When Germany’s national team began its scorched-earth march through this year’s World Cup, its fans were buoyed by an unlikely soundtrack: an Eastern-infused ode to German football called “This Time It’s Our Turn,” performed by Lovely and Monty Bhangu. The two Punjabi brothers, who immigrated to Germany in 1984, work as taxi drivers in Hamburg, where they’re known to break into Indian bhangra songs while ferrying their passengers. A video for the World Cup track blew up this summer on YouTube, garnering more than 100,000 views, and made the brothers the most famous cabbies in all of Germany.
When I meet the pair at a Hamburg café, the two wear their newfound fame well. Lovely, the songwriter, sports gold-rimmed Ray-Bans—even though it’s cloudy and we’re sitting inside—a gold-threaded shirt and a silver scarf beneath a well-groomed beard. Monty, the singer, wears a bright blue turban. Two people sitting next to us slyly look over during our interview before they finally ask the brothers for a photo. They gladly oblige.
The Bhangu brothers have taken a circuitous path to pop stardom. For decades they composed bhangra songs with Punjabi lyrics that they played in their taxis. The only problem was, none of their passengers could understand the words. So they decided to dub their songs with German lyrics, throwing in some electronic beats to create bouncy pop tunes that they call “Dollywood,” a German take on the over-the-top musical numbers that feature prominently in Indian Bollywood films (the “D” is for “Deutsch”).
Their first Dollywood song, “When You Love Someone From the Heart,” was debuted in their taxi cabs with regular customers. By chance, Lovely gave a ride to the German comedian, Otto Waalkes. After listening to the song, he immediately told Lovely it deserved a bigger audience.
“I thought maybe he was drinking too much,” Lovely jokes, “but [Waalkes] said, ‘No, I’m serious.'”
When it was released as a single, the song caught fire. It cracked the iTunes top 50 downloads here in 2010 and netted the brothers a string of appearances on German television shows. In the run-up to the 2012 European Championship, the brothers generated more attention with their first soccer anthem in support of the German national team, a goofy track called “Oh Germany, We Love You.”
“People were not satisfied,” Lovely recalls. “They said, ‘More, more, more.'”
In late 2012, the brothers dropped their first CD, If You (Love Me From the Heart). When one of the tracks was downloaded from iTunes 29,000 times in Ireland and a school in India made a mass-dance music video with Bhangu Brothers music, they realized there was an audience for their music in the non-German-speaking world. The two are now in the process of releasing their German songs in English and Punjabi.
The brothers’ music success has also been a boon to their taxi business: They now charge up to $250 for a ride that includes their songs. Which might explain why they have no plans to quit their day jobs.
“I don’t want to become dependent on [the music] market,” says Lovely. “If we become cheap, then we cheat everyone. That’s why we keep driving our taxis. We save our pride.”