Dya Singh's impact on the world music stage has been short of phenominal. He sings about spirituality in his native Punjabi (with occasional English explanations) and blends traditional music with modern and contemporary trends. He has single-handedly taken the traditional Sikh spiritual music of his ancestral Punjab (frontier province on the border of present day India and Pakistan, south of Afghanistan) into the world music stage reaching out from his source indigenous music to fusion with music from other parts of the world. He attributes his unique music to his birth and formative years in multiracial Malaysia, to staunch Sikh parents (his father was a Sikh missionary and minstrel sent to Malaysia from Punjab), and the multicultural opportunities in Australia. Today Dya Singh heads one of the foremost 'world' music groups in Australia named after him and has six albums in seven short years. The group was born in 1993. He has twice been awarde d 'Instrumentalist of the year' by SAMIA (South Australian Music Industry awards). The group has twice been nominated 'World Music Group of the year' winning it once. The group now travels widely throughout the world and is highly acclaimed by both Sikh and alternative mainstream audiences.
The basis of the music is Sikh (spiritual), Punjabi and North Indian (in that order). This, being Dya Singh's narrower background. It then embraces music virtually from any other part of the globe including blues, jazz, folk (all kinds), country & western, country, Australian indigenous, bush, etc. The only criteria laid is that it should enhance the universal spiritual messages of truth, love, peace, harmony, equality and justice that Dya Singh stands for. Influences to date within the music of Dya Singh include Vietnamese zither (dang thranh), Southern European gypsy violinist, European flute, Polish dolcimer, blues and electric guitar, bouzouki, didgeridoo, Nepalese drums and tabla, Irish bohdran and irish fiddle.
Dya Singh finds that 'Sikh' music currently strictly means kirtan (hymn singing with harmonium and tablas) within the confines of Sikh gurdwaras (houses of worship). This narrow and static music has reached a stalemate played by (in the majority) less than proficient musicians who are being churned out without proper coaching from Punjab and heard by diminishing numbers of Sikh adults who listen to it not because they enjoy it but because it is one path to salvation; and even less numbers of Sikh youth and children because it is not attractive and also because the profound message it carries, is not relayed sincerely and with music pallatable to the younger generation.
Dya Singh believes Sikh music needs radical 'evolution' towards universality and greater acceptability especially to the younger generation of Sikhs especially those born overseas (outside India). The only other group of Sikhs who appear to be doing something towards this greater universality of Sikh music are white American Sikhs who have effectively introduced gurbani (Sikh scriptures) to western music.
The music of Dya Singh firstly digs deep into the vast reservoir of Sikh and Punjabi classical, spiritual and folk music. It then reaches out to music from other parts of humankind, giving it a truly universal feel. This helps to portray the universal messages as espoused in the holy writings of Sikh and other Indian sages included in the holy scriptures and 'guru' of the Sikhs, the Guru granth Sahib.
Dya Singh sings in his native Punjabi with the occasional explanation in English. But the true joy and upliftment of the music of Dya Singh is the spiritual feelings and passion with which the group presents its music and sentiments.
GURBANI IN "WORLD MUSIC"
In the southern hemisphere, away from the stern and restraining eye of the traditional Sikh establishment, no less than a revolution in Gurbani sangeet has been taking place over the last decade. With the production of Dya Singh's highly acclaimed CD "300" which won Dya Singh the "Male Artist of the Year" World Music Awards held in Sydney, Australia, in March, 2000, that revolution is now nearly complete. Dya Singh of Australia is a household name in the multi-cultural "world music".
Formed in 1992, Dya Singh's "World Music Group" has emerged as one of the most sought after music groups in Australia, Southeast Asia and western countries like the USA and Canada. The group has performed in countries as far away as Japan. Sardar Tarlochan Singh, Vice Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities (India), wrote to Dya Singh in June, 2000:
"Let me thank you and your colleagues for doing a pioneer work in spread of Gurbani and attracting large number of non-Sikhs all over the world. I have been feeling for long time that people at large are not aware that Guru Granth is the only religious book which is composed in music. This aspect has not been publicised by us."
