Bhangra Chow Mein
Photo by Ted Soqui
IT'S 1:15 A.M. ON A WINTRY FRIDAY MORNING WHEN a House of Blues security guard bursts through the door of the small Foundation Room nook where DJ Baba G is lounging after his set. The spiky-haired guard, heavy with walkie-talkies and slightly out of breath, plops himself down casually next to Baba, one arm stretched across the back of the sofa. "The crowd's thinning out," says the man, leaning in toward Baba, "and they want to shut down early, you know, let people go home." Baba, a stout man with cherubic features and shoulder-length curly brown locks, looks at the television monitor, on which the last of the DJs he's lined up for his Thursday-night "Soundz of the Asian Underground" is still in the middle of his set.
"No," says Baba calmly. "We have until 1:45. We'll go until then. I don't want to disappoint my Indian fans."
The guard continues, conspiratorially: "But people have stopped drinking."
"That's okay," says Baba, directing his gaze at the plate of fruit on the table in front of him, his hands folded, elbows resting on his knees. "They haven't stopped dancing."
Baba looks over to where I've been sitting for the last hour, shivering and scribbling notes on napkins. "Did you see the crowd?" he asks, waiting a beat before he gives me the answer. "Lots of Indians, right?" I nod. Just then, Baba's wild and sinewy drummer, Ravi, appears in the room, breathless and shirtless, his hair as animated as a den of vipers, claiming to have heard rumors of hamburgers. "No hamburgers," Baba says. "Just fruit. Do you want some fruit?" Ravi leaves.
That was six months ago, when all Baba said he wanted was to integrate the South Asian immigrant community into the Los Angeles club scene. "We are about 800,000 Indians living here, and it's a huge community and market which is ignored by Hollywood altogether," he told me. "I like to think of the music as a way for the cultures of America and India to speak to each other." For a few months he produced another every-other-Thursday night at Moomba in West Hollywood, spinning the highlights of bhangra and Indian pop, always with Ravi, and often with violinist Lili Haydn and six-string bassist Leroy Ball. He also took pains to lure non-Asian fans to his Asian Underground nights: At House of Blues, he invited neo-punk band I Am Robot to open to that largely Indian crowd. "In England, the cultures come together around Asian Underground music," he told me. "I want that to happen in Los Angeles."
But throughout the winter and spring, I watched Baba's star rise, and his crowd change. He played Coachella in May; Jason Bentley was plugging his new record, Electric Lotus, featuring mixes from Dan the Automator, into his Metropolis show on KCRW. His music changed, too. The last time I saw him spin at Moomba, he was no longer playing a seamless set of Asian sounds, but instead introducing one number at a time, at the end of which his audience would applaud. One DJ I talked to at Moomba was horrified by this -- "He doesn't mix!" he complained. His South Asian fans were dismayed: A woman I met on the dance floor, whose boyfriend knew all the lyrics to the songs Baba played (except Badmarsh & Shri's tribute to James Brown, which I knew), lamented that his Indian fans were deserting him. "I come to see him because I'm loyal," she said. "But the Indian kids, they're losing interest." By the time Baba played an in-store gig at Amoeba Music in May, the Indian fans were down to a few faithful. A redheaded woman clutching a State of Bengal CD stood next to her khaki-clad boyfriend nodding her head to the no-longer-bhangra beat; a blond man in a crocheted cap was taking pictures, and the crowd of brown-skinned women I approached in the crowd turned out to be Persian. "I don't think Indians come to see him much," one of them told me. "It's like Chinese food. He makes it more to American taste."
Baba, who greeted me that night with a big hug, didn't dispute that assessment. "Some of the Indian fans, all they want to hear is bhangra. I want to open it up to everyone."
BABA G, BORN SURESH VARMA, WON'T TELL HIS AGE, but he's old enough to have accommodated John Lennon and Ringo Starr at a dance party in the Western Indian province of Goa, where Baba was among the first to haul in a turntable to accompany the tabla and harmoniums of Sufi trance. "Ringo ate in my restaurant four or five months ago," he told me last winter, "and I said, 'Ringo, you came to my party in Goa more than 20 years ago!' He said, 'Baba, thank you for telling me, but I really don't remember!'" Baba first came to the United States in 1994, after he recruited a shoeshine boy off the streets of Delhi to act in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha; he also introduced ur-mixmaster Rick Rubin to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (or, some rumors suggest, the other way around), thus launching the late qawwali master's American career. "I produced Nusrat's show at the House of Blues on October 17, 1995," says Baba, "and I will never forget the date. Nusrat was the highlight of my life." The Goa parties he had a hand in staging later become so famous that they spawned a genre of electronic trance, but Baba left before that happened. "I distanced myself from Goa a long time back, because those parties have become commercial," he says. "It's not my scene anymore." Instead, he does private parties on an island near India, and encourages sobriety. "People ask me now, 'Baba, what do you think about the Ecstasy and the rave party?' I say, 'Which came first?'" It's a moment before I realize the question is not rhetorical. "Which came first?" he insists.
"The music, of course."
"That's right. The music. In Goa the music is the high. Get together, hold hands with people while you're at the party, enjoy the music and let that be your high. You have more drugs in your own brain than they have in a laboratory. You don't need to escape. You need to enjoy every moment."
To some extent, Baba G has done in Los Angeles what he claims to have done in Goa: united several fragments of cultures around an accessible brand of South Asian music -- and, for that matter, food. His true legacy is as a chef. In Agra, India, his mother ran a restaurant called the Lotus, and in 1997 Baba himself opened a restaurant in Los Feliz called the Electric Lotus. He sold the restaurant two years later to care for his ailing mother, agreeing not to open another Electric Lotus within a five-mile radius. Instead, last year, he opened one 6.1 miles away, in West Hollywood. "There is confusion about this," Baba admits, "but people always find me and come to eat where I am. It's not just the name, it's the quality of the food. People follow me because I use the same ingredients I learned about from my mother."
One journalist accused him of a particularly "Indian form of blarney," and I admit that when I first heard Baba talking, I wasn't sure I should believe any of it either -- So many celebrity encounters! So many pioneering moments! -- but then I ate in his restaurant, where the curries and vindaloos taste clean and wholesome. You can't fake good food. But also I suspect that Indian food doesn't taste like this in India. As with Baba's music, his food is to Americans' taste, sautéed in olive oil instead of ghee, its vegetables crisp and fresh. It's not inauthentic so much as obliging -- even, perhaps, generous.
Every musician I've brought to hear Baba play has been offered an opportunity to play with him; late last summer, he doled out free samosas at the electronic-music festival Nocturnal Wonderland to kids who said they couldn't afford to eat. In Baba's world these are related activities, sharing music and sharing food, intertwined and equally significant. "My friends always told me, 'Baba, you can mix the masala. So you can mix the music, too.' Now I do both."
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