Vancouver-area bhangra is on the brink of something big.

The first indicator that the West Coast/British Columbia bhangra and desi music scene is on the verge of wider recognition came with 2016’s “Suit,” a massive hit throughout India that was recorded and released by Indian singing sensation Guru Randhawa and Canada’s own Aneil Kainth, a.k.a. DJ Intense.

“Suit,” as of this writing, has surpassed 65 million YouTube views, says he couldn’t ask for a greater professional impact in his music. “It has definitely taken my career to a height that I didn’t think was ever possible in my life,” laughs Intense, who composed and produced the bilingual track, which boasts a danceable, polyrhythmic beat, and a foundation of electronic sounds. “Basically, being here, from Canada, and experiencing that in India, it’s broadened my horizons and broadened my reach… So far, the opportunities and the people that I’ve been able to meet have been unreal.”

Some of those include India favourite Jasmin Sandlas – whose “Haaniyan” kicked off Intense’s 2016 album 124, and has racked up more than two million YouTube views – as well as Canadians G.S. Hundal and Karan Aujla, the latter a teen sensation.

DJ Intense isn’t the only Canadian success story making global inroads: bhangra bands Delhi 2 Dublin and En Karma, rapper Horsepowar, DJ Khanvict, dhol (an Indian double-headed drum) and harmonium specialist and DJ Raju Johal, Dave Bawa, and producer and performer Harj Nagra are just a few of the current and future bright lights of the joyous, upbeat Punjabi music being embraced by India, and its population of 1.3 billion people.  The West Coast scene itself encompasses a territory that ensnares Richmond, Surrey, and Burnaby in its lower mainland grip, and sports an estimated South Asian population of more than 300,000.

There are also bhangra and desi music pioneers in greater Vancouver, who’ve laid the groundwork since the late 1980s, and have made their presence known abroad: Surrey-raised superstar Jaswinder Singh “Jazzy B” Bains, the self-styled “President of bhangra”; Surrey-based religious singer K.S. Makhan; actor and singer Sarbjit Cheema; Richmond, BC, brothers Kamal Heer and Manmohan Waris; and Burnaby’s Harbhajan Mann.

But despite a lengthy history and a highly concentrated talent pool, bhangra musicians go virtually unnoticed in their Canadian homeland. It’s a perception Delhi 2 Dublin founder and leader Tarun Nayar, who doubles as the artistic director of the City of Bhangra Festival held annually in June, hopes to change. To that end, he’s produced a Telus-financed documentary Bhangra City, which documents the music so overlooked in the province, premiering June 12 at the Van City Theatre, during the 2017 festival. SOCAN A&R Administrator Melissa Cameron will attend a desi music incubator during the festival, on June 11 at the Surrey Arts Centre.

“It’s about what’s going on with this hidden sub-culture of Punjabi music in Vancouver, that has produced some of the biggest names in Punjabi pop: people who are getting tens, hundreds of millions of plays on YouTube, and yet are totally unrecognized in Vancouver,” says Nayar. “All of them have a home base in the lower mainland, but they’re absent from what we think of as the music industry. The bhangra scene here has been relatively strong since the early ‘80s, so there’s a huge resource of people here that haven’t really been tapped into.”

Nayar says it’s discrimination, due to outdated perceptions, that has kept key Vancouver clubs from booking bhangra acts. “As a brown person in Vancouver, [I say that] probably because of this somewhat inaccurate perception of South Asian people being tied to gangs – there was some gang stuff that happened here in the ‘90s and early 2000s – it’s very, very difficult for brown people to get gigs in clubs in Vancouver,” Nayar explains. “So this scene can’t exist in public spaces, with very few exceptions, even though many of these DJs from Surrey have tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, and every show they play is jammed. But they’ll never be able to get a Friday or Saturday night [gig] in the city.”

However, that doesn’t mean that the local bhangra movement lacks for outlets. Another unexpected circuit has picked up the slack. “The whole thing has shifted to wedding culture,” says Nayar. “The biggest DJs and the biggest names in the scene are playing weddings, because that’s where they can play. It’s also where a lot of money can be made. Punjabi and Indian weddings are big affairs: there are 1,000 to 2,000 people at these weddings, and there’s a scene there. But because it can’t blend over into the mainstream, these weddings turn into raves, basically, with huge robots, and confetti cannons, and lasers, and smoke.”

