Celebrating women of colour in the arts (part 1)

The heavens have opened, and kaleidoscope clouds set free showers of rainbow colours. The world is drenched in effervescent shades of blue, green, pink, and more which can only mean that Holi has arrived. But, as fortune would have it, the festivities are about to get even brighter as walking by its side this year is International Women's Day! 

It is a powerhouse moment where we turn to the ancient Hindu festival of colours to usher in spring, celebrate new life, and the triumph of good over evil. At the same time, we are dedicating this day to illuminating the wonderful achievements of women who have bravely broken-down barriers of inequality to give others the chance to relish in the green pastures of opportunities that have long been denied to them. 

So, in celebration of this momentous occasion, we at SAA-uk are honouring musicians Sukhmani Rayat and Satnam Galsian in a two-part series that illuminates the journey of two inspirational women of colour from Leeds. Through music and art, they empower all women to embrace their bold, brave, and creative spirit. We sat down in an eye-opening conversation with them both, and here is their story… 

As one of the world's few female tabla players, Sukhmani Kaur Rayat has broken the mould and defied the traditional expectations placed on women, unapologetically proving that there is nothing women can't do. Her dreamy beats and empowering lyrics uplift and strengthen, and she's here with a passionate reminder; “you're going where they've never been, so show them how”! 

SAA-uk: How did you discover music, and specifically, how did your love for the tabla come to be? 

Sukhmani: I feel like I really attribute that to my parents.  My parents were immigrants to the UK, and that gave them a really eclectic music taste. My dad was really into reggae, my mum was into James Brown. So, yeah, Blondie, UB40, James Brown was like the soundtrack in our room, and, classical Sikh, Kirtan, Ghazals, and qawwali. My love of tabla came a little later when we moved out of the house and moved to Leeds. My brother was put into tabla classes, and I was put into harmonium and singing. Whether it was that I really loved rhythm, or I loved the sound of the instrument or I just really wanted to be like my brother, when he would leave his tabla after practicing, I would sneak into his room and try to copy what he did. My mum must have noticed that happening, so she pulled me from the other classes and sent me to tabla class in Leeds, and that was it really. I never looked back from there. 
SAA-uk: Tabla has long been a male dominated instrument, did that deter you at all from pursuing it as a career? 

Sukhmani: I was really fortunate that when I started around 10 or 11, SAA-uk had in place a big tabla scheme where I was learning in a group of women, so that was really wonderful for me because there was around 6 or 7 of us. Don't get me wrong, while there was 6 or 7 of us at one time there was like 40 or 50 men, so I was always aware that we were the minority. But I always felt really safe and encouraged, and with the learning environment itself, I didn't feel any different. I really started noticing the struggles I might have, or the doubts kicked in more when I was considering doing it as a career. I do think things have got a lot better, but there are definitely expectations on women, South Asian women especially, to do something that's not in the arts, or there are many other avenues that people expect you to go down. That was something that really translated strongly into how I felt about it myself. It felt like wow, I've learnt this instrument and spent so much time practicing and growing as a student in tabla, but can I really do this? And because there wasn't really that example or the outside encouragement that you can do this with your life, I said no to a lot of things because I was really afraid.  
SAA-uk: How did you push past that fear and decide to pursue music as a career? 

Sukhmani: In terms of overcoming that, I think doing it more and more and one thing that really stands out is the time I was on tour in Europe. It was a big tour, it was the biggest gig I had done and I referred to myself as an amateur musician. One of the musicians was like, what are you talking about because at that point I had been touring and travelling and doing the things you would do as a “professional musician” for 6 or 7 years. Somebody actually saying that to me made me take a moment and say, I can do this. After the 6-week tour, I went back home, quit my job and it was terrifying because I was thinking can I do this thing that I love and sustain myself, and it turned out that by quitting, all the hours that I was using at my day job made space to do more in terms of music.  
SAA-uk: Many aspiring artists may share the same reservations you had earlier on in your career about music being a stable pathway to follow. Why did you initially feel that way, and how did you come to the realisation that music could indeed be a fruitful career? 

Sukhmani: I felt like it was something that was unattainable and that you had to be really well known to be able to sustain yourself with music. Personally, I didn't have connections in my immediate circle that were following this path until I started to travel and see for myself what was possible. I hadn't had enough conversations with people or done enough research to really know how to make it happen, so it was a lot of trial and error. I was fortunate enough to have lots of opportunities coming my way, and I just had to say “yes” to make them happen, but because of the doubt, I was saying no. I had to learn a lot on my feet to figure out how do people do this and to recognise that you don't need to be a huge artist to be able to sustain yourself in a career of music.  
SAA-uk: How did the opportunities you mention find their way to you at a time when you were an upcoming artist? 

