Five Questions … With Sawinder Singh, Bus Route Supervisor, Clarksburg Transportation Depot
Music has been a part of Sawinder Singh’s life for as long as he can remember. It is something that comes naturally to him, and, at a very young age, offered him opportunities he could never have imagined.
Singh was born in Amritsar, in northern India, and became a very good musician—playing harmonium and tabla (Indian drums) and writing original compositions—turning professional while still in high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and a master’s degree in tabla.
“My father was well-known and because of him, I had opportunities,” Singh says. “It was a great luxury to learn and not specifically attend any school. People would visit us at home and give me lessons. Later, I also took classes.”
He eventually began traveling to play music, usually with groups. He has traveled extensively around the world and throughout the U.S.
He vividly remembers the first time he visited the U.S. in 1996.
“I was visiting Canada and performing in Toronto,” he says. “I came down to L.A. for a couple months. I visited Hollywood and Disneyland. I wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge; you always see it on TV and in the movies. But I always went back home.
“It was never in the plans to move to the U.S.”
In 1998, he came back to the U.S., this time to perform in Yuba City, Calif., which hosts one of the largest Sikh parades in the world.
“That was a great opportunity,” he says. “It was like performing at the Kennedy Center. It’s a huge gathering of Sikhs. People travel from all over the world to come.”
He came back twice in 1999 — to play in New York, and later that year at an annual interfaith conference in Washington, D.C.
Unexpectedly, he was offered a job with the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in North Potomac, an institution that works to create awareness regarding Sikhs and Sikhism. Singh’s job was teaching music to children. He was 25 years old, married and had a young daughter. He took the job, and immediately started working toward having his family join him.
“I came into the U.S. on Nov. 3, 1999, at 8 p.m.,” he says. “I was 25 years old. I rode a Greyhound bus from New York to D.C. I can’t forget those days. It was an adventure for me because I couldn’t speak English. I could say hello and thank you. I was excited. It was a totally different culture.
“This is the best country to fulfill your dreams,” Singh adds. “I liked the job. The main inspiration for me was Dr. Rajwant Singh, the group’s executive director. He encouraged me to learn English. He showed me around and helped me grow.”
He stayed for four years and 27 days. In 2004, he left the foundation to look into other kinds of jobs.
He drove a taxicab, but didn’t like it. He became a ramp agent with Delta Air Lines at Washington Dulles Airport.
“That was not an easy job,” Singh remembers. “You have to marshal the planes, put luggage off and on, de-ice, set the jet bridges. It takes a lot of training.”
But, as the airlines began filing for bankruptcy and consolidating, the handwriting was on the wall. Singh knew he could lose his job at any time. He decided to act pre-emptively, after seeing an ad looking for MCPS bus drivers in the former Gazette newspaper.
“I came to HR and told them I needed a job,” he says. He filled out an application and was hired. He began driving school buses out of the Bethesda Depot, moving to the Clarksburg Depot after eight months.
He says his dream job is to become a full-time music teacher in MCPS.
What do you get from music?
Strength and happiness.
Music has always come naturally to me. I’m focused on classical and spiritual music. It became my passion. When I was in high school, I became a full-time musician. At that time, I was making more than the average professional was making. My income was $700–$800 U.S. dollars a month. When I was 19, I played on various recordings and I was making closer to $1,000 a month.
I teach music now — Indian classical music. I play harmonium and tabla, which is an Indian drum. I teach the harmonium; it’s very popular. It’s like the piano here. One of my students went on American Idol. I teach young people and adults. I was 16 when I started teaching. When I was 13, I performed the tabla on a few recordings. I was recognized as a good player and even played with the popular Indian singer, Balbir Singh.
It was paying me so well, so I became a professional musician. I traveled lots of places—England, Holland, the U.S., Canada, Kuwait. Indian music is getting very popular now; nearly each month you will hear about the Kennedy Center doing something with Indian music, and the crowd of admirers and listeners will be more than Indian.
Tell me about your childhood in India, and how you came to live in the U.S.
I was born in Amritsar, a well-known city in northern India, in the state of Punjab. At the center of town is the Golden Temple, which is considered the holiest place for Sikhs.
I was born into a farming family. But my father was a well-known person in India. He worked with a lot of organizations for foster kids, the blind, women in need. The community gave him the name Baba, which is a very holy and honored name for someone.
My dad was also a spiritual musician, but he never worked professionally. My mother was a housewife. I had a brother who passed away when he was 10. My mother passed away when I was 12. Me and my father were buddies; we were brothers. He was everything to me.
In 1999, the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation offered me a job. They wanted me to teach the Punjabi language and music. I had not planned to stay, but I was excited too because I felt it was the right place. It was like a family to me.
When were you hired to work for MCPS? Tell me about your job.
I started my journey with MCPS in March 2006 and I was permanent on April 1, 2006. I was hired as a bus operator. In 2007, I became a bus route supervisor.
But route supervisors drive where we’re needed. We investigate to find out what happened—if there’s an accident or complaint or discipline issues on the bus. We do evaluations of drivers, to help them improve and become successful in MCPS. We have a requirement that once a year, we ride with the drivers and evaluate their performance, their driving skills, whether they’re following rules and regulations. Then, we certify them.
I supervise 27 drivers and attendants. I have 10 regular routes and nine special needs routes.
What’s the biggest challenge with your job?
I like to drive a bus, but the biggest challenge has been because of my long beard and turban.
Students and sometimes adults have called me a terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, they’ve said I’m with Al Qaeda, a lot of stuff I don’t deserve. I can feel people staring at me sometimes. It has been hard when people treat me differently because I look different.
People think I’m from the Middle East and Muslim based on how I look, but 99.9 percent of people with a turban in the U.S. are Sikh.
When I face negative comments, my heart falls. I have respect for all mankind, for all religions. I’m here to serve. I love children. Since I was young, I have taught children. They need to learn who I am. My faith and my culture only teach love.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I play in concerts; I play in groups and individually. I run my own jatha (group). I teach lessons. I also sing holy scripture and cultural music.
I played on Capitol Hill and at the National Cathedral. I have been invited for policy briefings about the Sikh community, especially after 9-11.
I have a daughter who’s in her second year at the University of Maryland, a son at Rocky Hill Middle School and a daughter at Wilson Wims Elementary School. All my children sing and are natural musicians.
On the weekends, I help my wife take the kids to their games or practices. I’m also active in the Sikh community, and will help them work out problems and issues. Many will call and ask my opinion. I will travel to the gurdwara; that is a Sikh holy place. Many of these issues are discussed there. I have traveled to New York, New Jersey, Florida and shared my experiences. I’m going to Tennessee this year; there is a Sikh youth camp for children who are facing problems at school because they’re Sikh. I will talk to them about how to handle those issues amicably, without conflict.