On 23rd February, 2020 I was privileged to be invited to the World Premier of Arya, a work by Leeds Sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun and I was amazed. Not only by the composition, the occasion, and the playing by both Mr Degun and The Orchestra of Opera North, but by the demeanour and humility of the man himself. He possesses a great gift, which has obviously been refined by hours of practice, but has absolutely no pretensions whatsoever, so, when I ran into him at the Grand Theatre and he invited me to this lunchtime concert, I was delighted to accept.

He is so generous of spirit he stressed that I was not being invited as a reviewer but simply because he would like me to be there and an article was certainly not expected. Having seen the performance there was no way I was not going to share the experience with you. I obtained his permission to write about the recital as I don’t betray people’s trust, and it was obviously granted.

The event was part of the Kirklees Concert Season 2021/22 and held at Dewsbury Town Hall at lunchtime which added to the ambience and informality. There were several large, circular dining tables allowing for social distancing and also the consumption of the excellent food on offer which was both inexpensive and just right for the time of day. Such was the popularity of the man that the balcony also needed to be utilised.

Before the piece began, Jasdeep gave a short talk explaining the structure of Indian Classical Music saying that there were three movements; the first being slow, the second melodic and the third fast. He also said that, although there is a basic framework within which the piece must be constructed, about 90% of the performance is improvised, ‘music of the heart’ as he described it. I was wondering how this improvisation would work as he was accompanied by Harkiret Bhara on tabla and Liam Walker, tanpura. It is fine for one musician to go off on his own journey but it would be disastrous if all three did it at the same time. The nature of the three instruments means that this doesn’t happen as each has a specific function.

Harkiret Bhara, tabla. Jasdeep Singh Degun, sitar. Liam Walker, tanpura.

The tanpura, which is a long-necked stringed instrument, plays a series of four notes in a continuous sequence setting the rhythm rather than being melodic. The tabla is a set of two small drums, rather like bongos, the smaller one provides the treble, and the larger one the bass. They are played using not only the palms of the hands but also the fingertips which means that the notes are able to be produced very rapidly by using a technique skin to that employed when typing.

The first movement was played in a key which suggested sorrow and mourning and was very moving. It only employed the skills of Jasdeep and Liam so was much lighter in touch that the second two. It did give us an opportunity to appreciate the roles which the two instruments filled. The tanpura provided a sort of drone behind Jasdeep’s playing. Because it was sparse it brought out the nuance of the sitar which is an amazing instrument. Like the tanpura it is a long-necked stringed instrument although somewhat bulkier. It can have between 17 and 21 strings but only 6 or 7 of these are played, the others are sympathetic strings which run underneath the frets and resonate in sympathy with the strings that are being played.

At the end of the first movement there was an awkward moment when the music stopped as we didn’t know whether to clap or, as with western classical music, wait until the end of the full work. Fortunately Harkiret Bahra saved the day by showing his appreciation of the other musicians, thus eliciting a huge round of applause from the audience.

The second, melodic movement, involved all three players and it showed how you can improvise and not clash with your colleagues. The tanpura began its four-note cycle and the sitar and tabla joined in. Jasdeep and Harkiret showed immediately that they were obviously used to working with each other and had a chemistry which manifested itself in nods and smiles between the two, as a kind of secret code to indicate what each was about to do, and acknowledge the skill of the other when the passage had been completed. This brought a more joyous feeling to the work and raised the spirits somewhat.

If the second movement raised the spirits, the third sent them into orbit. One of the techniques involved in playing the sitar is that the strings which are played are usually bent to change the note slightly, a method employed by blues guitarists. Here they were distorted into bends of hairpin proportions. As the speed picked up Jasdeep’s western influences manifested themselves. At one point he was like Keith Richards after a chemical boost with riffs worthy of the most accomplished axe man. Harkiret’s fingers were a positive blur tapping away at the tabla, to such an extent that a lady who was sitting at the same table as I said that the only thing she had seen which moved quicker were the wings of a humming bird. And all the time the smiling and nodding intensified with the music. At the end of the piece the whole hall was in uproar.

Harkiret Bahra, Jasdeep Singh Degun and Liam Walker

As befits such a man, rather than walk off stage he hugged each of his colleagues and gestured thanks to the audience with whom he gladly exchanged words and patiently posed for photographs.

This is a concert I, and I suspect my fellow audience members, will remember for years to come, not only because of the artistry and execution, but it was his first public performance since the tragic death of his 27 year-old brother last September. He had mentioned this at the start of the recital and there was also a note in the programme. I assumed that this was why the first movement was so sombre, as well it should be if it is, as he said, ‘music of the heart’.

Although the cause of their loss was not detailed, the family of Taran Singh Degun has set up a just giving page to raise funds for Leeds Mind and Andy’s Man Club ‘to try and prevent any other family suffer the same loss, or any other son and brother to struggle as Tarian has without knowing the support and help available’.

Should you wish to contribute please follow this link to http://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/inmemoryoftaran it might just help someone survive.

There are three more events in the Kirklees Concert Season 2021/22, the final one of which is another lunchtime event at Dewsbury Town Hall and is a very special farewell concert of Music and Tales with David Greed who is stepping down as Leader of The Orchestra of Opera North after 45 years.

For more details and bookings please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/your-visit/huddersfield-dewsbury/

Feature image provided by Opera North. Others by Stan Graham

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