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British Indian sitarist celebrates 'Anomaly' of classical traditions

British Indian sitarist celebrates 'Anomaly' of classical traditions
Courtesy: Robert Leslie

Having spent much of 2022 breaking new ground as a composer, British Indian sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun returns to the concert scene for a series of live performances of his debut album, 'Anomaly', in the UK and Europe this May and June.

After the critically acclaimed musical 'Orpheus' last year, which brought baroque opera together with Indian classical music, 'Anomaly' is also built on the Leeds-born musician's unique command of both Western and Indian classical traditions. The album places the Sitar (Indian stringed instrument made from gourd and wood), dating from the Mughal Empire, in innovative and thrillingly contemporary settings. Yet its roots remain in ancient ragas, the melodic frameworks used in the improvised performance of Indian classical music, and in Degun's lifelong training in gayaki ang, a lyrical, expressive style of playing that mimics the human voice.

"For me, it's not a matter of different worlds meeting", Degun reflects. "It's just me: as much as I'm steeped in Indian classical music, I'm a product of this country; I'm a British composer," he shared his take on blending of Indian and Western music.

"Fusion is confusion for me, and I don't think what I do can be called a fusion," he added.

Tasked with combining the richness and scale of chamber music with the spontaneity of Indian improvisation, the formidable eight-piece band assembled for the tour includes string, piano and guitar players from classical, contemporary and jazz backgrounds and Kaviraj Singh (santoor) and Kirpal Panesar (esraj) from the Orpheus ensemble among performers from the Indian tradition.

"I have learnt choir in school and piano from childhood, parallelly with Indian Classical music. Because I've studied both repertoires, I believe I can balance and bring these musical genres together correctly and respectfully. My approach is to do what comes naturally and intuitively from my heart, and I hope my listeners would realise that what I compose comes from a place of respect for all music," he said.

After University, Degun went to study at the Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata under the guidance of Pt Ajay Chakraborty and many other virtuosos. And when he came back to the UK, he applied for the Sky Arts scholarship in 2016. Sky Arts give five scholarships yearly to support dancers, musicians, and artists from diverse backgrounds worth £30,000 each. Incidentally, Degun is the first British Indian to have received the scholarship for Classical music.


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"And that was when I started to conceptualise 'Anomaly'. And because I got this big amount and this opportunity, I thought I would do this properly and bring all my friends and colleagues into this. I ended up bringing 33 artists altogether on board for this album. And then we tried and got signed by Real World Records," Degun explained.

As Opera North's current Artist in Residence, Degun is bringing new perspectives to the work of the Leeds-based company. A consummate artist in a solo tradition, he is also a committed and generous collaborator, an anomaly indeed!

"Sadly, there isn't the proper infrastructure for a British Indian artist to become an artist in this country. Other than rare exceptionals like Anoushka Shankar or Nitin Sawhney, all these good musicians are here, but it's so hard for all of us to get signed by any recording labels in the UK. If I was a white guy who played violin or cello, I think the number of opportunities would have been a lot more," he added.

Written and recorded under the mentorship of Nitin Sawhney and released by Peter Gabriel's Real World Records, Anomaly's twelve tracks range from shimmering high-wire sitar solos to lush, string-laden cinematic excursions.

Notably, in the album 'Anomaly', the soulful track, 'Veer' is Degun's tribute to his late younger brother, who passed on one and half years back.


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"I come from a typical Bhangra-loving Punjabi family and not at all from a Classical musical background!"

His love for Indian classical music developed at his school, where he started learning Tabla and vocals simultaneously. Later on, he moved to the local Gurdwara to learn more.

"I think my teachers saw my passions and encouraged me to learn more and more. I came to Sitar much later on, at the age of 15, under the guidance of Ustad Tarambir Singh," he shared.


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Presented by South Asian Arts-UK in association with Concerted Artists and Real-World Records, the Anomaly tour opens with a long-awaited hometown show for Degun at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, on May 17.

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