BlackMahal performs Saturday at San Jose Jazz's Summer Fest in downtown San Jose.
Anyone who wonders what hip-hop could possibly have in common with traditional Punjabi music has never heard Ustad Lal Singh Bhatti sing.
“He’s the ultimate freestyler,” says rapper Vijay Chattha of his bandmate in the San Francisco hip-hop-funk-jazz group BlackMahal, who perform at Summer Fest in downtown San Jose on Saturday.
Indeed, Bhatti’s voice defies description. He is the world’s most famous Punjabi vocalist, and master of the two-sided Indian hand drum known as the dhol. Over a career that spans four decades, he has performed for U.S. presidents stretching back to Gerald Ford, at the U.S. bicentennial celebration, and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He’s collaborated with the Black Eyed Peas and other groups. But in hooking up with hip-hop head Chattha, who formed BlackMahal in 2004, he found a whole new groove.
Bhatti’s vocals draw on the traditional boliyan, which are lyrical couplets sung in Punjab. The oral tradition of boliyan allows much room for improvisation, and are known for expressing deep emotion. In other words, boliyan singers were the O.G. freestylers, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Bhatti has thrived in the hip-hop realm.
In fact, as far back as the ’90s, DJs began fusing boliyan with hip-hop beats, partly as a political response to what they considered the bastardization of folk traditions by bhangra. But in BlackMahal, Bhatti’s vocals are neither a statement nor a gimmick—they’re as intregral to the fabric of the music as Chattha’s raps, or the sound of the ever-growing musical ensemble (which also includes Jason Lee on turntables, Satish Pillai on Keys, Tim Chang on bass, Pangfua Chang on vocals, Sandeep Bhatt on sax, Dave Wood on trumpet and Jon Cook on drums).
“Today’s DJ culture is all about choppy loops and choppy samples,” says Chattha. “We feel like there’s an untapped element to having great musicians play and having Ustad do his thing.”