Sukhmani: Before I went to university, I took a year out and that was an amazing thing for me because I travelled a lot and took my tabla with me most of the time. I ended up playing at festivals and different events, and that was it. That year, I felt like I got out and about and was playing and practicing everywhere I was going, and I would come across people who wanted a tabla player for a tour that was happening that year. So, I would go on that tour and be invited to go record somewhere. It was willing to step out of my comfort zone and say, " Okay, wherever the road takes me, I'm going to go!” 
: For aspiring musicians who wish to pursue music, what advice would you give? 

Sukhmani: I would say, you need to go for it; just do it! Don't put crazy pressure on yourself or expect your best, most positive results every time. It's kind of like everything you do is a diary entry of that time in your life, and that's beautiful for what it is. I would also say you belong wherever it is you want to place yourself, and you know that more than anyone. Where you go, there is so much support. There are people who will uplift you and connect you in that environment. So, even if it's scary or unattainable, give it a try. There are allies for us as young women in these places we're not used to being in, but we also have to insert ourselves to be allies for people who have even more obstacles than we do! 
SAA-uk: Women of colour in the popular music landscape is still an extremely barren space. Did you face any obstacles breaking through this scene as a South Asian woman? 

Sukhmani: There were a few times when I was aware that it was unexpected for me to be taking up this particular space. At some of the first places I performed at, I'd be heading up to the stage, and immediately, seeing a woman walking over, a man would assume a seat by the tabla though that was where I was supposed to be… A lot of the time, sound engineers and producers, majority of the time are men. While I do believe there a lot of men who are extremely supportive and are allies, I have experienced the friction when you speak up for yourself. For example, when you start to have opinions about the way your instrument sounds on stage or in the studio. The journey of being a woman of colour in music mirrors finding your place and your voice in your day-to-day life.  
SAA-uk: In your opinion, what can be done to make the music scene a more accessible place for women of colour? 

Sukhmani: I was lucky because I had SAA-uk. That was there as soon as I moved to Leeds when I was around 9 or 10, an organisation that was making it possible for young people to be discovering their own musical heritage. There were amazing teachers and big groups of people who really wanted to learn, so I had the opportunity to dive into it. It has been the touchstone in my life. If I didn't have that I wouldn't be in the position to have the life that I have now. I think that's step one; funding this education for young ethnic minority communities needs to be a priority. If you don't have the opportunity to learn about music, and it's something you can only learn if you live in a specific place, you go to a specific school and have a specific amount of money, then there aren't going to be opportunities for us. I have come across a ton of people all around the world, some of who have wanted to learn tabla for longer than I've been alive but hadn't had access to it. This was because they didn't have the money to pay for classes or there wasn't a tutor in the area; for some, it was both.  

SAA-uk: I understand you teach tabla as part of Snatam Kaur and Sopurkh Singh's Sacred music and yoga school, “Kirtan and Kundalini”. Why was this something you wanted to get involved with?  

Sukhmani: Something that I had always wanted to do was create an online community of tabla players, meeting people in remote places all over the world who didn't have access to either the instrument or teacher or both. There was always something in the back of my mind that we need to expand accessibility for this because so many people really want this experience, but I didn't know how to make it possible. The school gave it an opportunity for it to become a reality! 
SAA-uk: In 2022 you released your debut EP Here which was a momentous change for you as a tabla player. What drew you to wanting to explore this different avenue? 

Sukhmani: The journey of the EP was a really interesting one and happened during covid. I used to be writing songs and sending them out to other people and had a few artists pick up a few songs that I had written. One of those artists said that I should record these songs myself. I had never even considered that because tabla is what I always put the most time into in my life.  That artist encouraged me to talk to her record label, and in the spirit of saying yes, I thought okay, why not and from there, they agreed to sign me for some of my own music.  
SAA-uk: When listening to your EP Here, a powerful call to embrace our diversity and, at the same time, honour unity seems to infuse each of the tracks. Why is this message something that plays so heavily throughout your music, and is it aimed at anyone in particular? 

Sukhmani: The whole process of creating this EP was me working through a lot of self-doubt. I had never done this before, and I was in my 30s being someone's percussionist and now I was stepping into this role where all of the decisions are my decisions from writing the songs, singing the songs choosing what instrumentation is going on the tracks.! It was a big shift of perspective. I was still working through a lot of feelings of self-doubt at the time and confusion and was working through a lot of things in myself as a woman as woman of colour, as a friend as a daughter, just in who I was. Thankfully, I have a lot of women around me to be able to have those conversations with and I was very quickly realising that I wasn't the only one feeling this way as a young woman of colour navigating my surroundings. The whole EP became a place to explore those feelings, and without me trying for it be, it became a safe space to sit with these emotions and work through them. It was also just as much an ode to those women and people around me who I felt like were going through the same thing. I think music is one of the purest forms of connection, so I think whether you're trying to or not, just by giving out that intimate part of yourself, you're immediately making connections with people who are going through the same thing. 

You can find Sukhmani's mesmerising EP, complete with dreamy beats and empowering lyrics on Spotify

Head over to part 2 of our celebrating women of colour in the arts series to discover our fascinating conversation with boundary breaking Punjabi and folk singer Satnam Galsian!  
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