In Sonny Singh's solo album Chardi Kala, a juxtaposition of eternal optimism and speaking truth to power
The Brooklyn-based musician discusses the themes of his solo album, and drawing musical inspiration from kirtans and shabads.
Brooklyn-based musician Sonny Singh has been vocal against social injustice since he was a teenager. So, it comes as no surprise then that when he dropped his solo album at 40, he found it impossible to do so without addressing "the social movements of our times." He's talking about the women in Shaheen Bagh, who protested through the winter of 2019 and the start of 2020 against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA); and the farmer unions, who have been camping at Delhi's borders in Singhu and Ghazipur, to protest three farm laws almost exactly a year later.
Clued into the fragile political climate in India, Singh claims that his work would be "irrelevant" if it overlooked these "historic" uprisings — something he feels even more strongly about, after acquainting himself with the core philosophy of Sikhism. His album is titled Chardi Kala, which roughly translates to ‘eternal optimism’. "These farmers, who have been camping at the Delhi borders for the last few months, their steadfastness... their resolute response to the government, is nothing short of inspirational. That's what Chardi Kala is... it's not that we're always happy. That's not how the world works, but it's the attitude that your spirit is always rising. And if your spirit is rising, then others will rise with you," Singh tells me during a video call.
This introspection is embodied in Singh's latest release, also the titular track of the album, which released last week. Around the 2:00 mark, a seemingly happy song takes a swerve towards something grim, as Singh's voice hits a few minor notes while a marching snare drum rhythm plays. "Since the rest of the song is joyful and extroverted to an extent, I wanted this 'bridge' to reflect on the struggles and traumas that we've undergone as a community. Also, my musical brain has a hard time staying on a major key too long," Singh says. It works, the deceptively simple song gets some much-required heft in those few seconds, almost serving as a reminder to 'never forget'. 'Chardi Kala' is the third single to be released from the album.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina to parents who moved there from Pune, Singh has spent a large part of his life reflecting on his Sikh identity. Growing up as one of the only two turban-wearing children in a predominantly white town, he experienced racism early on. "I remember being bullied pretty much every day in school, having my turban pulled off on the playground, being asked where I’m from in an almost threatening way," he recalls. There was more than one instance when Singh wanted to give it all up, but didn't. "Obviously I couldn't just cut my hair and get rid of the wrist kadha to fit in, because that doesn't change the colour of my skin. It was during my teenage years that I started relating to my identity as a Sikh man a little more deeply, part of it was through having Sikh friends." It was after his move to Arizona, where he discovered a flourishing Sikh community, that the questions about his roots stopped being asked. "Eventually, getting the opportunity to read the incredible works of Sikh scholars like Jagjit Singh and discovering my voice for activism is when I realised that my ancestors were revolutionaries in their own right," Singh says.
He started a Ska band in college, and moved to New York shortly after, where he was part of acts like Outernational and Red Baraat. It was only in 2018 that Singh began experimenting with the kirtans (devotional songs) he had sung as a 'good Sikh boy' in gurudwaras. "It had been a couple of years into the Trump administration, Bolsanaro had just gotten elected in Brazil, and Modi's popularity in India had only increased. It was during this time that I figured I wanted to go back to Gurbani and kirtan, which would comfort me. I found myself sitting down with my harmonium, and just remembering some of the shabads (hymn/sacred song) that I used to play as a child, and I started making these very simple recordings of myself. At first, just singing with the harmonium, adding a layer of trumpet, some more voices, another layer of trumpet, some dhol — and then I started sharing them on Instagram. The feedback was really overwhelming. My intention wasn't exactly to start a new project, but then a friend of mine, a trombone player (who I really respect), gave me a call. He said, 'Sonny, I think you need to get into the studio.'"
Singh's first single 'Mitar Pyaare Nu', which was released in August last year, is based on an original composition by the Sikh guru Gobind Singh, written some time in the 17th century. He followed it up with 'Koi Bole Raam', a 16th-century shabad by Guru Arjan Singh, which was released in November last year. This is where Singh showcased his disagreement with India's BJP-led government for the first time. The video for the song is a tribute to the brave-hearts of Shaheen Bagh, protesting the exclusion of Muslims in the CAA.
Singh has been paying attention to the rise of Hindu nationalism, and he is of the opinion that it began with the diaspora in the mid-2000s, long before it came to India. "In the US there are a lot of upper-caste Hindus who have accumulated power in Indian-American circles. Many of us with South Asian ancestry have been troubled by this. I’ve been trying to create alternative spaces for the youth, because the Hindu nationalists have been doing a lot to bring the young people into the Hindutva fold, by organising summer camps, student associations. If you dig deep, many of these have links to the Vishva Hindu Parishad or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A lot of us in the US have been working to counter these efforts,” he says.
What would he say to critics who believe that Singh is merely cashing in on these social movements for their virality? Is there anything he would do differently, to convince all listeners of his sincerity towards these causes? "Anyone who knows me even remotely, already knows that I deeply care about it. So of course, when I'm doing my first solo project, the social movements of our times are going to be influencing my music. Hopefully my music will also amplify these struggles. A part of my aim is to amplify these two social movements outside India. Especially with the anti-CAA movement, outside of a small Indian-American circle, no one really knew what was going on. About the farmers' protests in India, no one was really talking about it until two weeks ago when Rihanna tweeted about it. Music is not really a stone-cold strategic campaign, it's a symbiotic relationship between melody, rhythm and all that is important to me. As a Punjabi Sikh who cares about justice and workers being exploited across the planet, if I'm not having a conversation with the struggles, then what is the point? That doesn't mean I will only ever write protest anthems, but the music needs to be in conversation with what's going on around us. If you look at the latest video too, it's not really a 'protest video'. But the imagery somehow captures the vibe of the philosophy, and hopefully give us a glimpse into the Chardi Kala spirit."
With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House, and the 'Trump era' hopefully behind them, Singh is optimistic about the farmers’ struggles in India. "I can only speak from the Sikh diasporic perspective. In my 40 years, I haven't seen the entire community so unified and mobilised around one single issue. Including Sikhs who are not politically active or gurudwaras that are not usually sites of resistance. I've never seen so much consensus on a single issue, and that's unprecedented. My parents aren't directly involved with land-owning or farming, but everyone in my extended family is fired up about the injustice being meted out to India's farmers. There was a car rally in LA last month, and it was amazing. Some of these are really wealthy Sikhs, driving fancy cars, and yet they're carrying placards with anti-corporate, pro-farmer messaging. I think it's powerful so many Punjabis and South Asians have been joining the protests."
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