DJ Asad Khan, known to his followers as Khanvict, says Indian weddings are much different in focus than Western weddings. “If you’re at a Western wedding, the DJ is not really the spectacle of the wedding,” he explains. “The focus is on the couple, the big decor and the food. Whereas with Indian weddings, dinner is an afterthought. The DJ is front and centre, and is the main man… and by the way, dinner is available if you want to have a bite… A wedding is almost like a rave.”


Khanvict (Photo: The Visual Cortex)

Khanvict says that many DJs who are regulars on the wedding circuit get pigeonholed for their involvement. But ask him which pay scale is the more lucrative one, club or wedding, and you might be surprised. “It’s been difficult to get club gigs because once you get weddings, people look at you in a different way,” says Khanvict, who owns Decibel, a service company that employees 16 DJs. “The hard truth is that at a wedding, I’ll make almost 10 times what a guy makes at a club. In the same night, the guy who gets $200 to play in a club, I can charge $2,000 to play at a wedding. People playing this music are more appreciated, so you’re going to be drawn to a market that appreciates you and pays you well.”

Since many of the wedding guests fly in from around the globe to attend the nuptials, word-of-mouth is an additional benefit. “When you have that kind of crowd, you’re going to get people that are traveling, and if they hear you and they like your work, they’re going to go back and talk about it,” says Khanvict, who has appeared in countries ranging from Mexico to Indonesia to Australia.

But not everyone has been shut out of the club scene.  Jasleen Powar, a.k.a. Horsepowar, is one of the exceptions when it comes to being hired in local clubs. Hailing from Richmond, she has a strong feminist bent, and occasionally humourous approach, in her outspoken hip-hop. Its uniqueness allows Powar to diversify when it comes to landing gigs.


Horsepowar (Photo: HYFN)

“Because I’m a rapper, it’s a little bit easier to find those venues,” says Horsepowar, who played a couple of SXSW shows in 2016, and whose biggest YouTube hit, “Queen,” has amassed more than 90,000 views. “I’m lucky. Because I’m not just part of the South Asian scene, it’s like bridging the gap – which is the true hybridity of the child of the diaspora, that East Meets West – and I get to play mainstream shows.

“I’m still figuring out the Horsepowar sound and the Horsepowar look, and I try to make it as true as I can to who I am as a person. But I’m always torn between styles and tastes, because I grew up listening to Black Sabbath, and Ben Harper, and had my emo phase. Then I went into the hip-hop world, and I’ve always had the Bollywood thing, so it was never like I fit this image. For the desi/South Asian scene, I feel like I resonate with them just for who I am. So I felt I fit into so many different worlds when it came down to getting shows.”

However, Horsepowar acknowledges that the Vancouver music scene can appear to be divisive. “In general, I think Vancouver needs to work on inclusion,” says Powar. “When I go to Oakland, or Toronto, or L.A., I feel like there’s this inclusion, where they just want good people around, and if you’re cool, you’re cool. But here I feel like you’ve got to prove it.” Or, as Nayar recently told The Vancouver Courier, “I don’t expect a capitalist system to be altruistic. But it does piss me off that there is money to be made, there are great stories and great music, but a huge demographic of our city isn’t being served by conventional models.”

DJ Intense

DJ Intense (Photo: Sergio Pawar/Dreamfinity)

DJ Intense says the potential of the Vancouver bhangra and desi scenes have already been proven elsewhere, as markets such as India continue to search for fresh sounds. “I think because I’m from abroad, it made a big difference,” he explains. “In the whole Indian music market, they’re looking for something fresh and something new. They’re always trying to go as Western as possible. And who better than somebody from the West Coast? I would say Canada is literally on the brink of being the next big Indian superpower when it comes to music.”

Locally, there’s a glimmer of hope that acceptance is beginning to happen. In addition to playing in Delhi 2 Dublin, running the VIBC, and releasing the new Bhangra City film, Nayar is in a side project called Desi Subculture that’s working with Vancouver-based promoter Blueprint to stage nights of showcases at the city club Celebrities. “They recognize the need to bring South Asian culture into the mainstream of Vancouver, so we’ve been working with them,” says Nayar. “The demand is there. It sells tickets. And we want to help the industry realize there’s an economic opportunity here… We’d be stupid not to be involved.”

If, one day, you happen to be driving through the village of Neuville, the “Corn Capital” located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River just west of Québec City, make sure you drop by Médé Langlois’ farm and visit his store, L’Économusée de la conserverie. As the name suggests, this is a cannery where you can buy traditional preserves made according to “150-year old recipes.” Vegetables have been growing on his land for the past 350 years, and the Langlois farm is one of the oldest still operating in Canada. Warning: Médé, whose family members have been proud vegetable and milk producers for eleven generations, is also a punk musician.

