Meet the Bhangu Brothers: The Punjabi duo making Germans sing along to their tunes
Hamburg’s singing taxi drivers — the Bhangu Brothers — on how they make their 'Dollywood' (Deutsche Bollywood), bhangra-infused hits
It was the summer of 2014. Like most of the world, I too was engrossed in the FIFA football World Cup, being played out in Brazil. I also happened to be learning German at the time, and no points for guessing which football team I was supporting.
So, as part of our German language assignment, our class was asked to come prepared with a write up on Germany’s football culture one July weekend. Already late and with little time to read up on this, I fired up YouTube to check out some historical nuggets about football in Germany, to note down some quotable quotes from the movie Das Wunder von Bern (a football themed film that is a rite of passage for any student learning German at Goethe Institut in India) and check out some popular matches I needed to mention in my report. And as is bound to happen with YouTube, I did go off the radar and started looking up random things such as German football anthems.
And that’s when I stumbled upon something, which would start off a quest that would end in Hamburg, three years later.
I saw a thumbnail of a song, which showed two Indian men, seemingly Punjabi. Both were wearing German football jerseys, a hat and a turban in the colours of the German flag, garlanded by plastic flowers in black, red and yellow — again the colours of the German flag and holding a football. The title read, “Diesmal sind wir dran”, which translates to “This time it’s our turn”. Curiosity got the better of me and I clicked on the video. Unlike my expectations, it wasn’t a Punjabi song featuring a German football-team supporting Indian men. But it was an independently produced music video with a song in German set to Punjabi-themed music.
By then I knew enough German to understand what the song was trying to say. And I was quite impressed as the song predicted Germany winning the Cup weeks before the World Cup 2014 had even begun.
The published date of the song was 4 June 2014.
The World Cup 2014 began on 12 June in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Germany lifted the World Cup, a whole month later, on 13 July 2014.
Enter Bhangu Brothers
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Hamburg, was to drop off a message to the Bhangu brothers, and only after that did I go to check out this port city. The Bhangu Brothers — comprising Lovely and Monty Bhangu (Bharpoor and Jang Bahadur Singh Bhangu respectively) — are siblings from Punjab who left India in 1984 to settle down in Germany. They are renowned as the “Singing Taxi Drivers of Hamburg”.
The reason is obvious.
While they have been making independent music videos since 2012, it was only in 2014 after their World Cup song that they started to be well known outside of Hamburg and Germany. They have named their genre ‘Dollywood’ — Deutsch (German) Bollywood — as that is instantly relatable. It got them a lot of media attention in Germany. Live performance offers started pouring in. They were also invited to participate in TV shows on a German national TV. The music videos and live performances continue to date, but both the brothers still drive their taxis to stay financially independent.
The venue for meeting the Bhangu Brothers could not have been more appropriate — inside the Mercedes taxi of Lovely Bhangu. As I sat in the front seat beside the gold-rimmed aviators-sporting Lovely, his brother Monty settled in the rear. There were three displays on the dashboard: one of a smartphone showing live scores from a local football app, a small TV showing a live football match and one which was the navigator display. Lovely was deftly checking each of the displays time and again while talking. I have conducted many interviews in my career, but this was the first time I was doing it inside a cab. We always do all our interviews inside our cabs, clarified Monty. Considering the cab is integral to their online fame, it made perfect sense.
I immediately started off with a question I had been wanting to ask them since I first learned about them — How did two Punjabi brothers end up singing songs exclusively in German, to music that was essentially Punjabi, and in some cases ‘heavily inspired’ by old Hindi films?
“It was a request by a customer to turn on the radio, when I was singing a Punjabi song, that triggered the idea to start writing songs in German,” reminisces Lovely, the elder of the two siblings. Lovely, who has written close to 175 songs in Punjabi, is also adept at composing the music and singing those songs. Monty is in charge of recording and other technicalities.
