Steeped in North Indian Classical Tradition, Jasdeep Singh Degun's New Album: Anomaly
Lie back. Surrender to the undertow. Feel yourself floating away.
Submit to the beauty and sorrow, the poetry and power, of the sitar – that plucked string instrument with the long neck, pear-shaped gourd and origins in the courts of the Maharajahs of medieval India.
Marvel at the astonishing prowess of Jasdeep Singh Degun, who is steeped in the North Indian classical tradition – indeed, in the musical traditions of the Indian subcontinent - and proudly born, raised and based in Leeds, north of England.
"My language is music, " says Degun. "Music is where I come alive."
Anomaly is not just any debut album. It is a project that showcases an almost preternatural musicality, a way with technique, improvisation, composition and collaboration that will dazzle purists and newcomers alike.
A work whose twelve tracks range from inspired sitar solos and duelling sitar and guitar to all stops out cinematic journeying. Music rooted in the ancient repertoire of raags, the frameworks used in the improvised performances of Indian classical music, and delivered with contemporary flair.
Soothing. Healing. Energising. Bringing us closer to ourselves.
"Each track tells a story of my life, and each has something that makes it distinct, " says Degun, 30, sitting at home in a room dotted with instruments: piano, guitar, tabla hand drum and a sitar custom made in India by the Rikhi Ram company, sitar makers for the likes of George Harrison, Vilayat Khan and Ravi and Anoushka Shankar.
"Growing up in England I've soaked up different influences, " he continues in his earthy, good-natured way. "I've studied Western classical music. I appreciate composers like Mahler and Mozart and film composers like A. R Rahman and John Williams. I've done studio sessions for artists such as Guy Chambers and Cerys Matthews and have written, arranged and produced music for orchestras, big music productions and contemporary classical ensembles.
"Sometimes I've compromised." A smile. "Here I had free rein to get my vision across."
As befits an artist whose free time is spent improvising with Indian classical musician friends, collaboration was vital. There are 33 musicians on Anomaly including a 16-piece string ensemble and celebrated British Asian musician-producer Nitin Sawhney - Degun's mentor on the 2016 Sky Academy Arts Scholarship that kick-started the project.
Along with a dozen musicians from the British Asian community: sitarist Roopa Panesar, South Indian percussionist Pirashanna Thevarajah, esraj violinist Kirpal Panesar. Each of them a guru-trained virtuoso, and beyond the Indian classical music circuit, a treasure hiding in plain sight.
"There are so many brilliant musicians from the Indian classical community in this country but they are not signed to any western label, " says Degun. "I have looked and looked and rarely found any turbaned, bearded Sikh guys like me represented. I want to change that."
The second son of non-musical parents born in the North Indian state of Punjab, Degun was a small boy when he began devotional kirtan singing at the Sikh Temple in north Leeds, and vocal training with an Indian classical teacher, an Ustad, while at primary school.
Aged 15 he commenced his study of the sitar under Ustad Dharambir Singh MBE, a master of the North Indian gayaki ang singing style – which mimics the human voice via a gliding, pulling string technique called meend - as created and taught to him in turn by the legendary sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan.
"I worked as hard at becoming a musician as if I were studying to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer, which are the professions Indian parents often expect of their kids, " Degun says.
"The teacher/student tradition in Indian classical music has parallels with Sikhism. Sikh means 'seeker' or 'learner'. In all the projects I do, even if I'm simply having coffee with Anoushka, Nitin or any of the British Asian musicians that influenced me growing up" – and who now attend his recitals - "I'm always soaking up information."
The learning never stops, he adds. "Your Ustad will always remind you that you are never bigger than the music you are serving."
Ustad Dharambir Singh informed and continues to inspire Degun's life. Arguably Britain's foremost Indian classical musicians and educators, he was the founder and artistic director of SAMYO, the UK's first national youth orchestra for Indian music, and artistic advisor for Tarang, the first South Asian senior ensemble. He established South Asian Arts (SAA-UK), and as a lecturer at Leeds College of Music set up a Sunday school for gifted Indian classical musicians under the age of 18. Degun was involved in them all.
"Every single Indian classical musician in Britain has links with my teacher, " says Degun, who obtained a degree from SOAS, University of London before undertaking a six-month stint at Sangeet Research Academy, a top conservatoire in Kolkata, North India.
"It is thanks to Ustad Dharambir Singh that British Asian musicians know both the music of North and South India, which is rarely the case with musicians on the subcontinent itself. Being here in the UK makes us arguably more versatile and plugged into music as a whole.
"The scene is small; we all know each other. For Anomaly I picked the best of the best."
As he did musicians on everything from piano, synthesisers, kit drums and bass guitar to the Millennia String ensemble conducted by eminent composer/arranger Sally Herbert. With producer David McEwan (Nitin Sawhney), who co-produced Anomaly with Degun.
Sawhney proved an invaluable mentor. "As an Indian classical musician you're always improvising, never fixing anything down. When it came to composing I was like, "How do I even know what sort of journey to go on?' Nitin suggested starting with a title that has an emotional connection - relationships, grief, whatever - and let it drive my response."
So we have the eponymous title track, the album's opener, in which esraj, tabla and harp-like swarmandal vie and blend with cello, guitar and singing, sensuous sitar, on a binaural recording - a 3D stereo sound sensation - that brings the listener into the studio.
Featuring just sitar and strings, the sublime 'Veer' is based on a Panjabi folk song ('Ours is a flock of birds, dear father/We'll fly away'), and a track that showcases the emotional range of Degun's sitar playing while
also paying homage to his younger brother Taran, who passed away in 2021. "The title is associated with courage and valour, " Degun says.
'Translucence' was written and produced in collaboration with Nitin Sawhney, who contributes guitar and programming. "We began with a raag called Yaman, which urges us to express humility, picking up the time signature and going from there. Our instruments call and answer each other, and Nitin had me singing in the background.
"An Indian classical musician should be able to vocalise everything they play." Another smile. "But sing on a recording? I never thought I'd be doing that."
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