From Rock Star to Ragi Part 3
After my encounter with Yogi Bhajan (whom I shall henceforth call Yogiji, in the Indian tradition), I threw myself into studying and practicing Kundalini Yoga. I would get up at 3:00am, take a cold shower and then do yoga for about thirty minutes. After that I would chant and meditate. Almost every day I would attend one yoga class, often two. On the weekends, I would join a group of fellow practitioners to do yoga on the beach, before sunbathing or swimming.
The health and vitality I had come close to squandering during my years of carousing, drinking and drug use returned to my body. I dropped thirty pounds and looked slim, trim and vital. Although I was struggling emotionally, physically I felt great. Better than I had been in my whole young life.
Yogiji was not using the name Naad Yoga (the yoga of sound), but much of what I was learning was just that. Almost all of the kriyas (complete yogic action) that he taught us, included mantras. We were given different techniques for chanting them. Yogiji was a firm believer that silent meditation was almost useless. He taught us to use our voices to empower ourselves while meditating. I enjoyed the experience of chanting and began to practice the different meditations and kriyas.
But for me, one thing that was missing was group chanting to music. There was some chanting of the main 3HO mantra at that time, Ek Ongkar, Sat Naam, Siri Wha Guru (Waheguru was a later addition) but nothing that I found inspiring. I was aware of Hindu style bhajan chanting, where someone would call out names of a deity or deities and the rest of the sangat would respond, but there was nothing like that in 3HO.
Truth be told, we were not really aware of who we were. Nor were there any specified cultural traditions. I believe Yogiji deliberately left things vague in order to make room for Sikhi when it came time to bring it in to the 3HO lifestyle. That was still a year or two down the line. Being more tuned in to Indian culture than most, I was vaguely disturbed by this, but not overly so. As far as I could tell, nobody else cared at all.
One day, Richard told me that there was a man staying at the Sikh Studies Circle in Hollywood, who had said that he would teach us some Sikh chants. The Sikh Studies Circle, on Vermont Avenue near Griffith Park, was the only gurdwara in Southern California at the time. We drove over there one afternoon and found our rather disheveled man who had just woken up from an afternoon nap.
Being quite clueless about Sikhs and Sikh culture at the time, I didn’t know what to make of this guy. He went by the wonderful name of Jagat Singh Jagga. Later, I discovered that he was a well known folk singer from the Punjab. As he sang, he played the ektara, about as unsophisticated a musical instrument as one could wish to find.
The ektara consisted of a round wooden body with what seemed to be goatskin stretched over it and a short piece of wooden dowel for a neck. It had one wire string. To play it, you held it with your left hand and tucked under your neck like a violin. You then used the index finger of the right hand to pluck the string in a rhythmic pattern and sang along to that rhythm. The ektara created no melody; that had to come from the singer.
Jagat Singh was the first Jaat Sikh with whom I came in contact. (Jaats are a caste of farmers from Punjab. They have a tendency to be down to earth in their approach to life and are often accused, perhaps unfairly, of not being overly intelligent)
The other Sikhs I had met were those who frequented the gurdwara. They were professional types; well-to-do and relatively sophisticated. I sensed that Jagat Singh was different. He had a certain earthiness to his manner, bordering on coarse.
Remembering the promise he made to Richard, Jagat Singh picked up his instrument and began to chant Ek Ongkar, Sat Naam, Siri Wha Guru. He chanted in a very expressive way as a singer might and not in a way that would be useful to teach to a group, which was what I was hoping for. I felt disappointed.
The following Sunday, we went to the regular diwan at the Sikh Studies Circle. Dr. Hakam Singh, the gurdwara vice president, was singing his usual one shabad (hymn). When I had heard him sing previously, I had not been particularly moved. That day Jagat Singh Jagga sat down next to him and began to sing along. Being a professional singer, his energy lifted the performance and, for the first time, I heard what I what I later came to know as Gurbani Kirtan (Sikh Sacred Music), in a way that moved me. That memory stayed with me.
Only a few short weeks after beginning this intense yoga practice, I began to be aware of the movement of Kundalini Shakti in my spine. I would feel the energy moving up my spine, often taking me out of my body and into deep yogic trance-like states. I also began to experience the inner sounds that are heard by developed yogis in deep meditation. Realizing that they were linked to the manifestation of Kundalini Shakti, I began to spend time meditating on those sounds as my body/mind/spirit began to open to a deeper awareness. Those were heady times.
