In Conversation With Satnam Galsian

Punjabi musical heritage inspiring women
Elizabeth Simmonds
June 24, 2024

Born and raised in Leeds, Satnam Galsian is a British Asian folk singer who creates connections between disparate music traditions while also questioning traditional depictions of women. Having created a name for herself with her band Kinaara, Satnam releases her debut solo EP next month, with the first single, ‘Whispered Messages’ available now for download. 

We were keen to chat to Satnam to discover how her Punjabi heritage and UK upbringing inform her work and why interrogating patriarchy is so important to her.

Can you tell us about the musical journey that’s brought you to this point?

Of course. Since receiving my North Indian classical music degree from Birmingham Conservatoire, I’ve worked with a diverse range of multidisciplinary artists exploring the interplay of North Indian and Western music traditions. I’ve also released two EPs with my band Kinaara.

Last year, I was awarded the Alan James Creative Bursary in collaboration with fellow Leeds artist and BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner Maddie Morris to research and explore gender-based violence in both traditions. Then, earlier this year, I was chosen for an Opera North Resonance Residency which meant I could focus on a project reimagining a tragic love story from the Punjab. And now here I am preparing to release my first solo EP!

Reinterpreting Punjabi and English folk songs from a feminist perspective lies at the heart of your work. Where does the inspiration to approach traditional songs in this way come from?

As a South Asian woman who has experienced control and coercion in a very patriarchal setting, my inspiration comes from my lived experiences. Coming out of that situation, I had to find myself again, regain my confidence and reclaim my voice. 

Much of my recent work comes from a place of wanting to inspire women and encourage them to be in charge of their own destinies, following their own goals and dreams. I’ve chosen to do this while also introducing people to the musical richness of my Punjabi heritage.

Your first single ‘Whispered Messages’ includes the line ‘women can be anything they like, we’re not just here to be someone’s daughter or wife’. Why did you want to include this?

The starting point for the song was my desire to interrogate the themes of patriarchy and female submissiveness and, through that, to invite new understandings of expectation and destiny for women. 

I often think about the Punjabi women before me who had to adapt to a totally new culture in this country, and wonder what words of wisdom they’d have shared with me. I’m always aware of those missing voices and it makes me think hard about what messages I’d like to give to girls today.  

‘Suhaag’ or Punjabi wedding songs feature several times on Fragmented Truths, your forthcoming EP. What messages are you portraying through them?

The ‘suhaag’ or wedding songs traditionally sung on the bride’s side at a Punjabi wedding often speak of the woman being handed over by the father to the husband and his household, and the uncertainty that engenders. I sing these because they’re a part of my culture, but also because they give me the chance to challenge their patriarchal viewpoint through my own storytelling.

As an example, the track ‘We are Like Birds’ is a discussion between a father and daughter where she is yearning to remain in the home she knows, but her father replies that she now belongs to another family and must leave them behind. ‘If We are Like the Birds’ is written as a response to this, encouraging women to make their own choices. Similarly, ‘A Butterfly Emerges’ encourages women to follow their own path and remain hopeful about the future.

Satnam Galsian
Satnam Galsian

Why did you also choose to include an Irish folk song?

As a folk singer, I love to perform English folk and Celtic songs. Irish vocal ornamentation is similar to Indian singing, so I especially love arranging Irish songs in my own style and ‘Lagan Love’ is a great example of that. The first Irish songs I vocally arranged was ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, it’s on Kinaara’s first EP and is one of our most popular songs, especially at gigs. 

Tell us about the instruments you play on the EP

The songs on the EP are sung with a shruti box, which is a little like a harmonium in that works on a system of bellows, and electronic tanpura (a tanpura is a traditional stringed instrument played on the Indian subcontinent). They are both drone instruments which means they sustain a tone which my melodies can soar above.

You spoke earlier about being chosen for one of Opera North’s Resonance residencies this year. What did that involve?

The Resonance residencies provide funding, time and space to global majority artists to create new music. I loved mine! It gave me a chance to reimagine Mirza-Sahiban, one of the best-known tragic love folk tales on the Indian subcontinent. In the story, Sahiban is said to have betrayed her lover, the warrior Mirza, which results in him being killed by her brothers. I decided to reinterpret Sahiban’s actions to show that she didn’t actually betray Mirza, and that her story has become an example of the blame culture which exists around women. I’m planning to release the resulting musical work Sahiban in the autumn, so watch this space!

You believe that music has the power to help people at difficult times. How does this play out in what you do?

I know at first hand just how therapeutic music can be. That’s why I’ve worked with various organisations such as HCMF//, Hoot Creative Arts and Darts to deliver community music sessions that promote health and wellbeing through interaction with the arts. I also regularly hold workshops in schools. 

If I can give one person agency through music or inspire one girl to make the choices that are right for her, everything I do will have been worthwhile.

Whispered Messages, Satnam Galsian’s first solo single, is available to download now from Bandcamp Whispered Messages | Satnam Galsian (, and to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and most digital streaming platforms. The EP Fragmented Truth will be released on 19 July 2024.‍

Header Image: Satnam Galsian (Image Aoife Foxley)