by Lakhpreet Kaur
This past weekend, I was at the home of a family friend for a high school graduation celebration. It was fun. The people were great, the food was delicious, and the weather was perfect. But the highlight for me was the kirtan.
Above (from left to right) you can see Noor Kaur on cello, Simar Singh on tanpura, Kamal Kaur on rabab, Naina Kaur on violin, Harlene Kaur on vaja, Amrita Kaur on vaja, and Jesse Singh on tabla.
This group of young cousins made their way into my heart with their pure voices and diverse instruments. I was compelled to go talk to them.
I sat down with Noor and Harlene Kaur of Texas and asked them about their kirtan experience. Listen to their interview here.
“I started [learning kirtan] at about [age] five,” said 11-year-old Harlene Kaur. “I learned the most simplest shabads but then built up to higher levels…”
“I had a little passion for singing. Not that much at the time because I didn’t really know I could sing. But as I kept on singing, my passion grew bigger and bigger.”
Noor, aged 13 (Harlene’s older cousin) started learning kirtan at the age of seven. “We went to Houston Sikh Youth Camp and that’s where it started. I got interested, so I started learning from [Harlene’s] mom, my aunt.”
Both Noor and Harlene started learning kirtan on the vaja, but they also know other instruments.
“I play violin. I am learning taus and a little bit of dilruba,” said Harlene. She explained that knowing the violin helped in learning the other instruments. “You know some of the notes and can learn by ear too.”
Noor played cello during the kirtan and plays a few other strings too. “I know a little bit of violin and know a good amount of taus and dilruba,” she said.
So what compelled these Kaurs, who already knew a bunch of instruments, to learn more?
“Since I already played violin,” explained Harlene, “I decided that I have to learn something new, because all I played was violin and vaja. I wanted to go cultural style. So, I picked up the taus, learned from a few bhai sahibs, and then I started to get it.”
Noor told me that Sikh camp is what got her interested in Sikh instruments. “We went to camp in Detroit and we learned a little bit of dilruba. We saw what you could do once you got good and that’s why we pushed ourselves to learn. We want to be that good.”
Noor and Harlene credit their family for creating a supportive and encouraging environment.
“I think it’s mainly my dad because he’s usually the one who pushes me to do my best in everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s in school or cultural activities. He’s the one who wanted me to try new things and get good at them,” explained Noor.
“It’s both of my parents,” said Harlene. “I didn’t have much of a passion for singing when I was smaller but my mom kind of made me and built me up. Then, when I started to sing, my dad pushed me to keep going. My mom saw how much effort I was putting into it and she knew it was going to be good.”
The drive I saw in Noor and Harlene was unparalleled. They wished to be good at kirtan, not simply for the sake of being good, but because it brings them joy.
“It makes me feel calm and relaxed,” Harlene said. “…and happy that I’m sharing this with the sangat.”
Kirtan also brings the two Kaurs closer to Sikhi. Noor said, “It makes me feel closer to Waheguru. It makes me feel a connection. I feel good that our Gurus did this before.”
Harlene agreed. “I’ve connected with Waheguru. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve felt the shabad. I hope the sangat feels it too.”
Sometimes, people get nervous before singing in front of the sangat. Harlene had some good advice. “You just gotta close your eyes, take a deep breath, and connect with Waheguru. That’s the main point, not just to sing, but to connect with Waheguru.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re shy,” explained Noor. “The main reason to do kirtan is to make yourself feel good and to connect to Waheguru. Other people, if they want to, can connect with you, but it’s their choice. So, you should do what’s right and just go for it.”
What if you’re still nervous?
“Really, I think you should just do some paat. That’s what I do,” chuckled Harlene. “Relax, cool down, take a deep breath, and just try as best you can. You always gotta think positive.”
Negative self-talk just isn’t in these girls’ vocabulary.
“First you should never say that you can’t cuz that’s not true,” Noor said. “You can do it if you put your mind to it…you just have to work towards it to actually get good. You have to work hard to get what you want.”
I asked the girls how they felt about the upcoming Hemkunt Foundation Kirtan Competition.
“I feel happy and nervous at the same time that we’re competing against others, and that we’ve made it this far,” reflected Harlene. “I believe that as a group, we’ve connected to the sangat and their hearts, so maybe they’ll put us through.”
“I’m just happy that so many people are participating and actually making an effort to play the instruments that the Gurus did,” stated Noor. “I’m also kind of nervous. But, I think that’s normal before you compete.”
Harlene added, “If you’re gonna sing you gotta put in the effort…it just doesn’t happen in one day that you’re the best singer in the world. You gotta put effort in.”
You can hear Harlene and Noor’s kirtan on Kaur Life’s Youtube channel.
Their jatha also includes their cousins and siblings: Naina Kaur, Kamal Kaur, Jesse Singh, Sarab Singh, Simran Singh. They are lead by Harlene’s mother, Amrtia Kaur.