Harbhajan Kaur Khalsa, Millis, Massachusetts:
Living a few houses down from the Siri Singh Sahib, Yogi Bhajan, Bhai Baldeep Singh would often have conversations with him about what could be done to preserve the original “sikhi,” especially the kirtan traditions. When the Siri Singh Sahib heard that Bhai Baldeep Singh and his Italian wife would go to her parents’ home in the summers, he lamented, “You go to Italy and don’t come across? (to the United States where Yogi Bhajan taught at Summer Solstice, Women’s Camp and Children’ Camp – all sponsored by his 3HO organization (the Healthy, Happy, Holy Foundation) every summer)? You’ll have to come across.” In response to that “call,” Bhai Baldeep Singh made the journey in the summer of 1996, not knowing exactly how far “across” he had to go until he reached Los Angeles and made the call to Yogiji to ask exactly where he must come. Yogiji responded, “Albuquerque.” So Bhai Baldeep Singh boarded another flight that reached via Las Vegas. Yogiji’s younger son, Kulbir Singh, picked Bhai Baldeep Singh up from the airport, then Yogiji’s wife, Bibiji, drove Bhai Baldeep Singh from Albuquerque to Espanola. When Bhai Baldeep Singh arrived in Espanola, New Mexico, Women’s Camp was in session and Yogi Bhajan invited Bhai Baldeep Singh to come to his evening lecture and play jori (the original tabla). As one of Bhai Baldeep Singh’s first students, I recall what a “celebration” that sharing was. With great gusto and speed, Bhai Baldeep Singh played the jori (two wooden drums that are larger than tablas – with the larger drum sporting a raw chapati instead of the black dot (seyahi) to produce resonance. As the lively performance continued, chapatti dough flew off the drum at regular intervals, landing on both Bhai Baldeep Singh and Yogi Bhajan, who was enjoying the spirit and energy of Bhai Baldeep Singh’s playing. Yogiji commented that the larger drum represented the male aspect and the smaller drum represented the female aspect.
After the class, two of us in the class who were musicians, Sangeet Kaur of Espanola, NM and myself, asked Bhai Baldeep Singh if he would be willing to play the jori while we sang the shabd “Dhan Dhan Ram Das Gur” as a blessing for the new home of Shanti Shanti Kaur Khalsa. Bhai Baldeep Singh agreed, and treated those present at Shanti Shanti Kaur’s home to the liveliest percussion accompaniment for that shabd that has been played before or since. In the cozy conversations that followed the kirtan, some of us asked questions about Bhai Baldeep Singh’s “travels” in Gurbani Kirtan. We learned that as the student and grand-nephew of Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurucharan Singh, Bhai Baldeep Singh was a 13th generation exponent of Guru kirtan, tracked from the time of Guru Arjan. His five major teachers included two naad yoga masters Bhai Arjan Singh Tarangar and Ustad Fahimuddin Khan Dagur. In later discussions we learned that his dedication to preserving and recording the old masters had taken him all over India and Pakistan to learn, videotape and record what the old masters could remember, as well as the instruments they played. While his “vitae” was impressive, it was his singing of some of the original compositions that made Sangeet Kaur and I ask him to come back the next summer to teach kirtan. He sang Guru Gobind Singh shabds in raga that bore no resemblance to the “pop” kirtan with which most western Sikhs were familiar at that time, compositions that evoked entirely different emotions. His obvious devotion and ‘merger’ with the compositions, along with his mastery of tala (as the khalifa of the Sultanpur Lodhi-Amritsari baaj), placed him in an entirely different strata than the many traveling ragis I had experienced up to that time. I always look forward to the ‘flights’ we take with Bhai Baldeep Singh when he sings alaapa.
The next summer, 1997, nearly 30 students responded to the invitation to study with Bhai Baldeep Singh for a month, an endeavor that had the blessing of the Siri Singh Sahib, Yogi Bhajan – despite the fact that it was uncommon that 3HO would schedule other events at the same time as women’s and children’s camps. Bhai Baldeep Singh would teach the fundamentals of kirtan for a few hours in the morning. After lunch he offered private tabla classes to a few interested students. Many women learning kirtan would attend the Siri Singh Sahib’s lectures at Women’s Camp in the evening. Bhai Baldeep Singh also made some trips up the hill to Ram Das Puri to teach children at children’s camp, including a few private lessons arranged by parents.
Such was the beginning of the two 12-day courses that now happen each year, one in July, the other in January or February. After that original experience, Bhai Baldeep Singh asked that the courses be at a time and place where the experience could be a camp/immersion without other obligations that called the students away. So the courses were held in the home of whichever students had the space / capacity to host the events. In addition to the courses in Espanola and Albuquerque, New Mexico, the courses have taken place in Monterey, Pebble Beach, San Leandro, Gilroy and Merced, California; in Tucson, Arizona; in Millis, Massachusetts; and in London, Ontario, Canada. There were also “beginner” courses in Eugene, Oregon for a few years. But it was decided that there was an advantage to merging the “waves” of students so that the newer students could benefit from sharing the “platform” built by Bhai Baldeep Singh and the older students. During the same years (1996 to the present), Bhai Baldeep Singh taught kirtan courses in Europe (France and Italy), as well as in India. And he has spontaneously gathered interested students in any place where he has been asked to teach or perform (e.g., in New York for the Hofstra University classes and concert). “Looking at the collection of students at this most recent course, it is obvious that there is a strong ‘glue,’ and very universal approach being applied in the teaching. There are women and men, young and old students coming from America, India, Canada, Europe (Italy), and Mexico. You might say the youngest student is 12 and the oldest is nearly 70. But actually, since entire families are encouraged to attend together, there are toddlers (and even invitro) students being exposed to the sound current and “kirtan family” at this course.
For the past several years, some of the long-time students have been encouraged to teach others in the same manner in which they have learned. Courses have been offered at Solstice celebrations – and in the hometowns of long-time students – resulting in more interest in Bhai Baldeep Singh’s courses.
It is obvious that the technology works. I used to be reluctant to take kirtan students who had “hearing” problems, but the tools of the naad and kirtan tradition effectively deliver true voices and the inherent bliss of Guru kirtan to any dedicated students who maintain a naad yoga/singing and kirtan practice. It is a fairly common miracle to hear those who come in with nasal or strangled voices opening up to their resonance and learning to keep the tala (clap) of very intricate rhythms. The learning is greatly enhanced by our use of the original percussion and stringed instruments – as well as modern technologies like the itablapro appllication’s tanpura, all of which are incorporated during the courses.
On February 9, 2012, we will have our 12-day course in India for the first time, at Sultanpur Lodi, where Guru Nanak became the Guru and began his own singing yatras. I look forward to singing in the mosque where Guru Nanak stood when he was asked by the Muslims to share Namaz with them – and to receiving the rabab which has been made for me by Bhai Baldeep Singh and Parminder Singh (Bhai Baldeep Singh’s foremost pakhawaj student and apprentice in instrument making). It is inspiring that we will increase our kirtan family by joining with other students and teachers/masters who have already begun the kirtan journey with Bhai Baldeep Singh at Sultanpur Lodi. It will be a celebration of restorations – not only of this important historic town associated with Guru Nanak – but of the elevating and healing traditions Guru Nanak put in place over 5 centuries ago, which Bhai Baldeep Singh (and now several of his students) has dedicated his life to preserving.