Punjab to Southall: An Indian migrant’s musical journey
Channi Singh introduced a new genre of bhangra to Asian youth caught between two cultures.
There are many success stories in diaspora communities linked to the Indian subcontinent in various countries. Migrants who found new homes have excelled in various fields, including business, politics, education and culture. Some adapt too quickly to new environs, amusingly taking on new accents and even new (Anglicised) names, while others succeed by retaining their roots and growing in host countries.
Channi Singh, often described as the ‘godfather of bhangra’, is one such individual, who arrived in London in 1976, went on achieve several milestones in his music career over the decades, but retains the easy, earthy affability associated with people with roots in Punjab. It is fair to say that for one born in the Salar village in Malerkotla, who as a child would often sing Man dole, mera tan dole from Nagin (1954) in exchange for a paisa when requested by his teacher, and later dabbled in wrestling, Singh has come a long way.
A long-time resident of Southall, Singh recalls that he graduated from Government College, Malerkotla, and completed his MA in English Literature from DAV College, Jalandhar. His journey in music wasn’t easy initially. He was a disciple of Baldev Narang, an exponent of classical music. He auditioned at the Jalandhar station of All India Radio and for some recording companies, but was rejected on every occasion. After his marriage to Dhanwant Kaur, he moved to London, where his journey in music slowly but surely broke barriers in Britain at the time and reached new heights, introducing a new genre of bhangra to Asian youth caught between two cultures.
Over the last four decades, Singh says he and his group Alaap, formed in 1977, began by performing in temples and small community events, and went on to perform in every major performing centre in Britain and Europe before hundreds of thousands of people, including members of the royal family. His albums have sold in millions, finding a mention in the Guinness Book of Records for “the most successful and longest running Bhangra band” and for “most Bhangra recordings produced”. In 2012, he was honoured with an OBE for services to bhangra music, charity and community. The same year he was also invited to perform in 10 Downing Street by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, with his daughter, Mona Singh, a popular British Asian singer in her own right.
Alaap, he recalls, became the first modern bhangra band to be invited by world leaders, global music organisations and mainstream TV channels to represent Punjabi culture. Alaap was the first bhangra band to perform on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4; for the peace-keeping forces in Bosnia; the Commonwealth delegates in Trinidad & Tobago; for the Princes Trust; for Imran Khan’s Cancer Appeal at the Natural History Museum; and he collaborated with leading singers and musicians from the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere.
Singh went on compose music in Bollywood films such as Feroz Khan’s Yalgaar (1992) and Janasheen (2003) and KC Bokadia’s Shaktiman (1993). He claims some of his original compositions have been lifted without acknowledgement in films such as Dil (1990), Hatya (1988) and Aashiq (2001). He collaborated with Asha Bhosle for his Platinum selling album Chham chham nachdi phiran.
Singh’s royal honour also recognises his charity work in Hounslow, where, since 1989, he has been providing free meals four days a week to the needy, including those homeless, ailing, in shelter homes or those in difficult situations after falling out with family. His wife runs a charity called Kar Seva Foundation, providing medical and other services in Punjab. Singh has also organised and performed at various charity concerts over, helping raise funds and awareness for many causes.
“I have been lucky, the family supported, Mona now guides me,” Singh says with a hint of satisfaction recalling his journey from a village in Punjab to heights of global music.
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