Where Punjabi Folk Meets Soul: OZY
Amrit Kaur Lohia
Amrit Kaur Lohia can’t tell you her vocal range or really get technical about the traditional Punjabi stringed instrument she plays, the sarangi.
Ask her about influences and she drops some heavy names: Christina Aguilera and famed Sikh-Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam.
But United Kingdom-born, self-taught Amrit Kaur doesn’t let formalities like musical schools of thought stop her. Not when she can sing like a time traveler, taking us to the days when being a Punjabi singer meant climbing octaves like a mountaineer.
When the 24-year-old sits on stage, she is demure, a chunni scarf pulled up over her head, eyes down. When she stands, her long hair makes zigzag lines in the air, and then she starts holding those notes.
“People say, ‘I can hear this or that,’ trills or soul and jazz,” she says, with a kind of hear-what-you-wanna-hear shrug. I ask her the technical name for those long-as-hell notes she pulls. “It’s like letting my heart scream,” she says.
It’s tempting to call what she does fusion -- especially because Amrit’s family comes from Punjab, which also birthed Bhangra dancing and the Jay-Z mash-up ‘Beware of the Boyz.’
But Amrit’s not much interested in dissecting anatomy, identifying the kidney that hails from Punjab or the heart from Aretha Franklin.
Amrit’s been playing sarangi, a violin-like string-and-bow instrument also used in Sikh and Punjabi classical music, since she was 13. She grew up writing poems that she set to music. As a teen, she began touring with a kirtan (Sikh spiritual music) group who played and sang the traditional end of what she now touches, Sikh devotional songs.
The gurdwara was “almost like a home,” she says; there, she prayed “for a voice to express myself -- I was rubbish at talking.”
All the while, she was surrounded by Afro-Caribbeans, Greeks, Jamaicans and Nigerians, hearing reggae until 4 am in the North London neighborhood where she grew up.
When it comes to spirituality today, “Everything I do is a meditation,” she tells us. That includes her various social-justice outfits, her theatrical work -- she’s putting on a play in London now about Creole musicians — and her day job, being a grad student at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Her thesis focuses on Sikh soldiers in World War I, and it’s not hard to get her to geek out on the history a little bit.
But Amrit seems to live history best when she sings it -- especially those old poems, some of which she set to music for a play on the partition of Punjab called “1947“.
Don’t take our word for it, though: Listen for yourself.
[Courtesy: Ozy. Edited for sikhchic.com]
October 12, 2016
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 12, 2016, 3:18 PM.
Sher ji, if not for you we would remain oblivious of these gems like Amrit Kaur Lohia. Reminds me of Newton who said: “Like a boy playing on the seashore picking shells with a forlorn hope that under one of them was a gem he was seeking - no matter in which favourite hiding place the children of distant worlds have placed them." In your case, Sher ji, it is in sikhchic.com.
2: Raj (Canada), October 20, 2016, 11:16 PM.
Please do more ryaaz. It's one thing to be connected with the influential, and a very different thing to connect with a poem or its lyrics.