“I love free shows that are for all ages. I just love it.”
This may sound surprising to hear from a DJ, someone we may picture in the exclusive and adult-centric nightlife industry, but Rekha Malhotra, named “Ambassador of Bhangra” by The New York Times, has never been an ordinary DJ. DJ Rekha’s goal is to “challenge the norms of nightlife” and make spaces “as welcoming as possible to everyone.”
I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down backstage with DJ Rekha, just minutes before their show on Saturday, July 17, at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport, Conn, part of its 2021 season of free summer concerts. “It’s really exciting, they said, “it’s my 10th anniversary of being here. I love this gig, it’s one of my favorites,” they added, citing its open space and the enthusiasm of Levitt audiences “dancing literally barefoot on the grass” of the Westport lawn, surrounded by beautiful greenery and the picturesque Saugatuck River. Indeed, DJ Rekha’s infectious blend of bhangra, Hindi film music and hip-hop has been making people of all ages and ethnicities dance on Levitt lawns coast to coast, from Levitt Pavilion Westport where they had their first concert in 2011, to Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles, also in 2011.
DJ Rekha’s distinctive musical style reflects the artist’s varied musical upbringing in New York City. “I grew up in the ‘80s around hip-hop [and] in a household where we listened to a lot of Hindi film music.” DJ Rehka was first exposed to Bhangra through their mother and cousins. The traditional Punjabi folk dance and music had seen a revival among youth in the UK’s Punjabi diaspora in the 1970s before it made its way to the U.S. in the ‘80s. As a child, DJ Rekha’s exposure to NYC’s incredibly diverse music scene was also an inspiration for their own music: “I just put it all in there.”
The diverse crowd—both South Asians and people of other ethnicities alike—was abuzz in the minutes before the show. Children, parents and grandparents were chatting excitedly over food and drinks while sitting in lawn chairs and on picnic blankets. This anticipation was well-founded because DJ Rekha knows how to throw a party. They are perhaps best known for hosting the long-running Basement Bhangra Parties in various locations throughout New York City from 1997 until 2017. The first Thursday of every month would, without fail, be a night of exhilarating Bhangra music, dance, and most importantly, community. DJ Rekha explained, “The impetus for starting this party [was to] disrupt this notion of who’s allowed to party and who’s not.” As a genre, Bhangra “can be very male-centric,” but the events were a “place for people to feel comfortable and at home,” whoever they were.
DJ Rekha has also been working towards inclusivity in arenas outside of music. The artist currently serves on the board of Chhaya CDC, a Queens-based organization that focuses on economic empowerment and housing justice for New Yorkers of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean descent.
But ultimately, when asked about the reason why the Basement Bhangra Parties endured for so long: “It’s good music,” the artist shrugged, with a smile. And sometimes, that’s all there is to it. Good music can bring anyone together, regardless of age or ethnicity, and that was exactly what happened on the Levitt lawn a couple of weekends ago. As DJ Rekha spun track after track, Bollywood hits and bhangra numbers alike, everyone was on their feet, grooving to the music. Joining DJ Rekha on stage for this performance was the dancer Sean Kulsum, who won the crowd over with his energetic moves and charismatic personality, leading the crowd in both traditional bhangra moves and the latest TikTok dances. Adding to the infectious onstage energy was Avish Arora, accompanying DJ Rekha on the dhol, the traditional double-headed drum used in bhangra music.
Throughout the evening, audience members stayed and danced through the drizzle. From little kids running around to adults dancing barefoot on the grass, the joy and energy that suffused the lawn was palpable from start to finish. As the show came to an end, groans of dissatisfaction emanated from the audience. With a wry smile, DJ Rekha quipped, “I was supposed to stop twenty minutes ago, but whatever,” as they launched into one last song amidst loud, enthusiastic cheers from the audience.
Watching DJ Rekha’s music energize everyone on the lawn and have them moving joyously was inspiring to watch, and a true embodiment of the Levitt Foundation’s belief that free, live music—whatever genre or language it may be—has the power to bring people together of all ages and backgrounds. Check out the rest of Levitt Pavilion Westport’s season here, and keep up with DJ Rekha on Twitter and Instagram.