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“To be able to sing, you have to have lived. I think I have lived.” Sonam Kalra

Sonam Kalra Multiple award-winning singer and composer, Sonam Kalra is known for her beautiful, powerful voice and complex compositions. Trained in both Indian and Western traditions of music, she is equally adept at both. Her creative and unique expressions of music have made her a popular voice at prestigious stages including the Sydney Opera House and MTV's Coke Studio as well at festivals and venues across 30 countries. Sonam is a member of the Grammy Recording Academy and has been felicitated with many awards. Sonam has shared the stage with legendary musicians like Sir Bob Geldof at the Sounds of Freedom Concert in New Delhi and Sufi Legend Abida Parveen at Muzaffar Ali's World Sufi Festival. She was invited to sing at Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas's wedding as well as Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor's wedding. She has also performed at for the Prime Minister, and President of India as well as 52 heads of World states.
An artist made out of consecutive setbacks but chose to challenge the norms and emerge.
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How did you get the strength to pursue your passion?

Sometimes, getting lost helps.

The next time the GPS in your car tells you to take a right, take a left Do it. Just do it.

Do it even though everything tells you not to, including the nagging voice on your GPS. Just do it.

You may get a little lost, but chances are you'll find something. Something you never knew existed.

That's what my roadmap for life has been. And it's not something I've done in a rebellious manner. It's just something I've done with one small device to guide me. My gut. My intuition.

Intuition is something we tend to ignore

Because we don't trust ourselves enough, we don't listen to the voice in our heads. Instead, we listen to the world, worry about what they will say, how they will react, and God Forbid, what if they don't approve? We create feelings of self-doubt. Feelings that paralyze us and force us to stay in our comfort zone. Our safe zone. We forget that we have one life, and this day, this moment comes in that life only once. So it is far too precious to spend it being afraid.

Sometimes, the first step to realizing who you are, who you want to be, and achieving your dream is as simple as saying it out loud. Believing that you are the dream.

Seven years ago, I said it out loud. I said, "I am a musician," and everything changed. My life changed. And today, I can say, I'm finally home. I didn't start out as a musician; in fact, I started my career as a graphic designer in an advertising agency after getting my degree from Art School. This is why when I suddenly, quit the advertising job that I was doing so well at, everyone was surprised, including myself!I had been studying music alongside my job for a while but the long working hours never gave me enough time to do the music any justice. So one day I just thought, that's it, I have to now, follow your dream, one life, do it, jump off the deep end. And I quit.

It wasn't easy at all, though; almost as soon as I quit studying music, I lost my voice for a year. I was plagued with Laryngitis, pharyngitis, and every throat infection you could think of, not to mention Sinusitis! I didn't give up, though; I worked in television and did freelance writing work till my voice got better and I was able to resume studying music. I was so fortunate to have an amazing relationship with both my parents, who supported me through every decision in my life; my father and mother were the strongest pillars in my life, and everything I am is thanks to them, and everything I can hope to be will be for them.

So, after I quit to follow my dream, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer; my life fell apart. She was my best friend, my soulmate, my backbone, and my strength. After a year of radiation, chemotherapy, and alternative medicine, my mother got better. I tried to resume my practice of music, but I just couldn't sing. Having seen my mother go through much pain and yet battle her cancer so bravely had broken my heart, and I felt completely blocked. So I decided to try and vent my emotions through another channel and decided to try theatre. My experience with theatre was an incredible one; it helped me deal with my emotions and taught me so much. It taught me one of the most important lessons and valuable lessons of my life.

"It taught me that as long as there is truth at the moment, there will be a beauty."

In the past, I had been quite hard on myself in the search for perfection. Theatre taught me to stop worrying so much about failure, success or perfection and spend more time in the search of the truth, in the search of our truths.

Even though I was fortunate enough as a child to learn Indian classical music from teachers anyone would've given their right arm to learn from, I think the reason it took me so long to come home to music, to truly start working on creating music, was because I wanted to have something to say. Something I needed to say.

My story to tell. My truth.

One of my Gurus once told me, "To be able to sing, you have to have lived."

And though I didn't understand it then, I do now.

I think I have lived.

I have lived through the 84 riots- where we were targeted only because we belong to the Sikh religion. I have lived through the violence, the fear, the hatred, the not understanding why we were made to feel different just because of the label Sikh.

I have lived through the Tsunami that hit Sri Lanka, where my husband and I held on to a pillar for dear life for what seemed like an eternity, watching people get washed away around us.

I have lived through the miracle of my father surviving a serious illness where every organ was failing and the doctors had given up but it was faith that got him through.

I have lived through watching my mother's cancer so bravely.

And I have lived through the hardest of them all, losing both my parents within a couple of years of each other.

I have lived through Questioning God.

Questioning belief,

Questioning religion and how it is supposed to unite yet divides us,

I have lived through Forgiving, learning, and letting go.

And finding, through it all, a different kind of understanding. Faith. And Belief.

