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Black Sky Thinking

No Turbans In Rock & Roll? On Growing Up A British Sikh Punk
The Quietus , October 1st, 2020 10:28

For years, Sym Gharial struggled reconciling his Sikh heritage with his love of rock & roll. Here he tells tQ how after years of poor mental health and recovering from addiction issues he was able to find a new sense of himself with a new musical project, Primitive Ignorant

What’s rock & roll all about? Noel Gallagher thinks he knows. Five years ago, before he was spouting for the anti-mask brigade, the former Inspiral Carpets roadie told Esquire magazine: “Rock & roll is all about freedom and honesty. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression. You have a duty to be honest.” Platitudinous though these words might be, many would identify an inherent truth in them. Call it what you will: rock, punk rock, indie rock, even the dad rock that Gallagher propagates… this lineage of noisy guitar music has served as a sonic religion for countless millions for 70 years or more. When Chuck Berry emerged from Wentzville, Missouri in the late 40s playing a conflation of country boogie and electric blues and Little Richard hit Planet Earth like a burning comet turning up in Macon, Georgia, rock & roll was black. Subsequently, despite the best intentions of Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones, it has become etiolated, exponentially whitening as the years rolled on. While rock & roll might be all about freedom and honesty, it really helps if you’re a white guy.

When I was coming of age in the early to mid-90s, guitar music was everywhere and I wanted to be a part of it. I was obsessed with bands like These Animal Men, SMASH*, the Manic Street Preachers and Suede, who in turn opened the door for the Clash, T.Rex, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and New York Dolls. I liked the darker side of indie where glam meets punk, and I still do. I loved the makeup, the androgyny, the decadence and the nihilism.

Growing up in West London, I didn’t look like your typical glam punk. I wore a turban until I was 15, which I’d try to disguise whenever I went out. On a Sunday going down to Camden Town, I’d cover my topknot with a baseball cap and I’d tell anyone who asked that I was Greek, or Italian, or half-Indian at best. Being Indian at the time didn’t feel cool, and I felt ashamed of who I was. Looking with hindsight at the lack of representation of Indians in rock and pop, my behaviour makes sense to me now, but at the time I was in so much pain.

I was suicidal and felt a longing to be British. Because I was Indian and because I wore a turban, I didn’t feel like I was ever going to be normal. I was getting more and more desperate. I was self-harming. It felt like I’d never be able to have an English girlfriend or go to clubs like my friends. I wore loads of foundation and loads of makeup. Once when I was in India, I bought skin lightener because I wanted to be white. A mixture of denial of the self, compounded by drink and drugs, helped me to bury this version of Symren, and I didn’t find him again until I got clean eight-years-ago.

Music was like a tractorbeam pulling me towards it. The more I researched, the more I saw the tribes in their exotic finery: punks, indie kids, skinheads, teddy boys; they all had very specific clothes. I wanted to be part of that. I used the music and the clothes and the fantasy to completely bury my Sikh identity, which had its own specific uniform, it’s own shibboleths. I cut my hair overnight. I remember taking pictures of Richey Edwards and These Animal Men into the hairdressers the day I got my hair cut aged 15.

I was the opposite of Sampson: when I cut my hair I became powerful. This was at the time that Britpop came along and everything changed for me. I moved to Brighton and life opened up. I was spotted and shot for one of the alternative covers of Pulp’s Different Class. In a small way, I was part of that moment. It’s easy to look with some disparagement retrospectively, but it’s the most exciting thing when you're that age, discovering bands and taking drugs and sharing ideas. It’s an adventure. This youthful exuberance was wrapped up in a far darker motive: I was trying to completely run away from who I was and leave behind my cultural identity. I'd be at home with my parents and it was as if I was leading this double life. Getting messed up, then coming home to my mum and dad, who I couldn't look in the eye.

I joined a band and things began to happen for us. The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster enabled me to create another false character. In a way all my teenage dreams came true, but the generation before me weren’t afforded the luxury of dreams. My dad came to London with high hopes and the possibilities of what he felt he could achieve in the UK seemed endless. It was dark and foggy when he landed at Heathrow Airport. He was cold. He had to move to a shared house with eleven other Indian students all using the same facilities. After a while he thought about getting his own place. He wasn’t prepared for what would come. Most places that offered a room had a notice in the window: “No Blacks; No Irish; No dogs”. The door was shut before it had even opened. He reflected how my parents had left the security of their own homeland in the Punjab with hopes of a better life in East Africa, and how he’d left Kenya with a similar optimism.

My mum remembers running from the fear of being killed by soldiers under the ethnic cleansing of Idi Amin’s brutal regime in Uganda. Her thoughts were clustered around fear, uncertainty and a deep sense of hopelessness. She was not expecting the hostility and bullying she faced from other pupils at her English school. She was targeted because she wore traditional Indian clothes. She was mocked and laughed at and even had pictures of herself posted on the school noticeboard with her head replaced with that of a bull. It might have been less humiliating to have stayed in a country where one’s life was endangered, but having your identity pilloried was soul-destroying. These marks have remained with her throughout her adult life. That generation of Indians would have not felt empowered enough to talk about the suffering they were experiencing.

