, with 100,000 sales.

Clearly, British Asian music is well on its way in Mumbai, but what of beyond? Escaping the gridlock, humidity and voracious party scene for the small city of Vadodara (formerly Baroda) in Gujarat provides a necessary respite. Gandhi was born in Gujarat and the state retains his ascetic mindset - alcohol is prohibited and bars, pubs and nightclubs as we know them do not exist among its 44 million people.

A postgraduate student at Vadodara university, Pranav Jani tells me: "Young people like to gather at their favourite hangouts - cinema multiplexes and theatres" and generally people "like to drive to the outskirts of the city for food and to enjoy a long drive".

But India's biggest DJ, Nasha, is making his Gujarat DJ debut at our hotel the night we arrive. At first it's reminiscent of a school disco: there's an awkward innocence, as people of all ages shuffle nervously. But as Nasha plays the Bollywood hits of 2004, the dancing begins in earnest. The dancefloor's soon over-run by boys dancing as if their lives depended on it.

Nasha's ability to link wildly disparate genres is masterful - Bollywood pop and bhangra followed by R&B (J-Lo's "Jenny From The Block"), colliding with house (Groove Armada's "Superstylin'"), before a banging trance, and then a Bollywood pop finale.

Najru, 26, and Raman, 28, are farmers in a village three hours by road from Vadodara, who play a home-made drum resembling an oil barrel in their spare time. One side of it is played with a small stick the other by hand. They usually perform at cultural programmes and religious festivals. Bobby and Nihal are here to work out a performance with them for a gig at Vadodara's Akota Stadium in 36 hours. After a 10-minute demonstration of the Najru's and Raman's powerful hypnotic rhythms, Bobby and Nihal rethink the original plan of the drummers accompanying their set. They feel it would be better for Bobby (through samples and sound effects) and Nihal (by rapping) to build around the solid beat of the drummers.

The switch captures Bobby and Nihal's attitude to this trip: they're warm, respectful and here to learn as much as vice versa. The second workshop is attended by students from Vadodara's university, keen to get to grips with DJing. A demonstration ensues. Bobby and Nihal make engaging and entertaining teachers and everyone wants a go on the turntables - within 20 minutes, 70 per cent of the participants have grasped mixing.

Two dhol players (a Punjabi drum worn around the neck and played with sticks), Sanjay, 25, and Bhavya, 23, pick the beat of a hip-hop record they've never heard before in its first two seconds and match its intricate structure blow for blow. It transpires that Sanjay's and Bhavya's teacher is the esteemed percussionist Vikram Patil who played alongside Ravi Shankar. After this off-the-cuff jam, Bobby and Nihal feel it could work well for Sanjay and Bhavya to complement their set at tonight's gig.

It's difficult to know what to expect at a 10,000 capacity, outdoor gig on a Monday evening, headlined by two DJs that 99 per cent of Vadodara's 1.2 million population have never heard of, playing unfamiliar music. By 7.30pm, the dusty expanse between Akota stadium's whitewashed walls is half full, with people gazing at the resplendent red stage.

At 8pm, Bobby and Nihal begin. The audience acclimatises to futuristic hip hop from Timbaland and Rajeshwari, and UK rap from Ty, before Bobby drops the two-step reggae pop of Canadian Indian Raghav (three weeks at No 1 in India's international chart) and Akota stadium rips into life. The audience is predominantly male and under 25, and resembles a mosh pit at a heavy metal gig.

Nihal takes over DJing as dancing human trains weave in and out of the audience, which has now swelled to 7,000. Bodies, with beaming smiles, are tossed into the air, flailing as if being given the birthday bumps. Groups of guys construct a human house of cards by standing on each other's shoulders - it reaches three people tall and then collapses.

An hour in and the crazed vibe has transmitted to the stage and Nihal's giving The Prodigy's Keith Flint a run for his money, prowling and leaping around like an unhinged loon. The tribal drummers strike up. Bobby carefully layers film samples, Hindi, Punjabi and qawaali vocals over Najru's solid rhythm, and the tolling of Raman's shrill bells. Nihal begins rapping. It doesn't seem like anyone grasps the nuances of what's going on and it provides a moment of eerie calm. Then the dhol players kick in, keeping precision time regardless of whether its hip hop, R'n'B, bhangra or drum'n'bass, and it's wilder and more impassioned than the headline gig on Glastonbury's main stage.

Bobby and Nihal bid goodbye and are bundled into cars and rushed away. Ten minutes later, they are back at the hotel. The stunned silence is broken by Nihal declaring that the Akota stadium was the best gig he'd played in his life. Bobby's in complete agreement. We all are.

Bobby & Nihal's radio show is at 9pm on Wednesday, Radio 1. You can listen to Bobby & Nihal's show broadcast from Mumbai at www.bbc.co.uk/radio1. 'Bobby Friction & Nihal Present' is out now on V2