After my encounter with Yogi Bhajan (whom I shall henceforth call
Yogiji, in the Indian tradition), I threw myself into studying and
practicing Kundalini Yoga. I would get up at 3:00am, take a cold shower
and then do yoga for about thirty minutes. After that I would chant and
meditate. Almost every day I would attend one yoga class, often two. On
the weekends, I would join a group of fellow practitioners to do yoga on
the beach, before sunbathing or swimming.
health and vitality I had come close to squandering during my years of
carousing, drinking and drug use returned to my body. I dropped thirty
pounds and looked slim, trim and vital. Although I was struggling
emotionally, physically I felt great. Better than I had been in my whole
Yogiji was not using the name Naad Yoga (the yoga of sound), but much of what I was learning was just that. Almost all of the kriyas
(complete yogic action) that he taught us, included mantras. We were
given different techniques for chanting them. Yogiji was a firm believer
that silent meditation was almost useless. He taught us to use our
voices to empower ourselves while meditating. I enjoyed the experience
of chanting and began to practice the different meditations and kriyas.
But for me, one thing that was missing was group chanting to music.
There was some chanting of the main 3HO mantra at that time, Ek Ongkar,
Sat Naam, Siri Wha Guru (Waheguru was a later addition) but nothing that
I found inspiring. I was aware of Hindu style bhajan chanting, where
someone would call out names of a deity or deities and the rest of the
sangat would respond, but there was nothing like that in 3HO.
Truth be told, we were not really aware of who we were. Nor were there
any specified cultural traditions. I believe Yogiji deliberately left
things vague in order to make room for Sikhi when it came time to bring
it in to the 3HO lifestyle. That was still a year or two down the line.
Being more tuned in to Indian culture than most, I was vaguely disturbed
by this, but not overly so. As far as I could tell, nobody else cared
One day, Richard told me that there was a man staying at the Sikh Studies Circle in Hollywood, who had said that he would teach us some Sikh chants. The Sikh Studies Circle, on Vermont Avenue near GriffithPark, was the only gurdwara in Southern California
at the time. We drove over there one afternoon and found our rather
disheveled man who had just woken up from an afternoon nap.
Being quite clueless about Sikhs and Sikh culture at the time, I didn’t
know what to make of this guy. He went by the wonderful name of Jagat
Singh Jagga. Later, I discovered that he was a well known folk singer
from the Punjab. As he sang, he played the ektara, about as unsophisticated a musical instrument as one could wish to find.
The ektara consisted of a round wooden body with what seemed to be
goatskin stretched over it and a short piece of wooden dowel for a neck.
It had one wire string. To play it, you held it with your left hand and
tucked under your neck like a violin. You then used the index finger of
the right hand to pluck the string in a rhythmic pattern and sang along
to that rhythm. The ektara created no melody; that had to come from the
Jagat Singh was the first Jaat Sikh with whom I came in contact. (Jaats are a caste of farmers from Punjab.
They have a tendency to be down to earth in their approach to life and
are often accused, perhaps unfairly, of not being overly intelligent)
other Sikhs I had met were those who frequented the gurdwara. They were
professional types; well-to-do and relatively sophisticated. I sensed
that Jagat Singh was different. He had a certain earthiness to his
manner, bordering on coarse.
Remembering the promise he made to Richard, Jagat Singh picked up his
instrument and began to chant Ek Ongkar, Sat Naam, Siri Wha Guru. He
chanted in a very expressive way as a singer might and not in a way that
would be useful to teach to a group, which was what I was hoping for. I
The following Sunday, we went to the regular diwan at the Sikh Studies
Circle. Dr. Hakam Singh, the gurdwara vice president, was singing his
usual one shabad (hymn). When I had heard him sing previously, I had not
been particularly moved. That day Jagat Singh Jagga sat down next to
him and began to sing along. Being a professional singer, his energy
lifted the performance and, for the first time, I heard what I what I
later came to know as Gurbani Kirtan(Sikh Sacred Music), in a way that moved me. That memory stayed with me.
Only a few short weeks after beginning this intense yoga practice, I
began to be aware of the movement of Kundalini Shakti in my spine. I
would feel the energy moving up my spine, often taking me out of my body
and into deep yogic trance-like states. I also began to experience the
inner sounds that are heard by developed yogis in deep meditation.
Realizing that they were linked to the manifestation of Kundalini
Shakti, I began to spend time meditating on those sounds as my
body/mind/spirit began to open to a deeper awareness. Those were heady
While my main focus was Kundalini Yoga, I continued to study sarod and
Indian Classical music as best I could. I was able to take some lessons
from Ashish Khan, the eldest son of Ali Akbar Khan and a well known
concert artist in his own right. I even signed up to go study at the AliAkbarCollege in Northern California.
