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Sonny Singh and the dissident diaspora

The musician's debut solo album shows a strong undercurrent of social justice still runs through South Asian communities

Sonny Singh's album ‘Chardi Kala’ charts new ground. Photo by Ernest Stuart
Sonny Singh's album ‘Chardi Kala’ charts new ground. Photo by Ernest Stuart

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Those of us who live on the subcontinent have always had a tendency to paint our vast diaspora—the largest in the world at 18 million, according to the UN—in the broadest of brushstrokes. Stereotypes abound: There’s the fresh-off-the-boat software engineer, the Gujarati or Punjabi corner-shop owner, the culturally confused second-generation desi. It makes for some fun Karan Johar films but this predilection for stereotypes erases the complexity and diversity of the diaspora experience.

Take, for example, the increasingly popular idea of the diaspora as solidly Hindu nationalist: a heaving mass of flag-waving, sloganeering Bharatiya Janata Party fans who line up to greet the PM’s motorcades on his regular international junkets. This “nominal NRI” gets so much free airtime in India—on TV news, in media columns, in Bollywood—that it’s easy to forget other perspectives exist. Much like at home, the voice of the upper-class, upper-caste expatriate has become the overbearing default.

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But underneath this shiny new veneer, a strong undercurrent of social justice and liberalism still runs through South Asian communities, informed by a long history of anti-racist and social justice organising. Working-class immigrants, living in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods, have nurtured a dream of home that is very different.

It’s this dissident diaspora consciousness that Brooklyn, US-based musician Sonny Singh taps into in his debut solo album Chardi Kala, a collection of songs that resists easy categorisation, blending Sikh kirtan and gurbani with sounds taken from Punjabi folk, jazz, alt-rock, reggae and even the quintessential Indian wedding brass band. The record aims to re-imagine and reinterpret Sikh and Sufi devotional poetry for the 21st century, bringing the progressive and egalitarian aspects of those spiritual traditions back into focus.

Singh was born and brought up in Charlotte, North Carolina, a modern city set in the often racially tense Deep South. As the only Sikh family around, he had a deep but often contentious relationship with his religious and cultural heritage. His turban made him an early target for playground bullies and the spate of misdirected hate crimes against Sikhs post-9/11 probably didn’t make things any easier. There were moments when he wished he could just cut off his hair and take off his kadha.

But he also enjoyed playing shabads on the harmonium as a child, with his earliest performances taking place at the local gurdwara. As he grew up and embraced social justice activism, he also found inspiration in Sikhism’s egalitarian ethos and its history of organising against tyranny and injustice.

In New York, he joined popular bhangra-fusion act Red Baraat, playing trumpets and singing while diving into activism and working as an educator.

Sometime in 2018, disturbed by the rise of right-wing nationalist violence in both India and the US, Singh returned to the harmonium, finding comfort in the shabads he used to sing as a child. He started putting snippets on Instagram and found the songs resonated with a much wider audience than he had expected.

In August 2020, he released the debut single Mitar Pyare Nu, a sax-and-trumpet-infused khyal based on a shabad apparently recited by Guru Gobind Singh while lost in a forest, after a battle in which his two sons were martyred. While the original is often sung in a mournful, elegiac style, Singh’s rendition is brighter and more hopeful, the brass instruments adding a sense of joy.

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It was on the second single, Koi Bol Ram, that Singh really laid bare the spiritual and political foundations of this new project. The trumpet blares out a syncopated challenge as the drums skitter and shuffle over two-tone ska rhythms, while Singh sings a 16th century poem about the universality of God. He dedicates the track to the protesters at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, who also feature extensively in the music video. The track and video are a triumphant celebration of secular multiculturalism, an idea increasingly under assault in both the US and India.

The rest of Chardi Kala is in this vein. Aisee Preet combines harmonium, sarangi, guitar, dhol and trumpets in a glorious industrial-rock rendition of the Guru Arjan shabad, with a video shot at the Richmond Hill gurdwara that has been the site of recent hate-crime attacks against Sikhs. The title track, a beautiful summery pop anthem buoyed by vibrant horns and upright bass, is an ode to the Sikh concept of revolutionary eternal optimism. Another highlight is the ska-bhangra-boli amalgamation Rebel—which sounds like Asian Dub Foundation-ish rabble-rousing filtered through a kaleidoscopic lens of pop, jazz and bhangra.

On Chardi Kala, Singh has done that rarest of rare things as a musician—he has actually charted new ground, pushing the idea of South Asian fusion music down a new, previously unexplored side path. But he also ties into a broader cultural moment, as diasporic desis navigate a world of increasingly complicated identities.

He’s inspired by the same artistic, cultural and political eddies as Pakistani-American Grammy winner Arooj Aftab or Indian-American artists Shubh Saran and Arushi Jain, all Brooklyn-based musicians who have responded to the Trump and Modi years with intense, innovative, continent-spanning music celebrating our diverse, globalised, contradictory identities.

Chardi Kala, then, is a fantastic addition to an evolving oeuvre that includes Aftab’s last record, Vulture Prince, Sunny Jain’s Wild Wild East and Jaubi’s Nafs At Peace. It’s also just really good. Go give it—and these other records—a listen, and let them remind you that “Indian” is a category too broad for the narrow social, cultural and political boxes we are trying to stuff ourselves into today.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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