Channi Singh introduced a new kind of bhangra to young Asians 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 excelled in various fields, including business, politics, education and culture. Some adapt too quickly to a new environment, playfully taking on new accents and even new (anglicized) names, while others manage to keep their roots and grow in host countries.
Channi Singh, often described as the ‘godfather of the bhangra’, is one such individual, who arrived in London in 1976, has achieved several milestones in his musical career over the decades, but retains easy and earthy affability. associated with people with roots. in the Punjab. It is fair to say that for a born in the village of Salar in Malerkotla, who as a child often sang Man dole, mera tan dole de Nagin (1954) in exchange for a paisa at the request of his teacher, and later tried his hand at wrestling, Singh has come a long way.
A longtime Southall resident, Singh recalls being a graduate of Government College in Malerkotla and receiving his MA in English Literature from DAV College in Jalandhar. His career in music was not easy at first. He was a disciple of Baldev Narang, a performer of classical music. He auditioned on All India Radio’s Jalandhar station and for some record companies, but was rejected on each occasion. After his marriage to Dhanwant Kaur, he moved to London, where his musical journey 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 past four decades, Singh says he and his band Alaap, formed in 1977, started performing at temples and small community events, then performed in all of Britain’s major performance centers and Europe in front of hundreds of thousands of people, including members of the royal family. His albums have sold in the millions, finding a mention in the Guinness Book of Records for “most successful and longest-serving Bhangra group” and for “most Bhangra recordings produced”. In 2012, he was honored with an OBE for service to bhangra music, charity and the community. That same year he was also invited to perform at 10 Downing Street by 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 group to be invited by world leaders, world music organizations, and mainstream television stations to represent Punjabi culture. Alaap were the first bhangra group to perform on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4; for peacekeepers in Bosnia; Commonwealth delegates in Trinidad and Tobago; for the Princes Trust; for Imran Khan’s Cancer Appeal at the Natural History Museum; and he has collaborated with prominent singers and musicians from the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
Singh went on to compose music in such Bollywood films as Yalgaar (1992) and Janasheen (2003) by Feroz Khan and Shaktiman (1993) by KC Bokadia. He claims that some of his original compositions have been lifted without recognition in films such as Dil (1990), Hatya (1988) and Aashiq (2001). He collaborated with Asha Bhosle for her Platinum selling album Chham chham nachdi phiran.
Singh’s royal honor also recognizes his charitable work in Hounslow, where since 1989 he has provided free meals four days a week to the needy, including the homeless, the sick, shelters or those in difficult circumstances after a break with the family. His wife runs a charity called the Kar Seva Foundation, which provides medical and other services in the Punjab. Singh has also organized and performed at various charity concerts, helping to raise funds and raise awareness for many causes.
“I was lucky, the family was supported, Mona is guiding me now,” Singh says with a hint of satisfaction, recalling his journey from a village in Punjab to the heights of world music.