Financially and logistically, it would have been very difficult, if not
impossible, for me to move up there, but my desire was so strong I felt
compelled to send in my registration. I eventually cancelled.
In May of 1970, I took a two week Kundalini Yoga teacher training
course. Richard, my friend, was the teacher. Soon after that, I went to New Mexico
for the first 3HO Summer Solstice gathering. There, I met many young
men like myself whom Yogiji had sent out to various cities in the US to be Kundalini Yoga teachers. Many of them seemed to be quite successful with their classes. After returning to Los Angeles, it came into my head that I should go to London and start a Kundalini Yoga ashram. I suggested it to Yogiji and he jumped at the idea.
In order to make the plan possible, I had to do some serious work on my
house to make it fit to rent out. I had been in the middle of
remodeling when I was fired from Capitol Records; work had totally
stopped while I underwent my spiritual transformation. There was much to
do and I had no money hire anyone. I wondered if I could do most of the
work myself, I had no construction experience other than from watching
the previous remodeling being done, but thought I could try. I also
wondered where I would get the money to pay for materials.
I realized that the only course of action open to me was to do the work
myself, so I threw myself into the work. It was tough. Not so much
physically – by now, after all the yoga, I was in really good shape, as
well as being young and strong – but emotionally. I had no income and I
was stressed about getting the work done. I was stressed about finding
money for materials. I still had to make my mortgage payments. It was a
very, very intense period for me; probably the first time in my life
where I had to take full responsibility for my environment and create my
future with my own hands.
My sadhana (spiritual practice) and mystical experiences became
non-existent. All I did was work. I still attended yoga classes
occasionally, but would often spend the class lying on the floor, too
exhausted to participate.
Although I can’t say that I felt it, God gave me a great deal of
support and money came from unexpected sources. By the end of November,
1970, my house was rented out and I was ready to leave for London.
As I stood at LAX, waiting for my flight to London, Richard arrived to see me off. He said that Yogiji had given him a message for me.
“Tell him to study harmonium, learn the music of the Sikhs and go to SikhTemple occasionally”.
The terms Gurbani Kirtan (Sikh Sacred Music) and Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) were not part of the 3HO lexicon in those days.
After settling in London and staring Kundalini Yoga classes, I duly did as ordered and found a giani (lit: “man of knowledge”), who agreed to teach me Gurbani Kirtan.
(message of the Guru) is a term that is used to describe what is
written in the “Holy Book” of the Sikhs, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib.
“Holy Book” is a very inadequate term for this beautiful creation which
the Sikhs regard as a living Guru. Created by the fifth living master,
Guru Arjun, it consists of the devotional writings of the first five
Sikh gurus, plus works of contemporary HIndu, Moslem and Sufi saints of
the time such as Kabir, Ravidas, Namdev and Shiekh Farid. Guru Gobind
Singh, the tenth master, added the writings of his father, the ninth
means singing the praise of the Supreme Lord. Thus Gurbani Kirtan means
singing the praise of the Divine using the writings from the Siri Guru
Giani Joginder Singh Sarl lived in Southall, a suburb of West London close to HeathrowAirport. In the 60s, Southall had become a focal point for immigrants to the UK,
mainly because of a nearby factory that offered jobs without regard for
race. Most of those immigrants were East Indian by race, although not
necessarily from India,
and most of those Indians were Sikh. By 1971, when I began to study
there, you could walk down the main street and imagine yourself in the Punjab.
I knew the area well. I had spent the first twenty years of my life in a
town called Feltham, just a few miles away. In my years as a semi-pro
musician I had played many Sunday nights at the SouthallCommunity Center, a large, echoey venue, close to the town center.
When I first went to Giani Joginder Singh, I was not wearing a turban.
He was polite and did agree to teach me. When I went for my first
lesson, I put on a turban. His attitude totally changed towards me.
Finding out that my name was Vic, he suggested that I should take the
name Vikram Singh, a Sikh name meaning “courageous in action”. And that
is how I came to be known amongst the Sikhs.
Sikh scripture and sacred writings, as well as Punjabi language, are written in a script called Gurmukhi (lit: from the mouth of the guru). The script clearly is based on the Devnagri
script in which Sanskrit and Hindi are written, but is simpler and
easier to read. The script was created by the second master, Guru Angad
and is considered to be a divine revelation.
When it became obvious that I could not get very far in singing from
the Sikh scriptures if I could not read the script in which it was
written, I made a commitment to learn the Gurmukhi alphabet.
