By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Amanpreet Singh G.
Punjabi culture is alive and well in Canada. Unknown to most Americans, it’s likely even more unknown to your average beer-swilling, hockey-playing Canuck. The man who is putting a face to Punjabi music in Ontario is none other than Preet Mani, or as his website puts it, a “Mani in the Making.”
Born in the Punjab region of India, Mani’s parents moved to Canada when he was 12 years old. It was not always easy as a boy with a distinct cultural background moving to a place where the mainstream is quite the opposite of Indian, but he eventually found his way into a Punjabi community in the Toronto area. His singing style is considered openly and classically Punjabi but for anyone who’s ever once appreciated hip-hop or R&B, they will almost certainly find something to like in Mani’s jams.
Ever the optimistic young man with a deep love for his culture, he is trying to find ways to market his sound to all types of Canadians yet still retaining what makes him unique and vital to the community that took him in. BTR was able to speak with Mani as he was working in the studio on what should finally be a debut full-length for him, and thinking about what got him to sing in the first place.
Preet Mani is very excited to be here right now; that is, in Canada making Punjabi music. When asked, “What’s exciting that’s going on right now in Canada?” Mani didn’t even miss a beat to give a very detailed update with Punjabi culture in his particular province. He says that because “the Indian community is growing here” that there’s a lot of shows happening, and that he was even a part of an IIFA (International Indian Film Academy) event which was really just a Bollywood showcase. And just in case any Bollywood (or Pollywood, the Punjabi equivalent) music supervisors are reading, Mani would very much like to have his music featured in the background of a film.
He says, “I actually do a good job on slow songs and romantic songs, right? There are a lot of love songs in the movies so I can definitely use my voice for that.”
Preet Mani (born with the first name Manpreet, hence the stage name) moved to Canada when he was twelve to gain a greater sense of “cultural context,” a lot of his pop reference points remain Canadian. He describes his family as “not really traditional” and that they “do understand both cultures, Indian and how things are here.”
Though Mani comes from a strong musical background as his father was a singer, albeit in a religious setting, melting faces and lifting spirits with his voice in their local Sikh temple. Though they were not really “songs” in the traditional sense but rather music that the whole temple could sing, Mani says he “just picked up from there.” Mani’s father wasn’t his only influence, though. He points to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani classical singer who is “known worldwide” in Punjabi circles—and once described by famed vocalist Jeff Buckley as his “Elvis.” The legend has since passed on but Mani was able to absorb his influence using the most pervasive cultural bonding technology at his fingertips. Youtube.
“Everytime we would sit together on the weekend, my Dad’s there and he wanted to watch his [Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan] videos so I put them on for him and I started liking them too. That’s how I learned a lot, from watching videos on there. It was just his melodies and he was really trained in classical singing, right? I was born in India and I grew up here so it’s like, I always wanted to do both: Indian folk, classical, and modern singing,” says Mani.
Part of what makes Mani stand out in Canada is that being a true foreigner, he experienced a bit of a culture shock upon moving there. He pretty much always knew that he wanted to be a singer and now it’s “like a dream coming true.” Still, finding his place in the Punjab Canadian scene wasn’t easy. He says it took him “four or five years to blend into the culture” but that he was “lucky to be surrounded by incredible South Asian talent here.”
“When I went to school here there was a lot of my community there as well, right? I graduated from high school, and I was also part of a dance team and it was just participating; I went to all the shows and that’s how I got into it. There’s a lot of talent here and I’m one of many but we all offer something different to the market,” Mani says.
The first track that jumpstarted Preet Mani’s career was 2008’s “Maye”. The song boasts Mani’s impressive and classically trained Punjabi vocal stylings over a a half time, R&B-like beat for a modern flavor. Though it has an up-beat melody, the lyrical content is actually quite melancholy. It’s about his friend’s father who died of ALS and he thinks that “people really respected that.” He says he cried while singing the track after imagining his friend’s father on a hospital bed, immobile and unable to speak.
The song is not exactly the “out of the gate” uplifting song that you might expect but Mani believes that people get attached to the song when they first hear it. He says he always likes “singing about strong topics” but more that he wanted to have his first single be different than “songs about girls going to clubs.”
Turns out that Mani just sampled “Diamonds In the Sky” and used it in his own Punjabi take on it.
“I took her vocals and took her song, the instrumentals and I did my song on it so it’s like a remix. Maybe some people are thinking, ‘Yeah! I did a song with Rihanna’ but it’s actually just her song that I liked and picked up, right?’
As “Pyar” exemplifies, Mani’s approach is characterized not only by a strong duality in cultural approach but also approach to authenticity. On one side, he delivers the “straight truth” from his own life but, on the other, he writes songs that feature Rihanna samples. It’s all a matter of which side you want to see, or if you’re really daring, both.
Let Preet Mani speak the truth to you but clicking here.
Check out Preet Mani’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.