“Y’know, the ancestors who used to live around here in the old days played folk music,” says the lead singer and guitarist of the “punklore” group Carotté, who crushed it on the stage of L’Astral on June 9, 2017, as part of a FrancoFolies de Montréal double-bill, shared with the Orloge Simard “biological” band.  “I just grew up surrounded by folk music. There has always been folk music here. The whole village used to gather here in the family home kitchen, and they all played folk music, at least once a week. But later on, in high school with my buddies, we used to listen to a lot of punk music.”

Médé had gotten up at 4:30 in the morning, as he does every day to milk the cows, work in the fields, and look after his store. But at the other end of the phone line, at noon, he still sounds full of vim and vigour, and willing to share lots of stories about music, his cows (“Do they like punk music? Well, they don’t have much choice, we practice in the barn!”) or the farming life. Here’s the story of the birth of Carotté and the release of their first album, Punklore et Trashdition (a musical “preserve,” as it were) back in 2015.

“After opening the Économusée store, I decided to get a spot in the new farmer’s market that had opened in Deschambault, not far from here,” says Langlois. “During the day, we sold vegetables while musicians entertained the customers – just a small traditional music group of three musicians. And then, at the end of the day, we would join the musicians for a glass of beer or rum, and at some point them, I asked them, ‘Why don’t we all form a band together?’ I’ve got two friends who play punk music. So the three of you and the three of us, half punk and half folk, we can blend it together. It’s not been done too often here – we remember Groovy Aardvark, who recorded ‘Boisson d’avril’ with Yves Lambert, but it’s also been done by Irish musicians (The Pogues) and bands from Brittany in the North of France (Soldat Louis, Matmatah, Les Ramoneurs de menhirs).”

That’s how Carotté and its original “punklore” repertoire were born. “We write all our lyrics together, otherwise, Étienne, our violinist, does it – he’s pretty good at it,” says Langlois. They also play traditional songs like Oscar Thiffault’s hugely famous “Tape la bizoune.” “Writing new material is fine, but what’s more important is to keep alive folk tunes and melodies such as this song that Madame Louise used to sing and that we’ve been performing,” says Langlois.

Old tunes, but played with today’s energy, and a sense of celebration. “It makes a great mix. We have to preserve those,“ he says, “because folklore is like our musical soil. It’s like when I’m sowing my cucumber seeds in Neuville – I think there may only be three or four [of us farmers] in the world owning these small seeds and sowing these particular cucumbers, so it’s important for me to keep this thing going.

“Because, you know, for me, music and agriculture go hand in hand,” the singing farmer insists. Really? “When I enter the field to plant [my vegetables], It’s like I am on my way to make new songs. And when we open the store each morning, it’s like we’re doing a soundcheck. And the minute the people, the customers come in, the show is on!”

Langlois also draws anthropological links between traditional and punk music, “two musical styles that were on the fringe of society and were forms of protest,” he says. “La Bolduc [Mary Travers], for instance, exposed things in her songs, and we’re doing it too.

“Because we farmers, we have lots of things to expose,” he adds, “but we’re putting in 100-hour weeks, seven days a week. I don’t have time to go to Parliament Hill to be part of a demonstration and denounce all that’s not working in agriculture – because Québec agriculture is really sick right now.” The farmer adds that he still finds the time to make music because it’s necessary. Vital. “If I don’t make music, I can’t be a farmer. And if there is no farming, there is no music.”

The band’s début album already contained a blend of moods, from the festive spirit of Oscar Thiffault’s irresistible song, to protest songs such as “Souffrance”: “I live in a country that’s pretty rotten… It reflects our concerns, stories like that of the small cheese-maker who’s getting trampled on.”

Langlois is particularly concerned about the path of the Energy East Pipeline, “which will pass through my land,” he says – land originally plowed by his family’s first North American ancestor, François Langlois, who sailed across the Atlantic to New France in 1667, settled in Neuville, and created a business that will be the topic of a major report this fall as part of Radio-Canada’s La Semaine verte television series. The idea of allowing oil to flow across this ancestral land is enough to stir up anybody’s inner punk. “There is so much to protest again in agriculture,” says Langlois, “and since most farmers don’t have access to a mic and a stage, we’re going to do it on their behalf.”

