In one week a group of kirtan students will meet for the 16th consecutive summer to learn with Bhai Baldeep Singh, this time in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is how I have spent my summer vacation each year for more than a decade and a half. These summer workshops, together with the annual winter gatherings, have been the foundation of learning and have provided the tools for this current project to sing all the shabds in the two volumes of Gurbani Sangeet.
This is something I wrote one year ago after the summer kirtan gathering. It is a personal history of my kirtan journey:
The first time I heard Gurbani Kirtan it was a song that my heart knew and I wanted to learn more about this music. In those days we listened to recordings and tried to learn to sing the shabds, but inevitably we simplified the melodies, Americanized them and we could only sing what we could hear. Or sometimes we would hear things but lacked the ability to reproduce them. We learned how to sing along with harmonium and sometimes teachers would come from India. Classes were centered around learning shabds line by line with harmonium.
One day in 1975 a friend told me, “you know, the harmonium is not the original instrument for kirtan. In the old days people sang with stringed instruments.” This excited me and I tried to imagine what the music would sound like. I was sure it would be beautiful. “Where can we learn this?” I asked. No one knew.
Reading from Siri Guru Granth Sahib I wondered about the ragas given. What would this sound like in raga dhanasri, rag bilawal, sri rag? Can shabds be sung in these ragas? How do you learn ragas? There were some Americans learning Indian music and Indian instruments but the opportunity never came for me.
In the early 1990’s a Sikh moved to our town who was from the Nanaksar tradition. He knew how to sing shabds and he knew about tala and ragas. I asked him if there are melodies in ragas that match the name of the shabd and he knew some of them. He gave me the notations and taught me how to sing them. I enjoyed these shabds and wanted to understand the ragas and tala structure. Unfortunately this friend moved out of town and the learning was discontinued.
In the summer of 1996 an Italian friend, Kirti, told me about someone she had met in New Mexico. He was a Punjabi who could speak Italian and was restoring the stringed instruments that used to be used in kirtan. I hoped that I might also be able to meet this person. The following spring someone handed me a piece of paper and said “you might be interested in this.” It was a flyer announcing that Sangeet Kaur and Harbhajan Kaur were organizing a workshop in New Mexico with a teacher who was a 13th generation exponent of Sikh kirtan. He was reviving stringed instruments and would be teaching the traditional music from the guru times. “This must be the person Kirti told me about,” I thought. “This is what I have been waiting decades to learn”. I was so excited I immediately called Sangeet Kaur and signed up for the workshop.
I had no expectations for the workshop but came to learn about the old ways. From the first day I realized this would be unlike any previous experience and would require an attitude of going back to kindergarten and a willingness to start at the beginning. The knowledge shared left a hunger for more and the practice was a challenge that begged to be pursued. The final day of the class was heart-breaking as my heart feared that another feast might never come and the hunger might never be satisfied.
Bhai Baldeep had mentioned that he would like to teach an intensive 9-day workshop so the next summer I organized one. Since that time we have been meeting twice a year. The process has required much patience on the part of the teacher as well as the students. The voice instruments required a lot of cleaning to scrape off old habits and patterns and polish with the tools of naad yoga. Focus, pronunciation, and understanding were improved along with musical skills in rhythm and melody.
In 1999 I asked Bhai Baldeep if he would sing at my son’s wedding. He said “I will get my great uncle to sing.” It was a great honor to have Bhai Avtar come to New Mexico for the wedding. In the 1980’s he had visited with Yogi Bhajan and had sung in some of the American Sikh gurdwaras but it had been many years since those visits. After the wedding Bibiji invited Bhai Avtar Singh to return in August for Yogiji’s birthday celebration. Bhai Baldeep arranged for Bhai Avtar to teach during the August visit. This began regular visits by Bhai Avtar and Bhai Kultar to teach in Espanola during the annual birthday celebration. Yogi Bhajan encouraged his students to learn classical Sikh kirtan. Several students have studied with various teachers, and the sangat deepened its interest in “raga kirtan.”
For those of us studying with Bhai Baldeep Singh, after years of imagining the sound of kirtan sung with stringed instruments, the sounds are appearing as we learn to play the instruments crafted by our teacher, jhori, taus and the voice instrument. Personally, this has been a profound and transformative journey. Most importantly it has been a meditation on the bani revealed through the Sikh gurus through the medium of music. For us, the gian travels on the waves of sound to touch the heart, still the mind and awaken the soul.