Press quotations give some idea of the Dya Singh's impact and range of music blends:
"In the space of two hours, Dya Singh's material ranged from incantations to...Sikh hymns, ragas and Asian classical music. The talent of the performers, the range of the music they played, the deep spirituality which infused their performance, all made this a memorable evening." - Sydney Morning Herald
"A unique blend of mystical North Indian music with Western Folk.......that has captivated everyone who has heard it." - (Singapore Arts Festival)
Says Barbara Roberts of InFOLKus Magazine: "Dya Singh's incredible voice amazed me, at times quietly sensitive, at others overwhelmingly powerful, and always with the purest melody." Indeed, Dya Singh's voice range appears to have no limit, yet it always remains well controlled and melodious. Another commentator has described the experience of listening to Dya Singh simply as "A voyage into the heart".
Dya Singh's unique experiment with the globalisation of Gurbani sangeet could only have happened in Australia, that remote continent. Born on the Vaisakhi day in 1950 in Malaysia to a devout Sikh couple, Dya Singh inherited Gurbani and sangeet from his father, Giani Harchand Singh Bassian of Malaysia. Expert press comment and the universal popularity of Dya Singh confirm that he is regarded as one of Australia's best examples of the dynamics of multiculturalism at its best. He has collaborated with many leading musicians in Australia. His choice of musical instrument's and talent is equally adventurous. In addition to his three highly gifted daughters, Dheeraj Shresta, a classical tablchi from Nepal, provides the beat on various "drum" instruments as required (tabla, mardang, dhols, drums etc.), Keith Preston, another highly talented artist (and Group Manager), plays Greek bouzouki (a cousin of ancient Sikh rabaab or rebeck), electric guitar, san toor and bohdran. Andrew Clermont, another member of the core gr oup, specialises in violin and the Australian didgeridoo - a sacred deep sounding Australian aboriginal wind instrument - the Group has special permission from the elders of the aborigines to play this forty thousand years old instrument in their spiritual music. This is the core group but other well-known Australian artists e.g. Cicilia Kemezys (European flutes), join in as guest artists from time to time. The group is popular at festivals and on the local and national television and radio.
Gurbani shabads (including English translations), provide the entrancing meaningfulness to the popular and semi-classical tunes (bandash) played by the musicians. A retired Sikh Indian Airforce Wing Commander (speaking to the author) said once that he was not a very religious man and did not have an ear for Gurbani kirtan. That is, not until, he heard Dya Singh. After that, without fail, when driving, he turned on his car cassette player to listen to the Dya Singh and children and was immediately enchanted by the introductory Mool Mantar sung to eastern/western musical instruments and the hum of the Australian didgeridoo..
Initially, the music appealed more to the next generation Sikhs and Western ears. Observers commented that the group created an entirely original genre of World music. Gurbani is the central theme but the strong spiritual impact of Gurbani is such that it harnesses and guides the raag, rhythm and beat, (even western beats) and promotes an atmosphere of joy and peaceful contentment.
What about Dya Singh's impact on the eastern ear more used to traditional Gurbani kirtan? A well-known Sikh classical ragi used to say "Dya Singh Ji you have great talent but you are sometimes careless about the rules of raag. Stay with me for one or two years and you will be amongst the best in the Sikh world." Dya Singh's typical jovial response used to be "But Giani Ji, that is precisely the reason why I am avoiding ragis lest they put me in the straight-jacket of raags !" But Dya Singh has in fact heeded the advice of great Sikh ragis and based his popular music on classical raags even for mixed eastern-western performances. His latest albums "Gurbani Yatra" and "Bandagi" based more on traditional kirtan have been widely acclaimed by lovers of traditional Gurbani kirtan.
