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Bitchin’ bhangra band bops at big bash

Punjabi by Nature gears up to rock the Ryerson’s annual island picnic

By Andre Mayer

When you’re dealing with Punjabi By Nature, you know that you’re getting the most bhangra for your buck.

The eight-piece dance/bhangra band, set to play the Toronto Island on September 8 for Ryerson’s Orientation Picnic, has yet to release its first full-length album, but has already received much acclaim from fans and critics. The band’s recipe is traditional bhangra; music that originates in the north Indian state of Punjab that combines Western styles like funk, metal and dance head-on. The results are rather startling.

The principles behind Punjabi By Nature are singer/songwriter Tony Singh and percussionist Paul Dhanjal, born in India and raised in Canada, was previously a percussionist in osca and calypso bands. The motive to form Punjabi By Nature, however, came while in England during his early 20s. “I went to see this band, Alaap, and they totally blew me away. They were playing Indian music in a totally different style. It brought out my roots and it got me thinking, ‘I’ve been working with Western dance music, but I should be doing something with Punjabi, which is my first language.’”

Singh then set out to capture this new sound, the ambitious East-meets-West, traditional-versus-modern musical merger. Singh then began writing the music, and quickly found musicians to form the band. Ironically, of the eight band members, only Singh and Dhanjal are of Asian origin. 

“We’re like a rainbow,” Singh says, “all the colours and all the cultures.” The band utilizes many traditional bhangra instruments — percussion instruments like dhal and tumbi — and typical Western staples like the electric guitar and the drum kit. Singh insists that the music almost defies categorization. 

“We are called bhangra music, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. We like to call ourselves Bhangra and Beyond. Bhangra music is basically one type of music, but every song we play tends to be different. The only thing that stays the same are my vocals (in Punjabi).” 

The band released a four-song cassette, Goonda Garndi (“gangs in action”), in 1993, on their own label. Now magazine named it one of the top 10 releases of the year. The cassette has sold over 4,000 copies since its release, which for indie standards, is remarkable. It definitely surprised Singh.

“When people started noticing the music, we just couldn’t believe how much press we got,” he says. “The media pumped us so much that the cassette we made independently sold very well.”

Punjabi by Nature’s live show is a well-oiled machine; a very energetic affair in fact. In 1994, the Toronto Star chose one of their shows as one of the top five live performances of the year. If that weren’t enough, the band received the ultimate thrill, opening last May in Toronto for Singh’s “all-time favourite band”, the Beastie Boys.

Singh is excited about the band’s Ryerson gig on September 8, and promises a “wild” time. In addition, he offers a warning to the uninitiated, a little Punjabi By Nature concert etiquette:

“(Our music) is something anybody and everybody can dance to. You definitely shouldn’t be sitting down when listening to our music,” says Singh. And come the time of the picnic, no one is likely to be sitting down. 

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