A sitar star from SOAS: an interview with Jasdeep Degun

Jasdeep Degun - the sitar star that studied Music at SOAS

Jasdeep Degun is one of Britain’s leading sitarists. Having graduated from SOAS in 2015, Jasdeep is rapidly establishing himself as an award-winning musician in both Indian classical and contemporary music scenes. He has performed at many prestigious events and venues, including the BBC Proms, Buckingham Palace, and the Amphitheatre in Doha. Jasdeep recently composed a sitar concerto with Opera North, and is working on releasing his debut album Anomaly later this year. We sat down with Jasdeep to find out more.

What did you study at SOAS, and how did your time here affect you – as a person, or in your career?

I studied Music at SOAS and graduated in 2015. It was great being in such a central location and amongst such a wide range of musicians from a variety of different styles and genres. My time at SOAS has definitely impacted my career positively. 

What is your best memory of SOAS?

My best memory during my time at SOAS has to be performing at the BBC Proms in 2014. One of my SOAS lecturers, Prof Richard Widdess, recommended my work to the proms team, who then invited me to perform at the Royal Albert Hall. I remember rehearsing in one of the music rooms at SOAS before heading off to sound check in South Kensington. I have countless other memories of my time at SOAS too, including meeting life-long friends, learning about different musical styles, and the general SU life. 

If you were able to work with any of the musician traditions (areas, genres or musicians) you studied at SOAS, what would it be?

I came to SOAS with the express aim of studying Indian classical music from an academic perspective. What was great about the course was that we were introduced to a wide variety of different genres and traditions of music from around the world. Apart from Indian classical music, I was particularly drawn to Persian classical music and Chinese classical music. I found there to be many parallels with Indian classical music in terms of discipline, social context, and the fact that the music is passed down orally from teacher to student. 

The north of England has a thriving South Asian classical music scene, could you tell us a bit about how it functions? 

I’m proud to say that the north of England, and Leeds in particular (where I’m from), has a thriving Indian classical music scene. There are currently over 130 students learning Indian classical music at the SAA-uk Music Academy in Leeds. This has been pioneered by my teacher Ustad Dharambir Singh.

Dharambir ji has been responsible for and/or involved in almost every single Indian classical initiative in the country for the last 30 years or so. He was instrumental in setting up key organisations such as SAA-uk, Samyo and Tarang (the two national Indian classical orchestras), the Darbar Festival, the Indian classical music degree at Trinity UOL, and many many more. Dharambir ji has made it possible for a student of Indian classical music to succeed in the art form by providing opportunities at every level (grassroots, regional, national, and international).

It’s because of Dharambir ji’s legacy that the training of Indian classical music has flourished, and continues to flourish, in this country. 

How does the North Indian classical music scene in the UK differ from on the Subcontinent, do you feel this influences your style and music?

The north Indian classical music scene is pretty thriving in the UK. The Darbar Festival is probably the largest festival of Indian classical music outside of India and is run by a British based and funded organisation.  There are many other South Asian arts organisations across the UK including SAMA Arts, Milapfest, Sampad, Shruti Arts, Gem Art’s, SAA-uk, Kala Sangam, Sitar Music Society, The Bhavan Centre etc. who work tirelessly in promoting Indian classical music.

There are also many community classes in sitar, vocal, dilruba, tabla etc. in almost every major city in the UK. I don’t feel that the music differs (especially when it comes to pure Indian classical music). There are always workshops happening with the top level musicians from India so we’re quite lucky to have unprecedented access to them during their time here (musicians such as Utd Shahid Parvez, Pt Ajoy Chakrabarty, Pt Rajan Sajan Misra etc.) which gives us a good grounding and insight into the artform. I think the contemporary scene, however, is much better here than in India as we have more access to a wide variety of styles and genres of music.

In London, you can find the best jazz, classical, contemporary, Indian classical musicians etc. – so there’s more scope for musical dialogue than, say, in Mumbai, Kolkata, or Delhi. 

Profile shot of Jasdeep Degun - the sitar star that studied Music at SOAS

Your debut album performance for ‘Anomaly’ had renowned musicians such as Anoushka Shankar, Nitin Sawhney, Smt. Sukanya Shankar, Pandit Sanju Sahai amongst your family and many others in the audience. That being said, how do traditionalists react to your music that pushes the boundaries of strict classical?

I was very lucky to have performed music from my debut album at the Southbank Centre last October to such an esteemed audience. With Anomaly, I was keen to feature Indian classical musicians born and trained in the UK, and write music that would appeal to both a seasoned Indian classical listener as well as one not as familiar with the genre. The music is a reflection of my varied musical tastes and influences but rooted whole-heartedly in Indian classical music at the core. I feel people have understood my intention with the music, and the response from the UK music community has been overwhelmingly positive.

You’ve recently finished composing ‘Arya’, a sitar concerto, how did you approach combining multiple classical traditions?

I’ve always been interested in putting the sitar with western classical instruments. I’ve written for small ensembles, as well as for larger Indian classical orchestras, but never for a full symphony orchestra, so Arya has been a steep learning curve for me. Working with the Orchestra of Opera North and their brilliant arranger Danny Saleeb has been a genuinely collaborative process, and it’s given me the tools to get my vision across completely.

At first, my focus was on trying to merge Indian and western classical music, but that’s a very lofty thing to attempt, and it didn’t really get me anywhere. Eventually I just asked myself: what was the music I actually wanted to write, and how could I make that work for orchestra and sitar?

As an Indian classical musician who was born and brought up here, I’m a product of my surroundings as well as my training. I think all composers are like sponges, they’ll soak up their environments, so I’m bound to have a different sensibility to those who’ve gone before. Arya is not a western classical concerto, it’s not an Indian classical piece: it’s simply the music that I wanted to present to the world. 

And lastly, you’re having a dinner party with your musical inspirations, what meal would you prepare?

My mum’s a mean cook – so I’d ask her to cook!

Sasha Patel is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and fourth year student of History and South Asian Studies (Hindi Pathway)

This article was originally featured in SOAS Spirit.

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