While my main focus was Kundalini Yoga, I continued to study sarod and Indian Classical music as best I could. I was able to take some lessons from Ashish Khan, the eldest son of Ali Akbar Khan and a well known concert artist in his own right. I even signed up to go study at the Ali Akbar College in Northern California. Financially and logistically, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for me to move up there, but my desire was so strong I felt compelled to send in my registration. I eventually cancelled.
In May of 1970, I took a two week Kundalini Yoga teacher training course. Richard, my friend, was the teacher. Soon after that, I went to New Mexico for the first 3HO Summer Solstice gathering. There, I met many young men like myself whom Yogiji had sent out to various cities in the US to be Kundalini Yoga teachers. Many of them seemed to be quite successful with their classes. After returning to Los Angeles, it came into my head that I should go to London and start a Kundalini Yoga ashram. I suggested it to Yogiji and he jumped at the idea.
In order to make the plan possible, I had to do some serious work on my house to make it fit to rent out. I had been in the middle of remodeling when I was fired from Capitol Records; work had totally stopped while I underwent my spiritual transformation. There was much to do and I had no money hire anyone. I wondered if I could do most of the work myself, I had no construction experience other than from watching the previous remodeling being done, but thought I could try. I also wondered where I would get the money to pay for materials.
I realized that the only course of action open to me was to do the work myself, so I threw myself into the work. It was tough. Not so much physically – by now, after all the yoga, I was in really good shape, as well as being young and strong – but emotionally. I had no income and I was stressed about getting the work done. I was stressed about finding money for materials. I still had to make my mortgage payments. It was a very, very intense period for me; probably the first time in my life where I had to take full responsibility for my environment and create my future with my own hands.
My sadhana (spiritual practice) and mystical experiences became non-existent. All I did was work. I still attended yoga classes occasionally, but would often spend the class lying on the floor, too exhausted to participate.
Although I can’t say that I felt it, God gave me a great deal of support and money came from unexpected sources. By the end of November, 1970, my house was rented out and I was ready to leave for London.
As I stood at LAX, waiting for my flight to London, Richard arrived to see me off. He said that Yogiji had given him a message for me.
“Tell him to study harmonium, learn the music of the Sikhs and go to Sikh Temple occasionally”.
The terms Gurbani Kirtan (Sikh Sacred Music) and Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) were not part of the 3HO lexicon in those days.
After settling in London and staring Kundalini Yoga classes, I duly did as ordered and found a giani (lit: “man of knowledge”), who agreed to teach me Gurbani Kirtan.
Gurbani (message of the Guru) is a term that is used to describe what is written in the “Holy Book” of the Sikhs, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. “Holy Book” is a very inadequate term for this beautiful creation which the Sikhs regard as a living Guru. Created by the fifth living master, Guru Arjun, it consists of the devotional writings of the first five Sikh gurus, plus works of contemporary HIndu, Moslem and Sufi saints of the time such as Kabir, Ravidas, Namdev and Shiekh Farid. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth master, added the writings of his father, the ninth guru.
KIrtan means singing the praise of the Supreme Lord. Thus Gurbani Kirtan means singing the praise of the Divine using the writings from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib.
Giani Joginder Singh Sarl lived in Southall, a suburb of West London close to Heathrow Airport. In the 60s, Southall had become a focal point for immigrants to the UK, mainly because of a nearby factory that offered jobs without regard for race. Most of those immigrants were East Indian by race, although not necessarily from India, and most of those Indians were Sikh. By 1971, when I began to study there, you could walk down the main street and imagine yourself in the Punjab.
I knew the area well. I had spent the first twenty years of my life in a town called Feltham, just a few miles away. In my years as a semi-pro musician I had played many Sunday nights at the Southall Community Center, a large, echoey venue, close to the town center.
When I first went to Giani Joginder Singh, I was not wearing a turban. He was polite and did agree to teach me. When I went for my first lesson, I put on a turban. His attitude totally changed towards me. Finding out that my name was Vic, he suggested that I should take the name Vikram Singh, a Sikh name meaning “courageous in action”. And that is how I came to be known amongst the Sikhs.
Sikh scripture and sacred writings, as well as Punjabi language, are written in a script called Gurmukhi (lit: from the mouth of the guru). The script clearly is based on the Devnagri script in which Sanskrit and Hindi are written, but is simpler and easier to read. The script was created by the second master, Guru Angad and is considered to be a divine revelation.
When it became obvious that I could not get very far in singing from the Sikh scriptures if I could not read the script in which it was written, I made a commitment to learn the Gurmukhi alphabet.