The reason for their popularity, was and still is, the fact that they sing songs during the journey. In the past, many customers didn’t mind it and some even enjoyed it. Soon enough, Lovely realised that no one could sing along as the language was alien. Once a customer told Lovely that even though his songs were upbeat, he would rather sing along to a song on the radio. Lovely obliged, but at the same time made up his mind to give writing songs in German a shot.
Monty was quite surprised by the idea himself, as neither have been formally trained in German, but picked it up over the decades. “To know a foreign language is one thing. But to write a song in that language — that’s entirely different. I had my concerns if Veerji (elder brother) would honour that resolve,” said Monty.
Then there were the lack of themes — something that’s available in plenty when writing in Punjabi according to Lovely: the Indian food; the fields of Punjab; respect for elders; the colourful traditional clothes; Patiala Pegs; wedding celebrations and so on. “What theme would I lock on to here? What can one write about jeans? Even the value systems are different here, where kids move out of the house after they turn 18, lest they be called Muttersöhnchen (mother’s darling), a term used as a taunt,” laughed Lovely.
I love you, but…
The inspiration for the first song came in the most unexpected of circumstances.
“Once I had a couple sitting in my car, and the girl kept on saying to her boyfriend, “Ich liebe dich, aber…” which means, “I love you, but…” That somehow got stuck in my head. I was wondering if the girl really loves him, then why is there a but?,” recalls Lovely. That was inspiration enough for Lovely to pen down the lines of his first German song.
‘Wenn du jemand von Herzen liebst, dann genieß das alles, was er gibt’ — which translates to ‘When you really love someone from the heart, accept whatever the other person has to offer’. Lovely took that thread and wove his song around that theme. The music accompanying the song was inspired by the popular Punjabi folk song ‘Laung Gawacha’.
The elder Bhangu does not make any bones about the fact that he did copy the music. “There are two songs that I really love — 'Laung Gawacha' and 'Dream Girl'. If I love some musical composition from back home, I use it in my songs,” said Lovely while both the brothers laughed uproariously. As if on cue, Monty breaks into an impromptu rendition of a song called 'Hamburg', with Lovely providing the backup vocals. Listening to the Bhangu Brothers’ ode to their city, Hamburg, one instantly knows where the musical inspiration comes from. Having said that, the Bhangu brothers do not always use someone else’s music on their compositions. Out of the 11 songs that are present on their current album, only three have been inspired but the other eight have original music, they say.
...and then the World Cup 2014 approaches
That Lovely is a huge football fan, becomes evident the moment you step inside the car. As I mentioned earlier, a football match was going on throughout the duration of our interview on a small LCD TV screen below the dashboard, and Lovely was checking his football app to check on other parallel games.
“I was observing the German football team before the 2014 World Cup. I was more than convinced that they were going to win the Cup, months before the event started in Brazil. I felt if this team couldn’t win the cup, then it would be a long wait,” says Lovely. The fitness level of all the players, the fact that they played as a team, the seamless ‘taal-mel’ between the players, were some of the reasons that convinced Lovely. He would keep repeating this to anyone who would discuss the World Cup with him.
Having heard this ad-nauseum, Monty asked Lovely to write a song about this if his convictions were so strong.
“I had to be after him, as there wasn’t much time left. If we released the song after the Cup, then it wouldn’t really make sense. Thankfully, we recorded the song eight weeks before the Cup,” says Monty.
Diesmal sind wir dran — an unofficial German World Cup anthem
The quest for a good opening or a mukhda for such a song was the real challenge for Lovely. He spent a lot of time thinking over it. “If the opening isn’t powerful enough, the rest of the song would fall flat,” said Lovely.
Inspiration struck Lovely while he was in the shower one day. He quickly called out to Monty and made him note down the opening lines, while still in the shower. With the opening in place, Lovely and Monty then thought of inserting certain themes such as the fandom, the media’s possible responses and so on. But somewhere along the way, Lovely spotted a poster with the words ‘Ramba Samba’ and he couldn’t get them out of his head.