Carotté will perform in local festivals and agricultural fairs throughout the summer, with its own mixture of joyful and angry music. New songs will be added to the band’s repertoire in preparation for a new album to be released in 2018. The Ferme Langlois et Fils (Chez Médé) cannery is open from Wednesday to Sunday in June, and every day from July to October.

“Can I call you back in five? The Godin Guitars guy is at the door,” Michel Cusson apologizes halfway through our phone interview. As we resume our conversation, the man is ecstatic: “I just got my two custom-made guitars: a Porsche and a Ferrari!” He’s like a 60-year-old boy whose wildest dreams just got granted, chomping at the bit, passionate.

Michel Cusson has covered a lot of ground since scoring the Omertà TV series in Québec, 20 years ago. The guitarist composer’s know-how has left a huge mark on Québec’s film and TV landscape: Unité 9, Napoléon, Aurore, Maurice-Richard, Séraphin, un homme et son péché, Riopelle, the Cavalia and Odysseo equestrian shows, IMAX 3D (Ultimate Wave Tahiti, Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, etc.), a documentary on the late great painter Corno, and so many more it’s easy to forget some, garnering seven SOCAN Awards throughout the years.

“I say yes to everything,” he readily admits. “That means I often end up working on more than one project at a time. And the reason for that is, projects are financed by various institutions, and their approval sometimes comes six months after the planned deadlines, so you need to be able to deliver when the train pulls into the station.”

Obviously, work methodologies and technology have evolved since Omertà. Thus, Cusson has set up an alias, Mélodika, that he uses for more electronic projects. “I can compose anywhere, even in a hotel room,” he says. “I’m never sitting on a single chair, and I always have my two laptops with me.

Michel Cusson“I was fortunate to have two outstanding teachers, Pierre Houle and Francine Forest [a director and a producer]; they’re the ones who taught me musical dramaturgy. I learned how to look at an image. To be a good movie [and TV] composer, you have to listen, ask questions and leave your ego behind. That’s crucial. Nothing is taken for granted. Sometimes it means editing out a silence, how your soundbite enters the sequence and, above all, how you exit it! Producers, directors, screenwriters, they all have a different language. That’s why it becomes vital for me to know how to decode what they’re saying.”

To date, Cusson has scored nearly two dozen TV series, totalling between 300 and 400 episodes, and has worked with about 30 different filmmakers and directors.

“When you do screen music, you work vertically,” he says. “You watch the same sequence over and over, to really understand what emotion fits best: what do I want to say, how do I illustrate it, using what emotion and from what angle; now, I don’t need to watch the whole scene. I write the music bearing in mind the corresponding emotion… It makes a big difference, the music is much stronger when you can work away from the image.”

And how are things going with Unité 9?

“I’m at episode 122,” says the composer, as if to gauge the amount of work accomplished. “I like that TV series because I can really go in-depth with themes and variations. All the characters have their specific palette. I know all of them like the back of my hand. In this case, I watch the full episode before I start composing. On Unité 9, my partner Kim Gaboury [a.k.a. composer and producer aKido] also plays some instruments.”

A few months ago, he found some time to launch Michel Cusson Solo, which was inspired by family photos that he found somewhere in Maine. Nine tracks were recorded, but the intimate and striking audio-visual show that emerged from the album is constantly evolving.

“I felt like re-inventing the way I work,” says Cusson. “In this process, I combined improv with writing. I can sit onstage at my spaceship [that is, his ton of gear] and start writing immediately. I build my soundtrack on the fly, live in front of the audience. Then, using the loops I’ve just created, I build on top of that and improvise. Plus, there are a few pre-recorded tracks that mix in. My show is 100% guitar sounds. Each time I provoke an idea, it’s great fun!”

Last December, UZEB returned after a 25-year hiatus, shocking pretty much everyone. Bass virtuoso Alain Caron and master drummer Paul Brochu will always be part of Cusson’s DNA, but how did three fully-booked musicians find their motivation?

In 1992, the outdoor farewell concert at the Montréal Jazz Fest seemed to have fully capped the trio’s 15 years of high-flying, acrobatic jazz-rock fusion – which won them high praise throughout the world. “I won’t pretend there weren’t beefs between us,” says Cusson, “but we’re all big boys and we started seeing each other regularly in the last few years. At some point, we felt like starting up UZEB again. We don’t have new compositions for the time being, and we’re not setting any kind of deadline, we’re taking it slow. But we’ve already booked 18 gigs so far, several of which are in Europe, and there’s the reunion show in just over a month and Wilfrid-Pelletier, which is selling very well, with more than 2,500 tickets gone already. UZEB separated in 1992, but we never divorced!”