Giani Joginder Singh began to teach me one of the most popular shaloks (two line couplet from Sikh Scriptures) sung in Raag Todi. With my previous Indian music experience, it did not take long for me to grasp what was required of me. I worked hard on the Gurrnukhi script and was able to read, albeit slowly in about a month. At the same time, I began to learn about Sikh history, tradition and culture.
I soon discovered the importance of commitment and sacrifice to the Sikhs. On Giani Joginder Singh’s living room wall, were prints of many of the famous pictures from the Sikh Museum in Amritsar. They depicted the martyrdoms of Bhai Taru Singh, Bhai Mati Das, Bhai Mani Singh and other Sikh heroes, all shown with great, gory detail with the blood in full Technicolor. I was horrified and thought to myself “What am I getting into here?”
But the more I learned about the music, the more I began to understand the great tradition behind it. Only a few short weeks later, I was able to look at the same pictures and feel great love and inspiration.
Giani Joginder Singh was a professional ragi (singer of Sikh Sacred Music). Although I was very grateful to him for what he taught me and for the ongoing kindness and hospitality that he and his family showed towards me, I was secretly uncomfortable about his musical abilities. He was a quite competent singer and two of his sons were excellent tabla players. But it was not long before I knew that I would never be satisfied with any music that he could teach me. I was in a dilemma.
After my first lesson, Giani Joginder Singh invited me to accompany him to sing at the Central Gurdwara. In London, at that time, there were very few gurdwaras. These were spread out around the metropolitan area. At all these places, the main diwan (service) was held on a Sunday morning. The Central Gurdwara, however, was relatively close to the center of the city and held a diwan Sunday evening. Thus Sikhs from all over the Greater London area could gather.
That Sunday evening, I dutifully and apprehensively showed up in my usual outfit of white wool sweater, white jeans and white turban. Nowadays, all Sikhs know about the white clad American Sikhs; in 1971, nobody had ever seen anybody like me. I felt more than a little conspicuous and it was obvious that everyone else was aware of my presence.
When Giani Joginder Singh and family took to the stage for their program, he called me up to sit with them. At that point, I really felt like I was in a goldfish bowl. The fact that I had no idea what was being sung and was not able to read enough Gurmukhi script to sing with them, also made me feel highly conspicuous. After singing for a while, Giani Joginder Singh began talking to the sangat (congregation) in Punjabi. Even though I did not know the language, I could feel that he was talking about me. I felt most uncomfortable and I was very unimpressed by the music. I was having serious doubts about this whole undertaking.
Finally, Giani Joginder Singh’s program finished. I was mercifully allowed to return to the relative anonymity of the sangat where I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. This was hard as I was a) the only white-skinned, blond-haired human being in the whole place and b) the only person dressed from top to toe in white. A few of the ladies were wearing brightly colored salwar-kameez outfits, but most of the people there were dressed in London winter clothes: browns, dark blues, grays and blacks.
I was starting to wonder how I could gracefully slink out of there without offending Giani Joginder Singh, when I noticed something: there on the stage, getting ready to play, was another jatha (Kirtan group).
Suddenly my interest was piqued. There were five in the jatha, all men. Three sat in front, with two harmoniums and tablas; two more sat behind. The man in the middle of the front row, clearly the jathedar (leader of the group) was older, perhaps late forties or early fifties, while all the others were younger, late twenties to early thirties. The jathedar was clearly a formidable kind of guy. He had that kind of aura. He wore thick, horned-rimmed glasses and a beard that, while not trimmed, was relatively short for a Sikh his age. His beard was flecked with grey, giving it a “salt and pepper” effect. All five men wore black turbans, creating an ambiance of great intent and forcefulness. They looked really heavy, in the colloquial sense of the word.
The jathedar had a certain look in his eyes that captivated me. In my musical career, I noticed that many great musicians and singers would come on stage and survey the audience with a look in their eyes that said “I am here to kick some serious musical butt tonight”. Ali Akbar Khansahib was one. The jathedar, whoever he was, had that same look about him. He was there to play.
I could see him sitting there in that gurdwara, getting ready to do something that was going to be powerful. In musical parlance, I knew instinctively that something really baaad was about to happen.
How can I describe in words the effect that music had upon me? For all the power and inspiration I had experienced in Indian Classical music, particularly Ali Akbar Khansahib’s, what I heard that night took me a step further into my spirituality. That night’s Kirtan, while clearly based in Indian Classical music, married devotion and spiritual power. The whole jatha sang with a fervor that I had never before experienced.
