Celebrating women of colour in the arts (part 2)

In part 1 of our celebrating women of colour in the arts series, we caught up with the wonderful Sukhmani Rayat as she walked us through her journey as one of the world's first female tabla players. Now, we are back with part 2, and this time we are in conversation with Satnam Galsian.

Satnam Galsian is a British-Asian vocalist and the lead singer of Kinaara who explores the interplay between her Punjabi heritage and British upbringing through uniquely captivating compositions. Curious to find out more, we asked her to walk us through her musical journey.

SAA-uk: How did you discover your love for music?

Satnam: Through my grandma! I grew up learning Kirtan, and from there, an interest developed in raags and classical Indian music. When it came to the age of 16, when I was going to leave school, I went on to do a course in Indian Classical music at the Leeds College of Music (now Leeds Conservatoire). Later, I received a degree in Indian Classical music from Birmingham Conservatoire, so I've always had a love for music, especially singing and performing.

Along the way, life experiences and influences gave Satnam new sources of inspiration that helped her evolve into her own artist, with an individual style and unique musical voice, and unapologetically she embraced the change.

Satnam: I decided that I didn't want to go down the root of classical singing. That was just my own personal choice. I'm so grateful that I did all the classical training because it always helps me and it's such a wonderful foundation to have for any singing, but I think my love for cross-genre music was always there. Through uni as well, working with people from different musical backgrounds to my own and putting everything together to make something that sounds wonderful, that's always been something I've loved, so that's the path I went down more than anything. 

That path did not come without hurdles littered across the way, and Satnam recalls a time when the thought of singing in English would never have crossed her mind. Having been immersed so early on in her life into Indian classical music, the thought of straying from that path led her to cross-roads. Would singing in English send frowning eyes from South Asian communities darting her way, or would Western audiences express discontent at the sight of a woman of colour singing in English? It was only four years ago that her epiphany moment came, and she realised:

Satnam: There shouldn't be a barrier stopping me from singing in English when I was born here and have been speaking English all my life.

Encouragingly, her sentiment was and continues to be shared by many audience members who delight in listening to famed folk tunes embraced by the charm of Satnam's unique voice and style. And with a smile, she fondly recalls one of the earliest times Kinaara performed the traditional Celtic folk song She Moved Through the Fair to an awe-struck audience that revealed to Satnam post show that they had no idea the song could sound like that. Enchanting vocals, a vibrant band, and a musically immersive experience of course contribute to the rave reception Kinaara receives whenever they take to the stage, but for Satnam, the answer is even simpler. 

Satnam: People like to hear something that's different… and I feel that for them to hear something that is different to just western music is interesting. Music from diverse cultures, in different languages is a great way to learn about other communities, and I think it's something that people should be exposed to from a young age as well, like in schools.

When it comes to introducing young people around Yorkshire to colourful stories and cultures from across the world through music, Satnam has certainly not sat on the side-lines. 

Satnam: I have done lots of school workshops. Last year I did a few around Kirklees. It was predominately a white school, and I went in, did Indian music with them and taught them a children's song in Hindi. I asked them at the end how have you found today, what was your favourite part? One of the teachers decided to answer the question. She said, I think it's really good that we learn about other cultures and other people because we don't get that opportunity. I've even been to a school that was predominately Muslim children, and even for them when I went in to do Indian music workshops, they thought Punjabi music was just Bhangra and what's in the mainstream now, so children don't necessarily know about the folk side of things, the older songs, or other South Asian music genres. 

SAA-uk: For young, aspiring British Asian musicians who hold a bi-cultural heritage but don't know how to navigate it, what advice would you give as an artist whose cross-genre music embrace both your British and Punjabi culture?

Satnam: Sometimes when you're growing up it can feel difficult to balance the two things out. You don't know where you fit in or how to fit in. Sometimes you end up hiding parts of yourself or hiding parts of your culture to fit in elsewhere. As you get older, these things become less important. You can't hide who you are. You're always going to have those two parts to you, and you need to try to embrace it! Your culture and your upbringing are nothing to be ashamed of even though it may seem different to a lot of your friends or other people you socialise with. Sometimes my children are shy to speak their own language in front of people, but actually, I'm on stage singing in Punjabi and English, and doing both things. Hopefully that will be inspiring to them and to other people.

We were quickly led down the discussion of the lack of representation within the music and art industry; racking our brains for a while, Joy Crookes was the only woman of colour that sprung to our mind that had broken into the mainstream recently. While that of course is great, it's certainly not enough when considering how many female musicians of colour, and specifically South Asian women, are not given the space and opportunity to share their music with the world. And like Satnam's children, many young people in and around Leeds hold a rich bi-cultural heritage, but without seeing their unique stories, experiences, and heritages shown in popular culture, unfortunately it is not uncommon for there to be reservations in embracing their identity.

SAA-uk: It's incredible that Kinaara's music champions diversity as it explores Punjabi and Celtic folk songs. But do you think there is enough being done to support independent bands like Kinaara in Leeds who are providing a musical experience that is not found commonly within the mainstream?

Satnam: I love the music scene in Leeds, but there's not anyone else doing what we're doing. There's a classical Indian music scene in Leeds which is good, and then you've got all the different type of folk and western music events and nights that happen. You have all of that, but for cross-genre music, there's not really that much here. Particularly down in London there is a lot more going on in terms of this blending of music and styles, but here I feel like Kinaara may be the only ones doing it. In terms of getting gigs, we've had 2 recently in Leeds where we were the supporting band for acts who wanted performers with a different musical style to them. But sometimes when people are looking for supporting acts for one evening, they want bands whose music is similar to their own, and we're not similar to anything I don't think, so sometimes it's difficult to know where we fit in with Kinaara.

SAA-uk: How would Kinaara aim to enrich the space for cross-genre music? 

Satnam: If Kinaara were out and about and had a bigger following, I was thinking maybe I could set something up where there's a platform for people doing cross-genre or Indian influenced music to come together. Down in London there's the daytimers for example, there's nothing like that up here in Leeds. But, at the moment, that can't happen because we don't have the audience. Again, it comes back to the fact that we need to be gigging to get out there in front of people.

While the city of Leeds is a glorious patchwork of colourful stories, people, and experiences, as Satnam points out, more can be done to better reflect this diversity in the music and art scene. That starts with giving more opportunities to emerging bands like Kinaara who are breaking boundaries with their art and bringing communities together through a shared love for beautifully unique and enchanting music! You can find Kinaara's music on Bandcamp and Spotify.

It takes an unbelievable amount of strength and courage to carve out a space for women of colour to follow their passion and voice in the music industry when historically, the tools to do this were hidden away. Thankfully, Satnam and Sukhmani are here to change that. Through their art, they boldly confront the limitations and stereotypes that have sought to cap the infinite potential women hold, and on their journey, they are taking all women with them, encouraging them to dig deep and recognise that women are unstoppable.

by Dimple D'Cruz 
SAA-uk's Marketing and Communications Assistant

It may be unbeknown to you, but there's an important role you play in amplifying South Asian history.  

Through immersing yourself in events promoted by culture and art organisations, or even sharing your own experiences, there's so much you can do to learn, engage, and empower! 

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