London is currently home to four young singers who bring their different backgrounds and musical heritage to the creation of bold new music. Seetal Kaur Gahir took the opportunity to talk to Sohini Alam, Ranjana Ghatak, Ambika Jois and Japjit Kaur.
Irrepressible, expressive and impulsive, the voice is a fascinating human faculty that can both touch the heart and baffle the mind. In cultures around the world, the voice can be found resonating, but all too often it is the female voice that is stifled. However, there are many that have broken through and risen to become icons of eras. Nina Simone’s fearless cries, Maria Callas’ soaring notes and Lata Mangeshkar’s sweet melodies have all lifted music to new heights along with many others both past and present. Now a new generation of pioneering female voices is rising in the UK, each with her own unique sound.
Raised in Dhaka in her paternal grandparents’ home, Sohini Alam moved to Bangladesh from the UK after her mother passed away when she was young. Possessing a rich, deep and powerful voice, her gift may have been inherited as Hiron Alam, Sohini’s mother, had been an acclaimed singer and music teacher. Her two aunts, Jannat Ara and Ferdous Ara, trained Sohini primarily in Nazrul Sangeet as well as in Tagore, folk and patriotic songs. “They taught me not just to sing or enunciate or open up my voice to be strong and clear, but also to use vocals to tell stories in ways that reach people emotionally,” Sohini remembers. Her training stays with her to this day, as she believes that singing combines words and sounds to evoke emotions in a way that sets it apart from instrumental music.
After studying in the US, Sohini eventually moved to London. Most people who take up music professionally may be seen as unconventional but Sohini rebelled against her musical family by getting an office job, even though it didn’t last long. “At one point, I realised that I’d used up my entire year’s holiday allowance within six months, and I had more shows coming up. I knew then that I had to choose, and I suddenly realised that there was no way I’d give up the music.” Although it’s sometimes difficult to live from pay-cheque to pay-cheque, Sohini has been able to find a steady stream of work and many of her projects have been highly acclaimed. She plans to continue building her sound through British-Bengali band Khiyo’s debut album, recording and performing with world-music collective Lokkhi Terra, and writing original songs for State of Bengal. Sohini also takes on her own projects with Tara Arts and Komola Collective, which she co-founded. “As a Londoner, I have ended up working with traditional Bengali music but giving it a London sound. The way I place the notes and the syllables is atypical because it comes from someone who has had homes in three different continents.” With an admiration for mighty Sufi vocalists Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, Sohini has so far been very successful at blending her Bengali heritage with Western instrumentation and a forward-thinking mind.
Also a British Bengali, Ranjana Ghatak draws upon a background of Hindustani classical music and a wide range of influences to feed into her creative work. Her soft, sweet voice weaves compositions and melodies in numerous ragas but her relationship with Indian classical music hasn’t always been such a romantic affair. “As a teenager I started to lose interest in my Indian heritage, something which I imagine is quite common when growing up in a different culture. However, my music teacher at school really encouraged my exploration of Indian music, which piqued my interest. After university I went to Kolkata and started learning with Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty (the Hindustani classical vocalist) …That was a real milestone in my learning journey, as it felt like an awakening, by learning from him.” Ranjana now feels connected to the sound of Indian singing and is also excited by the many other types of music that she’s grown up around in London. After working as a project manager for an orchestra, she took up music full-time in 2012, having always had a nagging urge to just sing. With a beaming bright smile and bags of curiosity, Ranjana is now creating new music and experimenting with two bands, the Ranjana Ghatak Quartet and Open Souls, alongside workshops and teaching work. “I feel really happy when people enjoy listening to a performance who wouldn’t normally listen to the kind of music I perform. More and more people seem to be searching for something to bring them a sense of inner peace, and I find that Indian vocal music can sometimes bring that.” Ranjana’s fans come from all walks of life and are waiting to see where her voice will take her next.
Ambika Jois brings ‘Indioul’ to the British music scene: a personal blend of soulful singing with the traditional music of India. Resonating vibrato, stunning vocal acrobatics and unexpected ‘gamakams’ or ornamentations of Carnatic music are the hallmarks of Ambika’s versatile vocal range. Guided by her father, Violin Chandru, Ambika didn’t just grow up around music but pursued it with a passion. “I have always been singing in one form or another, through school, college, university and beyond. I don’t think I can see a life without music in it… There are many ways to make money but nothing beats learning, exploring, discovering myself on a spiritual level with music and finding the right teams to work with which keeps me content. It’s now just a beautiful adventure that gives me new things to work with.” Having performed with a range of artists and bands in prestigious venues and festivals around the country, Ambika is still discovering new paths and perfecting her unique sound. The diversity in her music appeals to a wide range of fans. As she says: “The aunties and uncles love when I sing an old Lata Ji classic, and my younger friends cheer more when they hear me sing Alicia Keys.” Now Ambika is aiming for great heights and targeting the masses with her blend of Indian and Western music: she recently performed with Kasabian on Later with Jools Holland and will be performing at the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July with Rax Timyr Productions, with whom she’s currently signed. But it’s the expression and truthful values of singing that Ambika really connects to. “[Singing] is a special energy that I sense connecting me to God and the ability to love and feel loved… When I’m older I see myself as a music therapist for disabled children. This is something I’ve always wanted to do and am pretty sure will complete my life.”
Hailing from Delhi, Chandigarh and Haryana, Japjit Kaur may have had humble beginnings in Punjab but she’s risen rapidly in recent years to make a formidable impact on the British Asian media, music and theatre scene. “I’ve been in love with music since I was a child and I knew I wanted to have music in my life. I experimented with a lot of things but never thought I could have music as a career, especially because that’s what people around me always told me, too.” From writing original songs and touring with different bands to singing for TV, radio and film, Japjit’s work spans a range of disciplines and she was also appointed as Musical Director for the National Theatre in 2007. With a multi-lingual background, Japjit can craft poems and lyrics in many Indian languages. She credits popular producer Niraj Chag for guiding and mentoring her musical journey since 2006. Most recently, Japjit has been channelling her passion for acting and has toured with the widely-known and moving Nirbhaya, giving a voice to women who have suffered sexual abuse. Now she’s focusing her melodious voice on her first single and experimenting with new sounds while constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity and expression. “The voice, I believe, is a window to your soul. I use singing as a vehicle to communicate, it’s a way of expressing myself.”
Although all four artists may have completely different stories, journeys and backgrounds, what unites them is their courage, passion and perseverance in creating bold, new music with the traditional sounds of their heritage. It is a brave path to choose, and one that will take British music through uncharted territories and into the future.