Giani Joginder Singh began to teach me one of the most popular shaloks
(two line couplet from Sikh Scriptures) sung in Raag Todi. With my
previous Indian music experience, it did not take long for me to grasp
what was required of me. I worked hard on the Gurrnukhi script and was
able to read, albeit slowly in about a month. At the same time, I began
to learn about Sikh history, tradition and culture.
soon discovered the importance of commitment and sacrifice to the
Sikhs. On Giani Joginder Singh’s living room wall, were prints of many
of the famous pictures from the SikhMuseum in Amritsar.
They depicted the martyrdoms of Bhai Taru Singh, Bhai Mati Das, Bhai
Mani Singh and other Sikh heroes, all shown with great, gory detail with
the blood in full Technicolor. I was horrified and thought to myself
“What am I getting into here?”
But the more I learned about the music, the more I began to understand
the great tradition behind it. Only a few short weeks later, I was able
to look at the same pictures and feel great love and inspiration.
Giani Joginder Singh was a professional ragi
(singer of Sikh Sacred Music). Although I was very grateful to him for
what he taught me and for the ongoing kindness and hospitality that he
and his family showed towards me, I was secretly uncomfortable about his
musical abilities. He was a quite competent singer and two of his sons
were excellent tabla players. But it was not long before I knew that I
would never be satisfied with any music that he could teach me. I was in
After my first lesson, Giani Joginder Singh invited me to accompany him to sing at the Central Gurdwara. In London,
at that time, there were very few gurdwaras. These were spread out
around the metropolitan area. At all these places, the main diwan (service) was held on a Sunday morning. The Central Gurdwara,
however, was relatively close to the center of the city and held a
diwan Sunday evening. Thus Sikhs from all over the Greater London area
Sunday evening, I dutifully and apprehensively showed up in my usual
outfit of white wool sweater, white jeans and white turban. Nowadays,
all Sikhs know about the white clad American Sikhs; in 1971, nobody had
ever seen anybody like me. I felt more than a little conspicuous and it
was obvious that everyone else was aware of my presence.
When Giani Joginder Singh and family took to the stage for their
program, he called me up to sit with them. At that point, I really felt
like I was in a goldfish bowl. The fact that I had no idea what was
being sung and was not able to read enough Gurmukhi script to sing with
them, also made me feel highly conspicuous. After singing for a while,
Giani Joginder Singh began talking to the sangat (congregation)
in Punjabi. Even though I did not know the language, I could feel that
he was talking about me. I felt most uncomfortable and I was very
unimpressed by the music. I was having serious doubts about this whole
Giani Joginder Singh’s program finished. I was mercifully allowed to
return to the relative anonymity of the sangat where I tried to look as
inconspicuous as possible. This was hard as I was a) the only
white-skinned, blond-haired human being in the whole place and b) the
only person dressed from top to toe in white. A few of the ladies were
wearing brightly colored salwar-kameez outfits, but most of the people
there were dressed in London winter clothes: browns, dark blues, grays and blacks.
I was starting to wonder how I could gracefully slink out of there
without offending Giani Joginder Singh, when I noticed something: there
on the stage, getting ready to play, was another jatha (Kirtan group).
my interest was piqued. There were five in the jatha, all men. Three
sat in front, with two harmoniums and tablas; two more sat behind. The
man in the middle of the front row, clearly the jathedar (leader
of the group) was older, perhaps late forties or early fifties, while
all the others were younger, late twenties to early thirties. The
jathedar was clearly a formidable kind of guy. He had that kind of aura.
He wore thick, horned-rimmed glasses and a beard that, while not
trimmed, was relatively short for a Sikh his age. His beard was flecked
with grey, giving it a “salt and pepper” effect. All five men wore black
turbans, creating an ambiance of great intent and forcefulness. They
looked really heavy, in the colloquial sense of the word.
jathedar had a certain look in his eyes that captivated me. In my
musical career, I noticed that many great musicians and singers would
come on stage and survey the audience with a look in their eyes that
said “I am here to kick some serious musical butt tonight”. Ali Akbar
Khansahib was one. The jathedar, whoever he was, had that same look
about him. He was there to play.
I could see him sitting there in that gurdwara, getting ready to do
something that was going to be powerful. In musical parlance, I knew
instinctively that something really baaad was about to happen.
How can I describe in words the effect that music had upon me? For all
the power and inspiration I had experienced in Indian Classical music,
particularly Ali Akbar Khansahib’s, what I heard that night took me a
step further into my spirituality. That night’s Kirtan, while clearly
based in Indian Classical music, married devotion and spiritual power.
The whole jatha sang with a fervor that I had never before experienced.