I felt that, whatever emotions that man had inside him, which was clearly a lot, he was uninhibitedly pouring it into the music. He was transforming his emotions into overwhelming devotion without reservation. He was also clearly a pretty damn good musician and knew his raags. I sat transfixed for the 45 minutes of his set.
Later, I made some inquiries and found the jathedar was known as Giani Amolak Singh. He too lived in Southall, very close to Giani Joginder Singh. He had also come to the UK from Kenya. But, unlike, Giani Joginder Singh, he was not a professional ragi; he held down a day job. I also found out that Giani Amolak Singh was very involved with Sikh politics.
This created a dilemma for me. On one hand I was totally under the sway of Giani Joginder Singh. In my naïve state, I was powerless to do anything in the Sikh community without him. He was wonderfully kind to me and did so much for me. Although later I was to discover that he had his own agenda.
On the other hand was Giani Amolak Singh. He looked like such a formidable character that I was scared to even approach him. Yet I was so inspired by his music.
So, for months, I said nothing. This was no hardship. I continued to learn from Giani Joginder Singh, while looking forward to Sunday nights at the Central Gurdwara when, after sitting on stage with Giani Joginder Singh’s family, I was able to listen to my real inspiration, Giani Amolak Singh. Every Monday morning, around 4am, I would wake up with Giani Amolak Singh’s melodies from the previous evening resonating in my head and my heart.
As`a professional ragi, Giani Joginder Singh would, on weekends, be invited to people’s houses to sing. I soon learned that programs of devotional music in private homes, or Kirtan programs, are an essential and integral part of Sikh culture. Only a few weeks after I began to learn from him, Gianiji began to invite me to accompany him, and soon I was tagging along almost all of his programs.
So, my life became one of choices:
Would I rather teach yoga to a handful of somewhat disinterested white people for almost no money?
Or would I rather go to a house full of people, with high energy devotional music, plus great food afterwards, where I would probably get a chance to sing and pick up a little money. Then, leave and go to another house where I would get to repeat the process, becoming more and more energized (and full of excellent Indian food!) in the process. The only downside is that these people are brown and are from a different culture. You will almost certainly be the only white guy there, so you may get a little culture shock.
Not surprisingly, as a performer, most of the time I chose the Kirtan programs.
I can still remember the total embarrassment with which I sang my first shabad (lit: “word”, but meaning musical composition from Sikh Scripture) in public. Giani Joginder Singh and his family were wonderful. Sensing my nervousness, they sang along, loudly and with great energy which helped me enormously. That first hurdle being overcome, it was not long before I was quite confident about singing kirtan in public.
My first real test came in April, barely three months after I started to learn kirtan. April is the time of the Baisakhi festival, one of the most important, if not THE most important, Sikh Gurpurabs (religious celebration days). It is a very emotional time and all Sikhs use the occasion to remember Guru Gobind Singhji, the tenth master.
Giani Joginder Singh had taught me a shabad of Guru Gobind Singh, “Mitr Pyare Noon”, which excites very deep emotions amongst the Sikhs. Written after the sacrifice of all four of his sons, in this shabad, Guru Gobind Singh reflects on the bitterness of life without God’s presence. The melody I had learned was equally evocative of the emotion known in India as karuna, spiritual longing for God.
Gianiji had been invited to Slough to sing for their Basakhi celebration. In those days, there was no gurdwara in Slough and the celebration was being held in a school hall on a Sunday. I have no idea how many people were there but the place was packed, wall to wall.
Normally, at these kind of events, there is always a level of background conversation which often gets quite loud. It is the Indian way and everyone takes it for granted. But, when Giani Joginder Singh pushed his harmonium over to me and indicated that I should sing, you could have heard a pin drop.
The silence continued as I sang. At one of the instrumental interludes, where the only sound was my harmonium and the accompanying tabla, I almost jumped out of my skin when a man’s voice rang out, yelling at the top of his lungs: “Boley so neehaal”. And the rest of the sangat called in response “Sat sri akaal!” I think my heart must have skipped at least three or four beats. Was I doing something wrong? Only after quite a few seconds did I realize that they were paying me a great complement. Applause is not permitted in Gurdwara. The accepted way of showing great appreciation is by doing a jaikara, the Sikh cry of victory. Often this is done in a perfunctory manner, In this case, the way that the sangat called out, passionately and at length, meant that they were paying me the highest complement possible.
As much as I tried to ignore it, I could not help but notice that the top of my harmonium was covered in one and five pound notes. The sangat was also showing its appreciation in a more tangible form.