In people. In God. In finding God within people. In goodness. In celebrating life. And love.

And finally, I did have something to say. It's called the Sufi Gospel Project.

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Tell us more about your Sufi Gospel Project?

The Sufi Gospel Project is an attempt to blend the many voices of faith through music, poetry, and prayer to create one voice. A universal voice of faith.

Even though the idea had been germinating in my head for a while, what really triggered it was when, 5 years ago, I was asked to sing gospel at the Urz- the birth celebration of the Sufi saint Inayat Khan in Nizamuddin. I was so overwhelmed by the thought of a Sikh girl singing Christian music in a seemingly Islamic space - That's when I began researching and creating the Sufi Gospel Project, as I wanted to do something worthy, befitting of this opportunity that had been granted to me.

Even though I trained in Indian classical music, I had been singing gospel music for a year or two before this Project was born, and the one thing almost everyone asked at the end of a concert was, why does a Sikh girl sing gospel or "Christian bhajans" as someone referred to them.

This question made me wonder why people get uncomfortable when someone breaks the norm. When they can't slot in, someone puts a tag on them.

Because inherently, we, as people, like labels. And genres. And things that fit in neatly where they're meant to, like a well-organized e-mail inbox. In a categorizable, recognizable sort of way.

Our perception of organized religion works in much the same way. You're Hindu, and I'm Sikh, and he's Muslim, and she's Parsi, and they're Christian, and so on. Labels.

Religion puts you in a little box, with a neatly placed label. It then puts these little boxes into larger containers, groups them, and stacks them up against each other. Till one pile tips over and falls causing a domino effect of sorts and well, all hell breaks loose.

If you look at a person on the street, chances are you wouldn't be able to tell who goes to which place to pray, and you shouldn't be able to. And the fact is, it shouldn't matter either.

The truth is that many different hallelujahs and many different calls to God can exist in harmony.

This is written by my mother...

This, to me, is exactly what Sufism means. An acceptance of all humanity, gospel-the truth.

And so I thought, why couldn't I create, through music, Through the Sufi Gospel Project, this acceptance of all humanity by blurring the lines between these religions?

And that's what this Project is about- an acceptance of all truths as equal - yours, mine, his, hers, everyone's truth

And interestingly, I found resonances of this truth of acceptance everywhere I looked. In the voices and thoughts of so many people from across the world the old and the new, the same ideologies in ancient verses, in contemporary songs, in poetry, in a chant, in a verse from the Bhakti tradition, in an Irish prayer, in a couplet my mother wrote, in John Lenon's imagine and Leonard Chen's Hallelujah, in Rumi, in Rabia, in rhythm, in music and voices from all over the world,

The more I questioned our differences, the more I found, through them, our similarities.

The music of the Sufi gospel Project is about realizing that each of us has our own truth, whether it be in a temple, a mosque, or a church, but most importantly, that each truth is just as valid. It's about bringing together the many voices of faith, to create one voice. Where the sounds of the sikh morning prayer can blend into Amazing grace which then flow seamlessly into a sufi verse. It's about faith, not just in God but in Good, about standing up for equality of gender, people, acceptance, tolerance, unity, secularism and individuality.

It's about taking God out of spaces and finding him in ones heart and in the heart of the person next to you.

It's about freedom from definitions, distinctions, and labels of religion.

It's about pausing and listening carefully, for often, we're shouting so loudly in so many different tongues that we don't realize that we're all saying the same thing.

And every time I get onto the stage, I realize that the music of The Sufi gospel project is not only my story, it's your story, it's their story, it's the story of many voices, many thoughts, many truths. And an acceptance of every voice.

And through it, I hope to put forth a simple yet powerful truth:

that religion isn't God,

and that God has no religion.

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What has been the most memorable performance or experience in your musical journey so far?

Each performance is special, but I would say it's probably been the one at The Sydney Opera House. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I would sing there. It was even more special because it was on the eve of my late mother's birthday, and I always wanted to do her proud. And I think the standing ovation and love we got from the audience that evening made me feel like she would've been proud of me.

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Which musicians or artists have had a significant influence on your music and style?

I love voices that are real and raw. From the chest, soul voices. Voices with stories. For me, the voices and styles of singing that have impacted me the most are Begum Akhtar, Ella Fitzgerald, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Kumar Gandharva, Shobha Gurtu, Farida Khanum, and Frank Sinatra.

I believe to be a singer, you should emulate, not imitate. Find your own voice, tell your own truth through your voice and music.

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How do you approach the creative process when composing and arranging your music? Tips for our students.

I generally start by thinking about a topic- which means I either start writing the lyrics or researching poetry of Sufi poets that I want to compose. For me, what I say through the music is very important. I then put it to a tune based on the lyrics.

Sometimes, this process is quick, and sometimes, it can even take months. But the point is, I work through the struggle, and I don't give up because it's hard. Our greatest victories and learnings are those that come through struggle. And that's something important to remember. For it is only through the struggles and the downs that we find our true voice and our truth, our unique individuality

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