Where Punjabi Folk Meets Aretha Soul - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Where Punjabi Folk Meets Aretha Soul

Where Punjabi Folk Meets Aretha Soul

By Sanjena Sathian


Because this is what comes after globalization.

By Sanjena Sathian

Amrit Kaur Lohia can’t tell you her vocal range or really get technical about the traditional Indian stringed instrument she plays, the sarangi. Ask her about influences and she drops some heavy names: Christina Aguilera and famed Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam.

But U.K.-born, self-taught Lohia doesn’t let formalities like musical schools of thought stop her. Not when she can sing like a time traveler, taking us to the days when being an Indian singer meant climbing octaves like a mountaineer. When the 24-year-old sits on stage, she is demure, a chunni scarf pulled up over her head, eyes down. When she stands, her long hair makes zigzag lines in the air, and then she starts holding those notes. 


“People say, ‘I can hear this or that,’ trills or soul and jazz,” she says, with a kind of hear-what-you-wanna-hear shrug. I ask her the technical name for those long-as-hell notes she pulls. “It’s like letting my heart scream,” she says. It’s tempting to call what she does fusion — especially because Lohia’s family comes from the northern agricultural state of Punjab, which also birthed bhangra dancing and the Jay-Z mash-up Beware of the Boyz. But Lohia’s not much interested in dissecting anatomy, identifying the kidney that hails from India or the heart from Aretha.

Lohia’s been playing sarangi, a violin-like string-and-bow instrument also used in north Indian classical music, since she was 13. She grew up writing poems that she set to music. As a teen, she began touring with a kirtan group who played and sang the traditional end of what she now touches, Sikh devotional songs. The gurudwara — a Sikh temple — was “almost like a home,” she says; there, she prayed “for a voice to express myself — I was rubbish at talking.” All the while, she was surrounded by Afro-Caribbeans, Greeks, Jamaicans and Nigerians, hearing reggae until 4 am in the North London neighborhood where she grew up.

When it comes to spirituality today, “Everything I do is a meditation,” she tells us. That includes her various social-justice outfits, her theatrical work — she’s putting on a play in London now about Creole musicians — and her day job, being a grad student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her thesis focuses on Sikh soldiers in World War I, and it’s not hard to get her to geek out on the history a little bit. 

But Lohia seems to live history best when she sings it — especially those old poems, some of which she set to music for a play on India’s partition called 1947. Don’t take our word for it, though: Listen for yourself.

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