Chapter 1: Artists Off Stage

Away from the bright lights, we caught up with two wonderful musicians from Summer Solstice: Asian Music Festival. From the quieter shades from off stage, they shared the story behind their music. 

John Ball and Bhavanjot Singh Rehal, two exceptional tabla players based in Yorkshire, brought out the vibrant hues of the summer music festival with each thoughtful and sensitive drum of the tabla.  Echoing majestically from the century old arches of the legendary Corn Exchange, both artists brought the sounds of South Asia to Leeds in ways unlike the other. 

Eager to know more about how the British born artists found a passion for the South Asian percussive instrument, we asked them to share their journey.  

It was a chance encounter and perhaps the hand of Lady Luck that pointed a 24-year-old John in the direction of Indian classical music. “It was a fluke”, he recalls. “I was playing music, more broadly Western style music, more jazz, and a drummer I was in a band with went to India and brought back a tabla. He didn't want to go to a workshop on his own, so he dragged me with him, and from that point I became addicted." 

Open-mindedness and a curiosity to explore the wider world of music served him well, as the fluke would later become his livelihood and opened up the door to new opportunities as a performer and teacher, the latter being one that was not part of his life's plan.  

Pensive for a moment, he sits as though searching around in his mind for memories from this earlier time in his life. When he finds it, he recalls with eyes alight and a spring in his voice, “When I started to learn the tabla, I wasn't thinking about teaching at all. I didn't have that career trajectory in mind. I just wanted to learn, and it was a sheer connection with the music that was driving me forward. After spending two and a half years in India, I returned to Sheffield and people were asking me if I could teach their sons and daughters. I was reluctant at first, but then I started to see the value of introducing music to a wider field and to people who didn't have the opportunity to learn the instrument. All these opportunities came to me, and I could really develop my skills and extend my own learning. You see when you teach, you have to think about the instrument in a deeper way and get yourself together with it so you can pass on what you know”.  

The Corn Exchange was heaving, and the crowd was all charged up and ready to hear what music magic the next act would bring. Filling the interval in the meantime was hearty conversations and chimes of laughter from a gloriously colourful audience including lifelong admirers of Asian music and first-time listeners. Hailing from Edinburgh, Italy, Leeds and beyond, a musical curiosity and a keenness to explore artistic heritages from around the world brought a community of friends and strangers together. As an artist proficient in Indian classical, jazz, West African, pop and more, John's own keenness to discover new musical traditions mirrored that of the audience. Sharing with us why he fuses Indian classical music with genres from around the world, he gave us a wonderful insight into how cross-cultural collaborations can be so fulfilling for artists. “With blending different genres together, it's another angle to understanding how the instrument works, what it is capable of and how to develop it. When I play in collaborative projects, I don't think of myself as just a classical musician. I try to be open to the sounds around me and translate the skills I have to the performance as a whole”.  

For Bhavanjot, the journey to finding the tabla looked much different to John's, and at just 5 he was acquainted with the instrument. He recalls, “I've had a lot of musical influences in my life. My dad sings Sikh traditional religious music called Kirtan, and he always wanted us to be musical as children.” He prefaces his next reflection with a smile as he tells us, “My sister is a vocalist, and I always make a joke saying I didn't get the vocal gene in the family, so I ended up playing tabla. It was definitely because of my parents and the upbringing that I had.” 

It was not love at first sight as it was for John, but rather an affection that grew with time. “I think when I was younger, I didn't really enjoy it that much, but later on in my life, especially when I became a teenager, I fell in love with it from there.” It is what he described as a “life-changing meeting” with tabla player Bhupinder Singh Chaggar that lit the spark which made Bhavanjot begin to see the tabla in a new light. Fondly, he tells us, “We jelled straight away, and I was so inspired by him and my fellow students at the time that I just really wanted to do it.” 

Contrary to John who found that learning tabla introduced him to the wider world of music and culture, for Bhavanjot, it helped him develop a deeper connection and understanding of his own South Asian heritage and culture. “For me, tabla was probably the biggest reason I did end up connecting to my own heritage. I think when I was younger, I was trying to fit in a little bit. I looked different to a lot of the kids in the playground, and they didn't quite know who I was. To be honest, I didn't quite know how I was either. Tabla gave me a way of expressing myself in a fun way when I found it. I just found it really enjoyable. The deeper the learning got, the more aware of my cultural and spiritual heritage I found I got in return for it.” 

The existence of safe and encouraging spaces to learn about South Asian artforms were the moments Bhavanjot recalls he felt most closely connected to his heritage. We asked him to share one instance, but with so many heartfelt memories to choose form, it was impossible to narrow it down. “There's been many times! I've been involved with many SAA-uk summer schools over the years and tabla camps where we would do weeklong retreats. I spent so much time with my teacher and fellow students laughing and playing lots of tabla, but also learning a lot of life lessons. Those days and that time with my teachers are most special to me.” 

The element of fun and excitement holds an equally great importance to Bhavanjot as an artist today, as it did when he was a student discovering the tabla some years ago. Describing his style as “music with a smile”, he is passionate as he speaks about how the tabla is an art that can take you on a deep, spiritual journey while still being fun and enjoyable. “I'm always inspired by teachers and other musicians. When I watch them, they're amazingly skilled. But the best thing I love about them is when I can see them smiling on stage and having a laugh with each other. As an audience, you feed off that. If I can make someone else smile with my music, that's my job done!”

It was such a pleasure to hear from John and Bhavanjot about how their journey into music began. Though the paths leading them there were very different and not always smooth sailing, their stories show that a career in music can find you anytime, anywhere.
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