Singer-songwriter Snatam Kaur on her Grammy nomination, surprising Oprah for her birthday, and her Indian influences

R Prashanth Vidyasagar

Feb 10, 2019 09:27:11 IST

We all look for comfort in despair or even when having a bad day. For some, it could be food, a tiny corner in their home, for others a person or even a memory. American singer-songwriter Snatam Kaur Khalsa has been that for thousands. Her aura could calm even the most troubled. Her voice is a balm that relieves the aches of the soul. Her music is like the first ray of the sun that that breaks through the clouds after a battering storm. There is hope and warmth in her music. Snatam has been singing Gurbani Kirtans since she was a kid and her albums incorporate various musical styles, reaching a vast audience. At her concerts, people who have never been to India, nor know of Sikhism or Gurbani Kirtans, chant with her, proving once again that music has no walls. Gurbani Kirtans helped her get through difficult times and she simply wants to share that gift. She follows no trends, but her heart, and most importantly, what gives her bliss. This journey has given her many wonderful memories, and her latest album Beloved being nominated for the 61st Grammy in the Best New Age Album category is definitely going to be one of her most cherished.

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Snatam Kaur. Image courtesy: Fran Gealer

In an exclusive interview, Snatam Kaur talks to Firstpost about her introduction to Sikhism, the influence of Gurbani Kirtans, her view of spirituality, her musical journey and more. Excerpts from the interview —

Visiting Punjab

I grew up in California, and there is a large Punjabi Sikh population there and many of my parent’s friends were Punjabi Sikhs and I became friends with their kids. So I would go to many Gurudwaras and heard a lot of Kirtans. I went to India when I was six and we stayed across the street from the Golden temple. My mother studied under Guru Hari Singh who played in the Golden temple for many years. As a child, I was welcomed into their family. I later came back to India when I was 18 and studied Gurbani under Bhai Hari Singh as well. It was during these visits to India that a deep understanding and love for Gurbani Kirtan was planted into my heart. When I was 18 we also toured Punjab and visited many Gurudwaras and it was a beautiful experience and very touching.

The love for Gurbani Kirtans

I was born into the Kundalini yoga and Sikh lifestyle. I grew with a lot of Gurbani Kirtan in my life. In the community I grew up in, I was invited to play Gurbani Kirtan as a young child. I was encouraged to play in the Gurudwara. I was very connected to it. My mother would practice Gurbani Kirtan every day, she would go to it in times of trouble and happiness, she had this friendship with Gurbani Kirtan. So I followed her example and as a teenager realised the same, going through the struggles and questions in my life. Whatever it was, I could chant Gurbani Kirtan and feel better. I also learned from my parents to chant before going to bed every night, to let go off the problems of the day and to start off my day with Gurbani Kirtan as well. All of this was a part of my daily practice from the time that I was a teenager.

As a teenager, I was also attracted to Gurbani’s because I had also grown up learning Kundalini yoga and meditation from Yogi Harbhajan Singh (Sri Singh Saab Yogi Bhajan). Having learnt this gave me an in-depth experience, because when all of the body systems and mind is open, and when we chant Gurbani kirtans, you can connect with the divine and I really enjoyed this as a teenager.

Taking a leap of faith

I began my music career with my first solo album Prem in 2001. At first, I thought it would be an English album speaking about the spirituality and the message that’s in Sikhism, so that other people could relate to it. In the studio I couldn’t find the flow, and didn’t have a spark of life, I realized that it wasn’t what was in my heart. What was in my heart was singing Gurbani kirtans in Gurumukhi, the original language of the Sikhs which I had grown up with. I scrapped all of the English songs and did the Gurmukhi songs, my record label supported me even though it wasn’t considered popular at that time. We made the album and people loved it, that’s how my career began.

The Grateful Dead

I also had other musical experiences growing up in the West. My father managed The Grateful Dead, an American rock band. Sometimes we would get backstage passes to go to the concert. And growing up in California I had different musical influences and I enjoyed listening to Tracy Chapman and Sting. I also learned classical violin in school and my connection with India through my lifestyle and visits created who I am musically. It is a mixed tradition of Gurbani kirtans, folk, Jazz and classical.

Meaning matters

I do listen to other genres of music, I am very picky though because I feel we can be very influenced by what we listen to. If the lyrics, the message, is uplifting and brings me to a place where I feel good, I listen to it or else I don’t. I studied Gurbani Kirtan, I know the words and the meaning of the words, I feel better because of the energy in the music and what is being said. I feel very protective of my space. I want a lot of energy to share, to be a mother to my 10-year-old daughter, to be a wife, to teach and then tour. I keep my energy clear for those experiences.

The importance of knowing Gurumukhi

I can’t say that I am a master of any foreign language. I studied Gurumukhi so that I can understand the Shabad [a Shabad is a sacred song selected from Sikhism's scripture Guru Granth Sahib]. I am a lifelong student, I feel very blessed to know this language, to be able to read it. I am teaching the same to my daughter, just like my mother taught me. Knowing the language helps you compose the tunes that honours the words and retains the energy and vibrations of the original shabads.

Healing with music

I think the musician is no higher than the person who doesn’t know any music, they are on the same level. It is never a performance. In true Gurbani Kirtan there is always call and response, the musician who is leading, chants one line and everyone responds. This creates powerful energy and that’s where the healing is, when everybody is singing. So the musician needs a person who is not a musician, as much as a person who is not a musician needs a musician. They are working together in partnership to worship the guru.

I make mistakes too

I feel that in being religious we can get caught in doing things the way that we think should be done. I would like to say I would rather be at peace with myself than right. Sometimes I have to apologise to someone, I have to keep myself humble, and I make mistakes. I am a religious person and I follow dharma but I maintain my spirituality in it by remaining humble and continuing to find joy in whatever way I can. Being spiritual by far is the highest priority.

Oprah knew the words to my songs

It makes the world a little bit smaller, to know that Oprah likes my music. I don’t know who else does. Oprah was having her (58th) birthday the next day and was staying up late with her friends, they were listening to my music, and she teased one of her friends and said that if you really loved me you would get Snatam Kaur to perform for my birthday here tomorrow. So her friend took the tease and made some calls, she knew a friend of mine and I got a call at five in the morning. ‘Oprah’s friend wants to fly you to her house in Maui. We will fly you from wherever you are.’ And coincidentally I was in Maui, just about 20 minutes away from her house. I believe god arranged that. We went to her place and surprised her. It was incredible as I watched her sing along, she knew the words, and I was floored! She was gracious and is a lovely woman.

Updated Date: Feb 10, 2019 11:00:08 IST