I felt that, whatever emotions that man had inside him, which was
clearly a lot, he was uninhibitedly pouring it into the music. He was
transforming his emotions into overwhelming devotion without
reservation. He was also clearly a pretty damn good musician and knew
his raags. I sat transfixed for the 45 minutes of his set.
Later, I made some inquiries and found the jathedar was known as Giani
Amolak Singh. He too lived in Southall, very close to Giani Joginder
Singh. He had also come to the UK from Kenya.
But, unlike, Giani Joginder Singh, he was not a professional ragi; he
held down a day job. I also found out that Giani Amolak Singh was very
involved with Sikh politics.
created a dilemma for me. On one hand I was totally under the sway of
Giani Joginder Singh. In my naïve state, I was powerless to do anything
in the Sikh community without him. He was wonderfully kind to me and did
so much for me. Although later I was to discover that he had his own
On the other hand was Giani Amolak Singh. He looked like such a
formidable character that I was scared to even approach him. Yet I was
so inspired by his music.
So, for months, I said nothing. This was no hardship. I continued to
learn from Giani Joginder Singh, while looking forward to Sunday nights
at the Central Gurdwara when, after sitting on stage with Giani Joginder
Singh’s family, I was able to listen to my real
inspiration, Giani Amolak Singh. Every Monday morning, around 4am, I
would wake up with Giani Amolak Singh’s melodies from the previous
evening resonating in my head and my heart.
professional ragi, Giani Joginder Singh would, on weekends, be invited
to people’s houses to sing. I soon learned that programs of devotional
music in private homes, or Kirtan programs, are an essential and
integral part of Sikh culture. Only a few weeks after I began to learn
from him, Gianiji began to invite me to accompany him, and soon I was
tagging along almost all of his programs.
So, my life became one of choices:
Would I rather teach yoga to a handful of somewhat disinterested white people for almost no money?
Or would I rather go to a house full of people, with high energy
devotional music, plus great food afterwards, where I would probably get
a chance to sing and pick up a little money. Then, leave and go to
another house where I would get to repeat the process, becoming more and
more energized (and full of excellent Indian food!) in the process. The
only downside is that these people are brown and are from a different
culture. You will almost certainly be the only white guy there, so you
may get a little culture shock.
Not surprisingly, as a performer, most of the time I chose the Kirtan programs.
I can still remember the total embarrassment with which I sang my first shabad (lit: “word”, but meaning musical composition from Sikh Scripture)
in public. Giani Joginder Singh and his family were wonderful. Sensing
my nervousness, they sang along, loudly and with great energy which
helped me enormously. That first hurdle being overcome, it was not long
before I was quite confident about singing kirtan in public.
My first real test came in April, barely three months after I started
to learn kirtan. April is the time of the Baisakhi festival, one of the
most important, if not THE most important, Sikh Gurpurabs
(religious celebration days). It is a very emotional time and all Sikhs
use the occasion to remember Guru Gobind Singhji, the tenth master.
Giani Joginder Singh had taught me a shabad of Guru Gobind Singh, “Mitr
Pyare Noon”, which excites very deep emotions amongst the Sikhs.
Written after the sacrifice of all four of his sons, in this shabad,
Guru Gobind Singh reflects on the bitterness of life without God’s
presence. The melody I had learned was equally evocative of the emotion
known in India as karuna, spiritual longing for God.
Gianiji had been invited to Slough to sing for their Basakhi celebration. In those days, there was no gurdwara in Slough
and the celebration was being held in a school hall on a Sunday. I have
no idea how many people were there but the place was packed, wall to
Normally, at these kind of events, there is always a level of
background conversation which often gets quite loud. It is the Indian
way and everyone takes it for granted. But, when Giani Joginder Singh
pushed his harmonium over to me and indicated that I should sing, you
could have heard a pin drop.
The silence continued as I sang. At one of the instrumental interludes,
where the only sound was my harmonium and the accompanying tabla, I
almost jumped out of my skin when a man’s voice rang out, yelling at the
top of his lungs: “Boley so neehaal”. And the rest of the sangat called
in response “Sat sri akaal!” I think my heart must have skipped at
least three or four beats. Was I doing something wrong? Only after quite
a few seconds did I realize that they were paying me a great
complement. Applause is not permitted in Gurdwara. The accepted way of
showing great appreciation is by doing a jaikara, the Sikh cry of
victory. Often this is done in a perfunctory manner, In this case, the
way that the sangat called out, passionately and at length, meant that
they were paying me the highest complement possible.
As much as I tried to ignore it, I could not help but notice that the
top of my harmonium was covered in one and five pound notes. The sangat
was also showing its appreciation in a more tangible form.
