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Winnipeg Punjabi musicians celebrate Karan Aujla’s groundbreaking Juno win

The popularity of Punjabi music is continuing to grow in Canada and around the world, say some members of Winnipeg’s Punjabi music and cultural scene.

Singer and rapper Karan Aujla of Surrey, B.C., is at the forefront of the waves Punjabi music is making. He made history at Sunday’s Juno Awards in Halifax, winning the TikTok Fan Choice Award to become the first racialized artist to win in the category’s 21-year history.

“Sometimes I just can’t believe I’m that same kid that lost his parents when he was in India, made my way out to Canada, this beautiful country, and today I’m here, man. Let’s go!” he said in his speech.

Aujla concluded with an inspiring piece of advice: “if you’re a dreamer, make sure you dream big.” 

He has amassed more than one billion views on his YouTube channel, a platform one up-and-coming Winnipeg artist has been using to try to grow his own following.

WATCH | B.C. artist wins historic Juno Award: 

What Karan Aujla’s historic Juno win means for Surrey

Surrey’s Karan Aujla is the first Punjabi artist to win the TikTok Juno Fan Choice Award. Neesha Hothi, marketing director for Vancouver Juno host committee, says Aujla’s win shows that Surrey has become the centre of the global South Asian urban music scene.

Harsimranjeet Singh, who goes by Rickee, said Aujla’s Juno win is a huge moment for Punjabi artists like himself.

“We feel proud as a Punjabi music artist … that such music artists they are taking the Punjabi industry to the international level and they are representing the Punjabi community on such a big stage,” Rickee told CBC on Monday.

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He arrived in Canada as an international student in 2011 before making his way to Winnipeg in 2012.

Rickee has always been passionate about Punjabi music and culture, spending countless hours teaching bhangra — a traditional Punjabi folk dance — over the last decade, including opening Folkroots Bhangra Academy in 2018, while using his love of music to pursue a singing career as a side gig.

Harsimranjeet Singh, who is known as Rickee, is a blossoming Punjabi musical artist in Winnipeg. He believes the Punjabi music industry is growing and says artists like Karan Aujla are playing a key role in its expanding popularity throughout the international community. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

He has combined traditional Punjabi folk songs with western beats to create a fanbase of 30,000-plus followers on his various social media platforms. Rickee has also since created six solo albums in Winnipeg, the latest of which launched last November.

“Punjabi music is growing day by day … as long as our Punjabi artists are keeping our folk music and mixing with western beats … they are taking it to a different level, to represent to the whole world,” Rickee said.

Canadian-Punjabi artists breaking barriers

Aujla’s Juno award also caught the attention of Ranveer Brar.

Brar, the founder and director of the Winnipeg Punjabi Arts Academy, says several Canadian-Punjabi artists have been able to attract more listeners from a swath of backgrounds.

“Being from a Punjabi background, everybody listens to Punjabi music, but now the fact that it’s grown so much internationally you see these artists collaborating with other artists from different types of music,” Brar said.

He also believes the influence of hip hop has contributed to an expanded audience for Punjabi music, which has not traditionally been recognized in the mainstream.

Traditional Punjabi folk instruments, like the dhol, a two-sided drum, and the tumbi, a one-string guitar, are also factors in its growth.

“Those instruments have very unique sounds. When you hear Punjabi music, it’s very upbeat and uplifting. When you hear it — even if you don’t understand the words — I think everyone just wants to push their arms up and start dancing,” Brar said.

In addition to winning the award, Aujla gave an incredible performance at the Junos, teaming up with Toronto’s Ikwinder Singh (a.k.a. Ikky) to bring their signature blend of Punjabi and pop music with songs “Admirin’ You” and “Softly.”

Brar reflected on another of Aujla’s performances, which took place at the Centennial Concert Hall in September 2022, and featured members of Brar’s academy taking part in some songs.

“He’s a phenomenal performer and brought a lot of energy to his live show. A lot of artists when they come, they usually are signing to pre-recorded music, but he brought a live band and really brought that live sound with traditional instruments,” Brar said.

Men with colourful attire stand for a picture.
Members of the Winnipeg Punjabi Arts Academy pose with Canadian-Punjabi artist Karan Aujla, middle, following his Canadian tour stop at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall in September 2022. (Submitted by Ranveer Brar)

And at his academy, Brar says he has seen and heard of more kids wanting to be involved in aspects of Punjabi culture and music.

“I think it’s great that they look at these artists for inspiration and you know potentially they want to do this themselves in the future because when you see someone doing it at that level, it gives you some motivation there.”

Meet the Winnipeg musicians proud of Karan Aujla’s groundbreaking Juno win.

Canada’s music industry celebrated its biggest and brightest last night at the Junos. The party in Halifax saw dazzling performances, all-star tributes, and Punjabi artist Karan Aujla made a historic win.

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