Bhangra Empire: Remixing the Classics

When Omer Mirza, the coach and choreographer of Bhangra Empire, received an email asking him to call a number in Washington, D.C. he wasn't sure what to do. It was a strange enough request that he was intrigued enough to call. "When we were first contacted we thought it was a joke. The only reason we responded was because the signature at the bottom stated it was from the office of the First Lady and the contact number was from Washington, DC." 

They did make the call and were invited to perform at the White House. "It wasn’t until the end of the conversation that I even knew the President and First Lady were going to be there. It all happened really fast.”

Dancing at the First State Dinner at the White House for President Barack Obama and First Lady, Michelle Obama is arguably one of their most impressive and memorable performances. The event honored Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh and several members of the dinner had never seen Bhangra being performed. 

Bhangra is a form of dance and music that originated in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. It began as a folk dance conducted by Punjabi farmers in celebration of the harvest season. There are many different styles of Bhangra and it is immensely popular in South Asian communities the world over. 

One of the more popular Bhangra dance groups is Bay Area Bhangra Empire. Bhangra Empire has recently appeared on this season’s America’s Got Talent. They have won major competitions all over the United States and Canada, highlighted by the ‘Super Bowl’ of Bhangra, Bruin Bhangra in 2009. They weren’t done with 2009 as they also opened Desi Dhamaka, the largest South Asian cultural show in the Pacific Northwest, with popular acts such as Jazzy B, Miss Pooja and Geeta Zhalidar that year. 

We met with Omer Mirza and several long time members of the dance group to chat about the history and future of the group.

How did Bhangra Empire get started?

We started in 2006 it was just a bunch of friends that came together to start a team. We knew we wanted to perform in competitions but we weren’t sure of anything past that. We began very informal but over the past four years we have grown immensely.

A lot of the groups in Bhangra have a strong hip hop influence to their music.  One group has actually begun performing the jerk, a popular hip hop dance, at a Bhangra competition.  When did Hip Hop first begin being incorporated into Bhangra music?

The hip hop influences began fairly recently but it happens a lot. The music is very similar pace wise and a lot of people just started out spicing up the music by adding different beats to it. What we do today, is because our team is more on the modern side so we want to fuse together the traditional dance with more modern aspects that we’ve had growing up here in America.

Your costumes and choreography is great and part of your appeal is the way you have mixed traditional dance with modern dances and music.  Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?

Omer Mirza does most of the choreography, however, it is definitely a group effort and the entire team has input  We actually make our own costumes; we find what we like, buy the fabric, create the design and then take them to tailors to be made for us. There are many groups that are very traditional and we are more contemporary.  We don’t limit our style; if we see something that we like we try to incorporate it even if it is not Bhangra, such as hip hop, contemporary and even swing.  At the end of the day all we are trying to do is entertain the crowd and the different elements keeps them entertained and that is our ultimate goal.

Now I know because the season has yet to end you are unable to talk too much about your appearance on America’s Got Talent, but what was that experience like for the team?

It was a great and memorable experience. We learned a lot, met many people and got to see a large variety of acts.  Being exposed to the TV world was eye opening.  We were also the first Bhangra team to actually appear on the show.  We primarily perform for South Asian audiences and our goal going forward is to perform for wider and more diverse crowds. This is where we practice (San Jose State University) and people of different ages and ethnicities walk by all the time whom have never seen nor heard of Bhangra and they stop by and tell us how much they love it.  Everybody enjoys it they just have to see it and that’s what we’re trying to do.  We recently performed for the first time at Kollaboration earlier this year and everyone loved it, even though South Asian’s made up a very small percentage of the audience.  Yes we are trying to promote our culture and our heritage but at the end of the day the people are there to be entertained so during every performance we want to bring out something new and exciting.

In 2009 you won one of the most prestigious competitions in America, the Bruin Bhangra.  What was it like to win that after only three years in existence?

In 2007 we applied and didn’t get in; in 2008 we finally got in and had a great performance but finished second.  Finally in 2009 we won which was a culmination of three years of hard work.  Bruin is always known as one of the best competitions of the year and one in which everyone looks forward to, so winning was a great moment for us.

Being on national TV, performing for the President and winning one of more celebrated competitions, things are obviously going extremely well for you guys.  What does the team have planned on the horizon?  What are your ultimate goals for the team?

Right now is sort of like our off season.  So typically what we are doing at this time is adding new members, it’s almost like a new team coming in. We are also preparing for our next competition which is in November at Boston Bhangra.  Ultimately what we want to do is bring Bhangra into the main stream. Right now Bollywood is really big which is great but what people haven’t seen is Bhangra.  Just the energy, excitement and grace make it a very powerful dance. Especially with the way we mesh the traditional and contemporary music will really help bring Bhangra to the masses.  We want to show non-South Asian people just how enjoyable this music is.  About half of our team is non Punjabi and when we travel for performances we meet so many different ethnicities that perform.  It is really something that anyone can become involved in.  Just because you don’t understand the music or haven’t heard it before doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get out there and try it because once people do they really like it.

Zahir has written for several publications over the years while performing as a spoken word artist.