I’ve found myself telling stories of my own musical history lately, in response to people asking about my research interests. In many ways, my musical experiences – or at least the ones I validated without a second thought – shouldn’t have added allowed me to get this far on their own. I’ve come to realise that I had lots of musical experiences that until now I haven’t acknowledged enough. Of these, I think those linked to my cultural and religious upbringing are most significant, as until recently I haven’t ever mentioned them in my musical history. I’m on a mission to find some old photos of these experiences, but it might take a while so I’m posting without for now.
Part 1 – listening, singing along, dancing. As a very young child – I must have been 3 or 4 – I pestered my dad to put on old records and tapes on his big sound system, and I’d run around in circles on this big patterned rug we had, until I was exhausted. It wasn’t difficult to track down information on this album by British-Punjabi singer Sangeeta, as I’ve never forgotten what the cover looked like.
One thing I didn’t realise at that age, was that the album was made by Kuljit Bhamra, a pivotal figure in British Asian music, who I had the privilege of working with a few years ago. I think this positive engagement as a child reinforced my love of music. Listening, singing and dancing to music remain some of my favourite things to do.
Part 2 – Learning how to play an instrument. Around the age of 6, I had my first taste of music education – learning music within a religious context. This wasn’t the first time I had an instrument to play, but it’s the first formal learning experience I can identify. Music is an integral part of the Sikh faith – hymns are sung, accompanied by instruments, prayers are read melodically, and the whole congregation participates in this. Here’s a link to SikhiWiki where you can find out more. I’ve been exposed to music in this way since I was born.
It was a given, really, that when I was old enough I would join a class learning hymns, and how to accompany myself on the harmonium. My older sister and cousins also went to these classes with me, there was no sense of musical hierarchy among learners – the purpose of this musical learning went beyond these conceptions.
This was an ordinary part of my upbringing, alongside language classes to learn Punjabi. Even though I spent years learning music in this way, with little written guidance – so effectively learning by watching, listening and memorising – I wasn’t able to define these skills and relate them to these experiences until recently. This learning overlapped with the first years of learning the flute, in my teens, but I always kept the two mutually exclusive of one another – I wonder if I didn’t see room for overlap because the nature of learning and the skills I was using were completely different.
So, I’ve so far figured out that I was an avid listener, loved to sing and dance to music, had fairly formal instrumental learning experiences, which involved learning by ear, watching the teacher, and then memorising the instrumental parts to practice during the week – and that was all from the cultural and religious part of my life. I’ll continue soon with more general musical experiences, and some pretty important things I did at home…
I’d love to know what your own musical stories are, so please comment and share them!