Bally Sagoo makes no apologies for his brown ambition. The godfather of bhangra beat (a fusion of bhangra, India’s traditional folk music, with everything from house to hip-hop to reggae) wants to rule your world. “I want to be a household name around the planet,” he says, speaking from his hotel in Bombay, India. He’s resting up after a strenuous rehearsal for an upcoming gig opening for Michael Jackson. “I want to be known for bringing Indian music to the masses,”he says. “Why not?”
If the mix master/producer/DJ’s conversation is thickly marbled with arrogance (“My music changed the Asian music scene around the world”), it’s understandable. Sagoo did almost single-handedly found a music (sub)genre.
Born in Delhi 32 years ago, Sagoo moved with his family to Birmingham, England, when he was six months old. When he was a teenager, his parents pressured him to prepare for either medical or law school. It was a lost cause: Enthralled by American soul music, he had already decided his life would be spent behind the groove.
“Music made me laugh; it made me cry,”he recalls. “It made me. I spent a fortune on American imports. I knew music would carry me into the future.”
Holed up in his bedroom with a couple of turntables, Sagoo became such a whiz at mixing (especially at fusing British club fare with its U.S. counterpart) that he built a steady clientele for his tapes. Across the hall, meanwhile, his parents were spinning bhangra; each side of the musical divide viewed the other with disdain. Issues of assimilation and cultural ignorance — as well as the typical parent-teen — were doing battle in the conflicting rhythms.
“I hated bhangra,”says Sagoo, laughing. “We lived in a black neighborhood, and everyone I was friends with was into house and soul music. To me, all Indian music sounded the same. I didn’t think it had any feeling at all.”
Ironically, it was Sagoo’s success with mixing Western sounds that led him back to his parents’ music. “I just woke up one morning and started playing around with Indian songs,” he says. “Then I added house and hip-hop break beats. Because of that new DNA, it started sounding very funky.”
Before long, Sagoo was making tapes for local radio shows, which led to a deal with the Indian label Oriental Star, where he was an in-house producer. Eventually he hooked up with another artist on its roster, the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The resulting collaboration, 1991’s Magic Touch, went on to become one of Ali Khan’s biggest sellers and broke Sagoo’s genre fusion into the big time. (Magic Touch II is due later this year.)
With his eighth album, Rising From the East (Tristar), having hit American shores, the man’s plans for world domination seem to be on course. The disc, with a much stronger emphasis on R&B than any of his past work (he cites Quincy Jones as one of his idols), is a return to Sagoo’s roots.
“Soul and R&B — that’s what I grew up on; that’s what I love,” he says. “By combining bhangra with R&B, I’ve made something true to me and accessible to others. It’s a new chapter in music: Indian soul music.”