Throughout the spring and summer of that year (1971), my Kirtan singing
went from strength to strength, while my yoga teaching made only slow
progress. I received more invitations to go and sing at peoples’ homes
and even at some gurdwaras.
If Giani Amolak Singh was my main source of musical inspiration, but I
was fortunate enough to meet one of the great Ragis of all time, who
also helped to shape my singing.
One summer day, I was walking down the railway bridge in Southall with a
Sikh friend of mine, when I saw a sight that riveted me. Walking
towards me, were three radiant men. They were all dressed alike in white
kurta/pajama and their kirpans (Sikh ceremonial swords) were exposed
and hanging beneath their left arms as called for by tradition.
One, tall and wiry in his build, was clearly older with a white beard.
One was a young man with pleasant features and a black beard. The other
looked to be of middle-age with grey flecks in his beard.
were striding along the main street in Southall and radiating spiritual
energy. When they saw me, they embraced me in turn, calling out
“Waheguruji ka Khalsa, Waheguruji ki Fateh!”. This is a greeting used by
orthodox Sikhs meaning “The Pure Ones belong to God, the Victory
belongs to God!”
They were a ragi jatha that was visiting from India and staying at one of the gurdwaras in Southall. But this was not just any ragi jatha. Bhai
(brother) Gurcharan Singh (the elder of the three) and his brother,
Bhai Avtar Singh (the middle aged one), were from a family of ragis that
could trace their lineage as musicians back three hundred years to the
time of Guru Gobind Singh. The youngest was Bhai Swaran Singh, the tabla
I was so impressed with their radiance and their warmth and obvious
affection towards me. It was not until later that I found out just how
deep their knowledge of Gurbani Kirtan was and how much respect they
engendered in the Sikh community, all over the world.
I was able to attend many of their kirtan programs that summer. Their
melodies and musical style had a great influence on me. However, I had
to become much more musically competent to make use of what I learned
After our first meeting in Southall, we became firm friends. I felt
especially close to Bhai Avtar Singh, the most musically adept of the
group. I would later run into them in the San Francisco area, in India, in New York and finally in Southern California in 1985 when they came to my home and stayed with us.
In August, I decided to I needed a recharge. Yogiji’s birthday was coming up (August 26th) and I knew that there would be a large celebration in Los Angeles.
My original flight was cancelled. After a few adventures, I was
rescheduled on a flight that landed at LAX early on the morning of the
When I saw Yogiji for the first time on my return, he treated me like a
long, lost son. His energy was always overwhelming. When he took out
his anger on you it was devastating; when he poured love and praise upon
you everything was right in the Universe. From the time I arrived on
August 26th until I left LA at the end of the following
November, he poured positive energy into me. I felt so happy and loved, I
had never felt like this in my life.
Yogiji, it was never easy (most of the time impossible) to identify his
motives. He would tell us that, if he treated you well and praised you,
you were likely to be in a weak state while, if he reviled you and
yelled at you, that was his way of showing you that you were strong
enough to take it.
he seemed delighted that one of his students even had an idea of what
Gurbani was, let alone that I could read it and sing it. He had taken to
quoting in Indian language during his lectures. Much of it was Gurbani.
When I returned from London,
whenever he would quote Gurbani during a lecture, he would look
directly at me and smile broadly. Quite likely he was delighted that,
even if not understanding, someone had an idea of the source of much of
The Sunday after my arrival, the morning of August 29th,
we all went to the Sikh Studies Circle. By now, I was an experienced
ragi, so I had no hesitation in asking whoever was in charge of the
program if I could sing. He looked at me a little incredulously. “What
will you sing?” he asked, looking very doubtful.
I had brought my own little portable harmonium with me from the UK,
so I showed it to him and explained that I was going to sing Gurbani
Kirtan. It seemed that they still had a shortage of ragis, so he
grudgingly agreed to let me sing.
must have been in hog heaven that day. Here was one of his own, showing
the Indians that white boys could sing the blues. OK, sorry, wrong
metaphor but I think you get the point. He never lost an opportunity to
have a dig at Dr. Marwah, whom he jokingly referred to as his elder
brother. And my presence did cause quite a stir. Even today, I can
picture the shock on the face of Dr. Hakam Singh, the vice president of
the gurdwara, when he came in, saw me and realized that I was singing
During the three months that I stayed in the US,
I would travel with Yogiji and attend the courses that he taught. He
continued to treat my like I was part of his own family and pour love
and praise into me. I was quite intoxicated with all this love and
spiritual energy and I was ready to sing with my portable harmonium
whenever I was asked.