Yet, his style remains unique and has great appeal for the new generation. So much so that during his globe trotting tours, young Sikhs travel long distances to listen to him. Outside south-east Asia, Dya Singh is becoming increasingly popular. The American Sikhs who have adopted Sikhism from a western (ideological and musical) background are keen to know more about traditional Sikh music. They readily relate to Dya Singh bridge building effort and after some coaching in interpretation by Dya Singh (accompanied by Dhiraj Shreshta, the Nepalese Tabla maestro) they have begun to develop a "taste" for traditional Gurbani sangeet. In the year 2000, Dya Singh spent over a month with American Singhs who are keen to know more about traditional Gurbani sangeet.
While Dya Singh already has a wide audience base in the USA and Canada, his music albums are also in great demand in the UK and amongst the East African Sikh community.
Outside the Gurdwaras, this talented and pioneering Sikh sangeetkar is successfully taking the message of Guru Nanak to the young Sikhs and the multi-cultural audiences world-wide. While some traditionalists may frown at his novel but popular approach, the Sikh community world-wide will be hearing more from and feel proud of Dya Singh of Australia. Others are likely to follow in his footsteps, as part of the process of taking the universal message of Guru Nanak to the world and into the 21st Century.
Dya Singh of Australia and the Sikh Gurbani tradition: The underlying criterion for the raag bases selected by Guru Sahiban was that Gurbani kirtan should enhance the spiritual message of Gurbani and induce a mood of meditation and spiritual equipoise (sehaj anand).
Dya Singh's interpretation - Dya Singh always stresses - of Gurbani sangeet in the language of world music needs to be looked at in the light of some facts about traditional Sikh music as popularised by Guru Sahiban. Dya Singh's underlying base is distinctly that of Gurbani raags the popularisation of which also remains his ultimate goal. This is what Dya Singh's Internet Web site says about his Gurbani sangeet interpreted into World Music: "The basis of the music is Sikh (spiritual), Punjabi and North Indian in that order. This being Dya Singh's narrower background. It then embraces music virtually from any other part of the globe.....Dya Singh finds that Sikh music currently strictly means kirtan (hymn singing with harmonium and tablas) within the confines of the Gurdwaras (houses of worship). This narrow and static music has reached a stalemate played by (in the majority) less than proficient musicians who are being churned out without proper coaching from Punjab and heard by diminishing number of Sikh adults .....and even less number of Sikh children....Dya Singh believes Sikh music needs radical "evolution" towards universality and greater acceptability especially to the younger generation of Sikhs especially those born overseas (outside India). "
Gurbani sangeet tradition It needs to be remembered that Guru Nanak Dev Ji took the universal message of Gurbani out to the people. Gurbani is in the popular languages of India, including many middle eastern languages. Gurbani is to be sung not only in classical raags but also popular folk tunes, rhythms and beats.
Some facts about Gurbani kirtan, the raag bases, folk tunes, beats and rhythms are as follows:
WHAT SOME CRITICS ARE SAYING:
... In short, Dya Singh is following in the Guru's footsteps: taking 'gurbani' (the 'word') out to the people, (and not confining it to the gurdwaras) in their own language and in popular beat and rhythm to which the audience can relate. Guru Nanak Dev Ji did exactly that. The underlying criterion is that of deep spirituality and equipoise - also the main criterion for Gurbani raag bases. Gurmukh Singh, Rtd. Principal, (Sikh Missionary Society, UK).
"...electrifying..." I.J.Singh (New York), Occasional Sikh Writer & Guest Editor of Sikh Review.
Dya Singh is a landmark Australian musical and cultural accomplishment...Its time to take to the world stage has arrived. David Sly - The Advertiser, Adelaide, Sth. Australia
Dya Singh's incredible voiced amazed me...at times quietly sensitive, at others overwhelmingly powerful...and always with the purest of melody. Barbara Roberts - InFOLKus Magazine, Australia
In the space of two hours, Dya Singh's material ranged from incantations to Punjabi spiritual folk songs, meditations, Sikh hymns, ragas, qawali singing and Asiatic classical music. The talent of the performers, the range of the music they played, the deep spirituality which infused their performance, all made this a memorable evening. Bruce Elder - Sydney Morning Herald
Their amazing music is on the cutting edge of 'multi-faithism', the dialogue within faiths which the whole world is now experiencing. Father Jeff Foale, CP, AM.