Jasnam Daya Singh: Wearing a turban and composing music for justice
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.
This week I interviewed my friend Jasnam Daya Singh, who was born in Brazil and is a Latin Grammy-nominated concert and jazz pianist and brilliant composer. He happens to be a Sikh, after growing up Catholic. Now working as an adult caregiver when he’s not making music, Jasnam is one of the kindest, most gentle people I know. Jasnam is one of the pianists at my church, Spirit of Grace.
A few weeks before COVID-19 hit, Jasnam led a 12-piece band in playing his composition, Ekta: The Unity Project. A multi-movement suite that incorporates a wide-range of tributaries of the jazz stylistic river—Brazilian choro and samba of Singh’s country of birth, expansive European jazz and classical styles, and high-energy straight-ahead jazz, the piece embodies Jasnam’s musical interests but also expresses personal truths drawn from his journey as an immigrant and eventual citizen of the United States, and his conversion to Sikhism. You can listen to the composition on YouTube or on Spotify, or purchase it on BandCamp.
Jasnam was born in a suburb of Rio De Janeiro to loving parents, and he lived there until he was 25 years old. He began studying piano at age seven. Since his father grew up poor, he didn’t get to learn piano until he was 19 and he wanted it to be different for Jasnam. Jasnam remembers his father sitting at the family piano and playing for hours.
Brazil has changed a lot since Jasnam was young. After a coup in 1964, the military stayed in power for 30 years. Consequently, Jasnam has never voted for president...by the time Brazil had free elections, he was already living here. After a hopeful phase in the early 2000s, now Brazil has reverted back to authoritarianism by electing a far-right president.
When Jasnam studied classical music as a young person, he always thought he might move to Europe. But in 1987, when a college friend returned to Brazil and told him about her life in Los Angeles, Jasnam made the decision to move there.
He arrived in California with two pieces of luggage and $1,000, but on the second day he had only $400 when the person hosting him rent free announced he had to pay rent and a deposit.
Living in Los Angeles for 2-1/2 years, Jasnam worked all kinds of day jobs while gigging at night. Listen to the podcast to hear which celebrity he worked for and which movie premiere he got to attend!
In 1990, he landed a gig near Carmel and Monterey, and when the weekend gig became a full-time gig, he decided to move to the Monterey Peninsula. While living there for 20 years, he was able to do his music full-time and had a gig every night. He was married to his first wife for three years and had his daughter with her, and they have remained great friends. He met Gabriella, his wife of almost 17 years, in Monterey and they had a son together.
When his son was a year and a half, Gabriella moved to Vancouver, WA, to get help from her parents while raising their son. Jasnam joined them a couple of years later in 2008. Initially when he moved here, he felt like he was giving up a lot, but he’s also discovered new things, the most meaningful of which was coming across the Sikh faith and eventually converting.
Born as Weber Ribeiro Drummond, Jasnam has changed his name twice. In 1998, he adopted the last name Iago as an homage to the Roma people. Twenty years later, he changed his name to Jasnam Daya Singh with his initiation into the Sikh religion in 2009.
In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru of the Sikhs, gave Sikh women the last name “Kaur,” meaning princess, and Sikh men the last name “Singh,” meaning lion. This change freed Sikhs of the Indian caste system and it also gave women independence from their husbands.
Jasnam was raised Catholic and was on path to becoming a Franciscan friar and priest. He left the seminary and did not practice any religion for several years.
“When I came across the teachings of Sikhi, they really resonated with me...how universal the teachings are, the acceptance of all spiritual paths, and there’s one practice in Sikhi called Naam Simran, which is a constant remembrance of God...that idea of thinking of God with each breath really spoke to me...”
Jasnam is drawn to the core beliefs of Sikhism:
Remembering God through meditation all times of day and night during each and every activity
Standing up for anyone who needs you; Sikhs are meant to stand out (for example, wearing the turban)
Selflessly sharing your wealth and resources
I asked Jasnam how people treat him in his turban. Unfortunately, people perceive turban-wearing Sikhs as threatening, foreign, and even as terrorists.
“Don’t get us wrong; we don’t want you to stop attacking us and go attack Muslims. But we are not Muslim. First, know that we’re not Muslim, and then come and find out who Sikhs are.”
When he first moved to the United States, he told people the main reason he left Brazil was to further his career and pursue his life as a musician.
“But now when I look back, I realize it was much more than that...my 33 years in this country have mainly been about learning about myself and human relationships.”
Jasnam is grateful for all the gifts in his life. He feels fortunate to have family support from both of his parents, and over the years he’s been lucky to have good friends in Brazil and the United States. When I asked Jasnam what he’s most proud of, he said that question immediately makes him think of gratitude for simple things we take for granted...his family in Brazil, his family here, his two children, music in his life, and having come across the Sikh faith.
I asked him what he wished people understood about him:
“I wish they understood what a turban stands for. That very person who might be bullying us...could count on us if he or she needed something....we are the opposite of the threat they think we are...the turban represents social justice and equality.”
In India, people know to watch for people with turbans, because they know Sikhs will help them with whatever they need. Jasnam visited India in November 2019 for the first time, and he feels nostalgic about the trip and looks forward to returning.
In addition to wearing a turban, Sikhs carry five Ks, or kakars, on their body:
Kachhera—a loose undergarment, designed for ease of movement
Kanga—a wooden comb, to take care of their hair (which they do not cut)
Kara—an iron or steel bangle, serving as a visible reminder of the bond between the Sikh and guru
Kes—uncut hair, honoring hair growth as the intent of the creator (covered by a “keski” or turban)
Kirpan—a ceremonial short sword or dagger, representing the ideal of the Sikh warrior to defend the weak from tyranny, injustice, and forced conversion
You can read more about why Sikhs wear turbans here.
I asked Jasnam what he’s been reading and watching lately, and he was the fourth or fifth of my podcast guests to mention the fantastic documentary “Thirteenth.” We also discovered a shared fascination with time travel, and I learned that Neal DeGrasse Tyson is another time travel fanatic!
I was curious to hear what kinds of music Jasnam listens to when he’s not composing his own. He mentioned several impressionistic composers and choral music, but then he got really excited:
“One sound that can never go wrong with me, any day, any time of the day, is Gregorian chant.”
After he left the Franciscan monastery, he started attending services in Rio, and they had a choir that sang Gregorian chants. He tends to listen to music that is different than what he does.
Jasnam, like me, is drawn to stories that might seem initially negative but have a twist or turn that makes the negative thing turn into something beautiful. That’s why this podcast is about grit AND resilience. It’s also why Jasnam was attracted to Sikhism:
“If you read about Sikh history, (you’ll see that) they have gone through persecution, injustice, violence against them, and they did not allow that to change who they are....Their hardship and resolve is part of what inspired me to become one as well.”
Next week I interview Mx. Harris Eddie Hill (they/them), my first British guest! Harris is cohost of the Transection Podcast. An entrepreneur and seasoned LGBTQ+ advocate, Harris is dedicated to making every story as familiar to us as our own. Harris is an incredible resource for learning how to support transgender and nonbinary loved ones.
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