The bhangra treat: It's bhangra night at the Ritz Ballroom, Manchester. Martin Kelner reports on the sound and the haircuts

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The Independent Culture
First look at the haircuts. Music business types perennially in search of the Next Big Thing know that every important development in popular music starts from the haircut and works its way downwards. Bill Haley's kiss-curl, Elvis Presley's quiff, the Beatles' mop-tops, the Sex Pistols' dragged-through-a-hedge- backwards look, and so on, through to Phil Collins, where, it must said, the rule begins to lose a little credibility.

So on bhangra night at the Ritz Ballroom, Manchester, my position is leaning on the balcony rail, looking down on the dance-floor and stage below, the ideal vantage point for checking out what is going on above the ears.

Asian music, I had heard, was on the verge of crossing over into the mainstream. Bhangra, the most popular music with young Indians and Pakistanis, having successfully married the traditional sounds of the Punjab to techno, funk, reggae and other Western rhythms, was now more accessible than ever before.

From a hairdressing point of view, the signs are promising. Here a pony-tail. There, a near-Mohican. Here, dreadlocks. There, a late-period Phil Oakey. Clearly a tonsorial reflection of a musical melting-pot.

The bands play up the cross-cultural references for all they are worth. Sat- Rang, a nine-piece band from Birmingham including two white guitarists, play tracks from their LP Never Mind the Dolaks (a dolak is a traditional Punjabi drum), while the Safri Boyz call their LP Bomb the Tumbi, a reference to another traditional Punjabi instrument.

The Safri Boyz, together with Heera, also on tonight's bill, are currently among the biggest names in bhangra. Around 700 - mostly Asian - teenagers have paid pounds 10 each to be here. The show's 23- year-old promoter Rangzib Nazir (who also runs a chain of textile shops, which is possibly why he appears to have a mobile telephone welded to his ear) had hoped for more. However, compared to Manchester's famous Hacienda Club, which is having a quiet night just a few doors down the road, the joint is jumping.

The dancing is frenzied. What happens is that a knot of young men wearing loose- fitting shirts and tight-fitting trousers make their way on to the dance-floor then scatter and try to out-dance each other. Maybe it's the spinning, glittering spheres and the John Travolta-style lighting arrangement in the Ritz, but breakdancing appears to be making a comeback.

Possibly it is just the need to make an impression. Boys outnumber girls by about 30 to one. 'A lot of Asian parents think a dance-hall is not a respectable place for a girl to be seen, even if it is an Asian dance night,' says Kully Okafor, Asian programmes producer for Radio WM in Birmingham.

'Some of the younger parents are more forward-thinking, so you are getting more young girls going now. It gives them an excuse to wear Asian dress. You are going to stand out wearing a sari at an English disco, so they like to go to bhangra nights and really dress up.

'But in some quarters these bhangra dance nights are still considered a corrupting influence.'

Despite parental restriction, bhangra is about the only live music thriving in the recession. Kelly Denver, veteran of numerous jazz funk bands in the Midlands, has retrained himself and now plays rhythm guitar with Sat-Rang.

'Most live music is dying a death. Quite honestly, if you're looking for a gig in Birmingham, it's as well to be able to play bhangra,' he says.

'The main difference is in timings. There is a different system of counting and rhythm in bhangra music. In Western music you have equal bar patterns, but in bhangra there is an entirely different method of composing.' To the untrained ear, though, the rhythms do not sound too outlandish. Other, though, are real toe-tappers. So what is preventing this vibrant dance music from crossing over from the Asian music scene into the pop charts? The last Asian record to make the charts was Monsoon's 'Ever So Lonely' in 1982. More than 40 years of immigration from the Indian sub-continent, and one lousy No 12 sound.

George Harrison clearly has a lot to answer for. All those tedious sitar passages you skip over on the Beatles albums are not designed to dispose an audience favourably towards Asian sounds. And the muzak played in Indian restaurants doesn't help either.

Younger whites and blacks, though, do not so readily associate Asian music with the smell of joss-sticks and sitting cross-legged on the carpet, and there are many in the music business who feel it is only a matter of time before Britain gets its first Asian pop star.

And it is the quest for this elusive crossover act, capable of appealing to an audience beyond the Asian music heartlands, that provides the evening's sub-plot.

In between the bhangra groups, Sabina Dhand, a 24-year-old with the kind of stunning good looks that bring out the political incorrectness in a man, sings three soul songs, two of which she has written. The audience appears mystified. Sabina's act, an impressive semi-sexy routine with a male dancer called Danny, has little to do with the rest of the evening. Yet she is cheered enthusiastically, especially by the older men around the bar area who are carrying mobile phones.

It looked to me like a spot of heavy- duty rabble-rousing was taking place on Sabina's behalf. For an artist without a record deal, Sabina also has some fairly lavish publicity material. 'Sabina will be the one,' we are told, 'to destroy all the preconceived moulds, and become a role- model for other talented Asian stars to follow.' The source of all this backing becomes clear when I meet Sabina's manager Bushra Ahmed. Bushra is an executive of the Joe Bloggs clothing company, run by her millionaire brother Shami, and one of the most successful Asian businesses in Britain. There is clearly a certain amount of rag-trade money talking here. This lends a touch of irony to the Ritz's quaintly worded notice: 'Gentlemen. We require smart jackets and shirts to be worn. No denims, no trainers. Thank you.' Outside the ballroom, Top Rank's unsmiling liveried henchmen might be insisting 'No jeans' but inside denim money is making the music.

This is not to say Sabina has nothing in her favour apart from the denim millions. She has tons of charm, real presence on stage, a strong if unremarkable voice for singing soul music, and has written a couple of catchy tunes. What might also help her to reach a non-Asian audience is the fact that her music is influenced mainly by white artistes.

'I grew up in Northern Ireland, where there was little or no Asian culture, so the music I listened to was mostly my elder brother's records, by groups like the Doors and Love,' she says. 'Later I got into Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, and that kind of thing.'

Should Sabina make it, it will prove little, beyond the fact that there will always be room in the charts for a pretty girl who can carry a tune. But should she pave the way for Asian acts such as Apache Indian, who are half-reggae, half-bhangra, or the Safri Boyz, who include three Sikhs in turbans in their line-up, Sabina will have made a real contribution to extending the range of hairstyles currently enjoyed by the British music fan.

(Photograph omitted)