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Culture Cheat Sheet | Your Handy Music Genre Guide

Radhika posted on 06 February

By Radhika Takru

So you know the kind of music you like, but could you spot it in a genre lineup? Should you really go check out that  ‘alternative’ gig, or do you simply not know you’re a blues-maniac at heart? Today, we’re taking the most carelessly bandied about genre names and demystifying them, so that the next time you find yourself trawling venues on a weekend evening, you know exactly what you’re in for when you step in the door.


Often confused with one another, the difference between Jazz and Blues is a little like the difference between the head and the heart. The Blues are notoriously soulful in rhythm and lyrics, showing their African-American roots far more blatantly than Jazz. This isn’t to say that Jazz is mindless musicianship, but here you’ll find a bit more technique. You’ll find Jazz combines elements of the blues, with more Western European vibes. Sample Adil and Vasundhara, Big Bang Blues, and Drift to see if they soothe your soul.

International Example: BB King - Lucille; Play here

Desi Example: Adil and Vasundhara - Basin Street Blues; Play here


Reggae, Dub and Ska are a Jamaican family, and you can identify each one from how it makes you think of blue skies, shorelines, sunshine, and cocktails with umbrellas in them.

Don't believe it - it's all mass media propaganda, though Reggae, Ska and Dub ARE Caribbean entities. Heavy on the percussion, Ska's rhythm is traditionally Jamaican, but peppered with American R&B and Jazz. Slow down Ska, and you have Reggae. Take the vocals out of Reggae, amplify the drum and bass, and you have Dub. In Delhi, Reggae Rajahs and Ska Vengers are the big fish.

International Example: Lee Scratch Perry - Panic in Babylon; Play here

Desi Example: Reggae Rajahs - Make Up Your Mind; Play here


Dubstep had its 15 minutes of fame in 2011, after having been around for about two decades. Its trademark wubwubwubwub is easy to identify. A track plays, the bass drops, everyone goes wild. You'll know it because of all of the bass {and maybe a pressing need to go to the bathroom}. If you're looking to listen to some Dubstep, keep a lookout for Nucleya, Jubin Sunny Project and Thermal Projekt.

International Example: Skrillex - Reptile; Play here

Desi Example: Nucleya - Pragat Pritam; Play here


When in doubt, we label a band ‘fusion’ - just because they make use of local instruments. However, the odd sitar sample in a Pink Floyd rip-off track does not make a fusion band. Technically, fusion works blend two {or more} different musical styles. In India, fusion groups effectively and consistently meld traditional/local and modern/western instruments, as well as musical styles. When done right, the two different styles offset one another, resulting in each one highlighting the best parts of the other. You must have already met Swarathma, Advaita and Avial.

International Example: Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin; Play here

Desi Example: Swarathma - Pyaasi; Play here


If you want to be pedantic, 'alternative' is anything that's not what all the other kids are listening to. This hasn't, however, been an accurate definition since the early 1990s. As a genre, 'alternative' carries more of an American flavour than the more British 'Indie'. It doesn't take much to be alt - a standard three-piece setup will easily qualify - guitar, bass, percussion, in addition to the vox. The word 'alternative' just screams 90's. If that sounds like it is up your alley, then source albums by The Circus and Motherjane.

International Example: Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun; Play here

Desi Example: The Circus - In This Laboratory There Are No Rules; Play here


In the truest sense of the word, 'Indie' music refers to anything not on a major label. In everyday use, Indie is often characterised by sharp vocal/instrumental contrasts, often with thin guitars and the inclusion of unusual instruments or vocal harmonies. Desi groups tend to lean towards the more ‘American’ alternative sound, but Peter Cat Recording Co. is a good contender for the ‘Indie’ label.

International Example: Arcade Fire - No Cars Go; Play here

Desi Example: Peter Cat Recording Co. - Pariquel; Play here


Post-rock sounds like poetry and academia. It's complex and introspective, and feels like it's been created for the creators. It usually has. It may or may not have vocals, and in the case of the latter, they're usually no more significant than the instruments. 'Soundscape' may be the best word to use to describe it. If you’re the literary, introverted kind, you’ll probably find kindred spirits in the music of Until We Last and A Mutual Question.

International Example: Mogwai - Fear Satan; Play here

Desi Example: Until We Last - Rain; Play here