“This was really confusing. Veerji wanted to fit in ‘Ramba Samba’ in the song, after the complete song was written, composed and recorded! Thankfully there was a musical interlude in the song, where ‘Ramba Samba’ fit in well,” recalls Monty. Those two words, also gave the song a typically Punjabi touch.
Flag-waving is something that is frowned upon in Germany, even today. So the over abundance of flag colours in the song were something that struck me as odd. On enquiring with the brothers I learned that it was a chance they took as they wanted to show support visually as well. The video was shot in two days flat in various parts of Hamburg. The initial response was promising. But post the World Cup win, feedback came in all forms. They got messages from as far as Canada and New Zealand. Even footballers from the Hamburg league division congratulated them.
But according to the brothers, the most memorable feedback came from a local taxi driver Frank-Türk Hauser’s family in Berlin, who had requested that ‘Diesmal sind wir dran’ be played at his funeral.
The taxi is still their pride
While the popularity of their YouTube channel in Germany has got the Bhangu Brothers a lot of invitations for live gigs, they do not want to pursue that as a full time career. After all, a lot of their public appearances on national TV and live performances, have been realised thanks to their customers. One such customer was popular German comedy actor Otto Waalkes, who after being impressed with their songs, offered them a spot on the OST of German film Buddy.
Lovely says that the taxi lets them be their own boss, and takes care of their basic financial needs. “We don’t want to compromise on any of our value systems while chasing success on the musical front. We prefer to be independent musicians. This taxi is our pride and we will continue driving,” say Lovely.
Their singing fame has created quite a few copy cats within Hamburg itself. “Sometimes customers are not sure and ask random Punjabi or Indian-looking taxi drivers here if they are Bhangu brothers. Some shameless drivers say yes and there have even been instances when such impersonators sign autographs for those poor customers,” laughs Monty. The Bhangu Brothers don’t really take offence to this. But they have ramped up their social media presence with videos of fans singing along on taxi rides, so people know the real deal.
Monty showed me their calendar for the next couple of months, which was packed with their live performances across Hamburg as well as neighbouring cities such as Lübeck and Berlin. Along with that, there was another calendar for taxi customers, some of whom want to hire them for day trips as well. It certainly looked like the Bhangu Brothers had their hands full. The immediate question that came to my mind was, when did they practise for these gigs?
“Whenever we are driving customers, we sing along to our songs. That is indeed our rehearsal time. Our calendars are so packed, that there isn’t any time to practise separately. We like to spend free time with our families,” said Lovely, who dotes on his three girls.
Just then, Monty got a call from one of his regular customers. He had to take our leave. As I was continuing my conversation with Lovely, I heard loud bhangra music emanating from a car beside us. And it was Monty singing along to the song and doing a little bhangra dance as he waited for the signal to turn green.
The brothers visit India every few years as they still have family in Punjab. More recently, at the ITB Berlin travel summit, the Bhangu Brothers wrote and performed the song 'Incredible India'. They still have fond memories of their motherland. something that is evident in one of their earlier music videos 'Wenn Bauer'. But ever since Lovely started to compose songs in German, his Punjabi songwriting took a backseat. To make up for that, the Bhangu Brothers will be releasing their first song in Punjabi, 'Chakk Dinda', on their YouTube channel soon.
At a time when the topic of integration is always discussed in Germany, it is heartening to see two Punjabi brothers raising the bar, by making the Germans sing along to their songs. The feedback by Germans on their YouTube channel and their Facebook page is proof enough. The genuine happiness on the faces of customers, both young and old, as they take rides in Lovely or Monty’s taxis is what keeps them going.
“Our only motivation to sing in the taxis was to make our customers’ mood happier during the journey. We never expected we would come this far. It’s all thanks to god and our admirers,” signs off Lovely, still the rooted Punjabi singing taxi driver of Hamburg.
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