I remember being on the bus with my mum on the way home from school, and we would have stuff thrown at us and kids would try to rip my turban off. I remember the racism my dad received on the building site. I remember we were always told we would have to work twice as hard as anyone else. I remember thinking that my family and I had done something in our past lives and that is why we were Sikhs in this life. It was a punishment.

There was far less opportunity to explore your dreams for the generation that moved here after partition. As a race of people, they were so stifled and persecuted for so long. When I look at my cousins now, who I saw at Christmas - one’s a DJ, one’s a rapper, one’s a singer and the other is a musician, I’m filled with hope. There was never any sense that my parent’s generation or their parent’s generation could come over here and start a rock & roll band. It was just a different kind of struggle they faced.

Popular music has always had moments of being forward looking and inclusive. Disco was not just a dance genre, it was a space of freedom for gays, Blacks, Latinos, women… Pop is transgressive and gives the finger to social norms. But British Asians were largely left out of that equation for so long. There was little representation that I recall, and I remember being just as surprised as everyone else when it transpired that Freddie Mercury was Indian. He’d played the neat trick of concealing his ethnic and sexual identity from Middle England as he lost himself in a demimonde of gleeful debauchery, and the only clue anything was up was Hot Space.

The Indian immigrant story in Britain hasn't really been documented properly in music, or in cinema, but I think that partly comes from a fear within the community itself. The first diaspora after partition was a lifesaving expedition. It came after the exploitation and trauma of the colonial era, a trauma that has continued to this day, and with it there’s an entrenched inferiority complex. 70-years-ago rock & roll exploded, but at the same moment my grandparents were running for their lives. They weren’t about to experience empowerment, they were instead going to be treated like second class citizens, oppressed as before though now they were in the belly of the beast. The hierarchy that was created out of colonialism is still prevalent in Britain today, even implicitly.

When I was younger there were no Sikhs on Top Of The Pops and few Indians making music that I could identify with. Bhangra has been reappropriated in electronic music, but there are still no turbans in rock & roll. I’ve thought about going back to wearing one myself, as I’ve become at ease with the real me in sobriety, but given my lack of religious faith, it’s just a consideration at this moment. While I continue that internal discourse, there’s something that I have done in the meantime.

Primitive Ignorant is a musical project that has been quietly fomenting for decades in the unconscious mind, and Sikh Punk is the culmination of a lifetime’s experience, recorded with a host of collaborators that I’ve met along the way. I’ve made an album about Sikh identity, this apparent clash of cultures, growing up in the hostile environment of a Ladbroke Grove estate in West London, and I’ve even got one of my heroes Mick Jones on board, who lives around the corner from where I grew up.

Sikh Punk is an oxymoron, of course. Or is it? The idea that punk and Sikhism are not analogous is a nonsense, and like any doctrine (punk, I mean), it has been misinterpreted and misused. Rock & roll should be about being unique and exploring your dreams. It should be about being a freethinker, or as Noel Gallagher said, it should be about freedom and honesty. But somehow it hasn't been allowed to happen.

This record is probably something I would have made anyway - a space has opened up where this is now not only permitted but completely natural, whereas 30-years-ago it would have been considered a novelty record or regarded as some recherché oddity. There's more of a willingness for people to listen right now. Sikh Punk was written and recorded before the murder of George Floyd, and although Black Lives Matter is specifically about the Black struggle and police brutality towards Blacks, the debate has opened up and widened to incorporate POC underrepresentation and persecution.

Furthermore, the internet has enabled and emboldened people to share music and allowed voices to be heard for the first time. This fracturing of a monolithic culture means that more people of different ethnic backgrounds can reach into lives that were hitherto denied to them, disparate sounds and ideas are merged and taken to new places all the time, and the behemoth Oasis and bands like them will never be able to become huge in the same way ever again. It’s a win win situation.

Punk Sihk isn’t about being a victim. If anything, it's trying to eradicate that idea. Using suffering as a means to share experience - that's where the power lies. Share your experience and it might help someone else, or they might identify with it, or they might find refuge in some of the lyrics. The whole idea of Britishness has exploded over the last few years. What does it mean to be British? What is the true British identity? Are British values so fragile and under threat that they need to be protected at all costs? These are the things that propelled me to writing the record from this perspective. I really had to question my own cultural affiliations, I had so much neurosis around it for so long, and I think Britain’s existential crisis and all the navelgazing and racism has counterintuitively made me come to a realisation: I suddenly feel proud to be an immigrant for the first time.

Sikh Punk is out on 23rd October via Something In Construction records. Interview by Jeremy Allen