Throughout the spring and summer of that year (1971), my Kirtan singing went from strength to strength, while my yoga teaching made only slow progress. I received more invitations to go and sing at peoples’ homes and even at some gurdwaras.
If Giani Amolak Singh was my main source of musical inspiration, but I was fortunate enough to meet one of the great Ragis of all time, who also helped to shape my singing.
One summer day, I was walking down the railway bridge in Southall with a Sikh friend of mine, when I saw a sight that riveted me. Walking towards me, were three radiant men. They were all dressed alike in white kurta/pajama and their kirpans (Sikh ceremonial swords) were exposed and hanging beneath their left arms as called for by tradition.
One, tall and wiry in his build, was clearly older with a white beard. One was a young man with pleasant features and a black beard. The other looked to be of middle-age with grey flecks in his beard.
They were striding along the main street in Southall and radiating spiritual energy. When they saw me, they embraced me in turn, calling out “Waheguruji ka Khalsa, Waheguruji ki Fateh!”. This is a greeting used by orthodox Sikhs meaning “The Pure Ones belong to God, the Victory belongs to God!”
They were a ragi jatha that was visiting from India and staying at one of the gurdwaras in Southall. But this was not just any ragi jatha. Bhai (brother) Gurcharan Singh (the elder of the three) and his brother, Bhai Avtar Singh (the middle aged one), were from a family of ragis that could trace their lineage as musicians back three hundred years to the time of Guru Gobind Singh. The youngest was Bhai Swaran Singh, the tabla accompanist.
I was so impressed with their radiance and their warmth and obvious affection towards me. It was not until later that I found out just how deep their knowledge of Gurbani Kirtan was and how much respect they engendered in the Sikh community, all over the world.
I was able to attend many of their kirtan programs that summer. Their melodies and musical style had a great influence on me. However, I had to become much more musically competent to make use of what I learned from them.
After our first meeting in Southall, we became firm friends. I felt especially close to Bhai Avtar Singh, the most musically adept of the group. I would later run into them in the San Francisco area, in India, in New York and finally in Southern California in 1985 when they came to my home and stayed with us.
In August, I decided to I needed a recharge. Yogiji’s birthday was coming up (August 26th) and I knew that there would be a large celebration in Los Angeles. My original flight was cancelled. After a few adventures, I was rescheduled on a flight that landed at LAX early on the morning of the 26th.
When I saw Yogiji for the first time on my return, he treated me like a long, lost son. His energy was always overwhelming. When he took out his anger on you it was devastating; when he poured love and praise upon you everything was right in the Universe. From the time I arrived on August 26th until I left LA at the end of the following November, he poured positive energy into me. I felt so happy and loved, I had never felt like this in my life.
With Yogiji, it was never easy (most of the time impossible) to identify his motives. He would tell us that, if he treated you well and praised you, you were likely to be in a weak state while, if he reviled you and yelled at you, that was his way of showing you that you were strong enough to take it.
Certainly he seemed delighted that one of his students even had an idea of what Gurbani was, let alone that I could read it and sing it. He had taken to quoting in Indian language during his lectures. Much of it was Gurbani. When I returned from London, whenever he would quote Gurbani during a lecture, he would look directly at me and smile broadly. Quite likely he was delighted that, even if not understanding, someone had an idea of the source of much of his wisdom.
The Sunday after my arrival, the morning of August 29th, we all went to the Sikh Studies Circle. By now, I was an experienced ragi, so I had no hesitation in asking whoever was in charge of the program if I could sing. He looked at me a little incredulously. “What will you sing?” he asked, looking very doubtful.
I had brought my own little portable harmonium with me from the UK, so I showed it to him and explained that I was going to sing Gurbani Kirtan. It seemed that they still had a shortage of ragis, so he grudgingly agreed to let me sing.
Yogiji must have been in hog heaven that day. Here was one of his own, showing the Indians that white boys could sing the blues. OK, sorry, wrong metaphor but I think you get the point. He never lost an opportunity to have a dig at Dr. Marwah, whom he jokingly referred to as his elder brother. And my presence did cause quite a stir. Even today, I can picture the shock on the face of Dr. Hakam Singh, the vice president of the gurdwara, when he came in, saw me and realized that I was singing Gurbani.
During the three months that I stayed in the US, I would travel with Yogiji and attend the courses that he taught. He continued to treat my like I was part of his own family and pour love and praise into me. I was quite intoxicated with all this love and spiritual energy and I was ready to sing with my portable harmonium whenever I was asked.
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