Sarb Akal Music Society

A still from the Sarb Akal Music Society's YouTube channel
Sarb Akal YouTube channel | Photo: Courtesy of Sarb Akal

Sarb Akal Music Society

This passion project taps into the healing power of music

There are actually two Sarb Akal Music Societies. One is the local, East Calgary Indian music academy that had seven students show up the first day they opened in Forest Lawn in 2009. Offering lessons in tabla, sitar, and other classical Indian instruments, they now have about 50 students.

The second Sarb Akal Music Society is a digital clone of the first one, also based in the Forest Lawn home of Bhai Harjeet Singh, but it promotes, teaches and speaks to an Indian classical music scene that is global, growing—and awesome.

That’s what Arts in Action discovered upon meeting with Singh, Sarb Akal General Secretary Pyush Vyas, and Executive Director of Fund Development and Growth Vipul Jasani in early June for an interview.

The organization is really the passion project of Singh, a tabla player that’s been transformed, through Singh’s single-minded passion, a supportive Calgary community, and exponential growth due in large part to the emergence of social media, into a multimedia, global music hub whose reach extends well beyond the 403 area code.

Exhibit A: The Sarb Arkal YouTube channel, which has over 23,000 subscribers.

“And 200 new signups each day,” exclaims Jasani.

There’s a weekly radio show, Tuesday from 6:00 to 7:00pm, on 94.7 FM.

“We only talk about music. No politics,” says Vyas, who is also a tabla player.

There is a yearly international music festival, which brings in the top Indian classical musicians from around the world, to perform at venues such as the Bella Concert Hall and the Rozsa Centre.

There’s a steady, relentless interaction between musicians, who live in India, London, South Africa, and Russia, all asking for an invitation to perform at the Indian Classical Music Festival.

And then there’s the story of the young violin player in Medicine Hat, who contacted Singh, asking if there was a way to connect him with a well-known violinist, who lives in India.

Singh—an Uber driver who says he spends $25,000 a year of his own money to fund Sarb Akal— kept persisting, writing to the woman in India. He asked her to come to Calgary to perform at the festival—”The number one Indian classical music festival in North America,” says Jasani—but the problem was that the woman was a popular musician, with many performing opportunities, and it’s an 18-hour flight from India to Alberta.

She said no.

Singh kept in touch, telling her about the young violinist from Medicine Hat, about Sarb Akal and about the Calgary classical Indian music community.

Finally, she relented and asked for a tape.

A little while later, Singh received an email.

“I will teach him,” she said. “Free, because you promote Indian classical music.”

She teaches the young violinist on Skype.

It turns out that not only does Sarb Akal stand for everywhere, timeless, immortal and non-temporal, but it also stands for the digital landing spot when it comes to Indian classical music—a completely improvised musical form that Pyari describes as light. It’s music that lifts your soul, and your spirit.

It’s also music without a language barrier.

“Whatever language you are speaking, they understand,” says Vyas.

In addition to its annual Classical Indian Music Festival, Sarb Akal plays an active role promoting classical Indian music in Alberta. There was a concert in May at the National Music Centre. There was a Canada Day performance in Prince’s Island Park. There was an invitation to the Alberta Assembly.

There are also plans to incorporate Indigenous artists into the next festival, says Jasani.

“We want to integrate eastern and western music together,” he says.

That’s when Singh tells another story about a young couple who were at his home one day, with their six month old baby who was crying and miserable—at which point Singh played him some tabla music, which soothed him and calmed him down.

It quieted the restless baby’s soul.

A few weeks later, Singh received a phone call.

It was from the father of the young baby.

They were home, and the baby was once again, miserable, restless, and agitated.

“Uncle I need that instrument,” he said.

For Singh, who has plowed his earnings into building Sarb Akal for a decade, those are the types of paydays he has received over the past decade.

As it grows in stature, locally, nationally, and internationally, the hope is to transform Sarb Akal into a financially self-sustaining entity.

The music society recently became a registered charity. They have a board, they’re eligible for grants and working hard to raise funds to grow the annual festival—to find a way to imprint Sarb Akal’s identity onto Calgary as much as they have the rest of the planet.

Until then, Singh continues to do 10-hour days on Uber, followed by another six with Sarb Akal.

He’s building his own unique kind of equity, as a one-man brand preaching the joy of Indian classical music.

“I don’t have money in my pocket,” he says, “but I am a rich person in the world.”

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