Nitin Sawhney: A musician in touch with his heritage

Nitin Sawhney went back to his roots to play in India

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The Independent Culture

Nitin Sawhney is nowhere to be seen. At his hotel, the manager says he and his colleagues have checked out and gone elsewhere. So it's back in the car, back on the broken roads, past the scruffy, impoverished villages south of Delhi, the crowds of people filling the streets, to the hotel in which he is now staying. Unknown to him, it is located to a new, gleaming shopping mall that sells Louis Vuitton and other designer fare.

This “new” India is one of the reasons Sawhney is here, performing for the first time (though he has played as a DJ). India’s much publicised economic growth has created an infrastructure for live music that simply did not exist just a few years ago. It means, he says, that he can afford to pay his band. The other reason is that he feels his focus has become more international, less focused on Britain and his vexed position within in it as someone with a heritage here in India.

For two decades now, Sawhney’s music has been by driven issues of identity, by the uncertain fate of the immigrant, the pain of the migrant. He got the idea for his most recent album, Last Days of Meaning, while watching the debates in the run up to the British general election, with each party seemingly trying to outdo the other with its stridency on immigration. Sickened by the same sort of rhetoric he had heard 35 years ago as a teenager in Kent, he imagined an elderly man, sitting at home, angrily mumbling about foreigners, only to be soothed by a cassette of music sent to him by his estranged wife. On the album, John Hurt plays the Alf Garnett figure.

“I think I am more pissed off about a lot of things than I ever was,” says Sawhney, who is three years short of turning 50. “The new album was my response to what I saw in the UK, with the three parties blaming immigrants for the economic downturn. For me, this was just so shocking…I think this is an attitude that has settled in the UK.”

Sawhney says he saw the sharp edge of such attitudes as a teenager, the sole Asian at a school of 700 pupils. Every day, he says, he had the “shit kicked out of”. All the while, he was to trying to juggle that, while making visits made to India with his family to visit relatives. “I was leapt on every day. I grow up with that and I had no idea what to make of it. I’d been to India, but I did not know what was going on. There was nothing like the information there is available now,” he says. “I just knew there was a lot of aggression.”

A trained musician from an early age, Sawhney said he was staggered when heroes, admittedly heavily under the influence of drink or drugs at the time, such as Eric Clapton talked about Britain becoming a “black colony” or else David Bowie displayed an apparent affection for Hitler. “People forget, but I did not,” says Sawhney. “Rock Against Racism was my saving grace, and credit to Tom Robinson. People started to get the idea.”

Sawhney was eight when he was taken to India and as a child he fell in love with the country of his parents, perhaps to the point ofover-romanticisaion. Musically, India has been a source of rich and constant inspiration. He has borrowed rhythms from Rajasthan, recorded street musicians in Punjab and worked with classically-trained singers from West Bengal such, as the peerless Jayanata Bose. There is something about Indian music, he says, that makes it easy to work with, and something about its musicians that makes them painless collaborators. “I grew up very focused on my musical heritage.”

Of the musicians of Rajasthan, nomads who ultimately lie behind the flamenco tradition that Sawhney embraced as a teenager, he says: “They have real heart and soul – a lot of drama. That nomadic sound transcends boundaries. They are people who have to travel and their sound travels with them.”

That idea of such musical migration at the centre of another celebrated recent Sawhney project, the four “Spins the Globe” programmes he did for BBC Radio 2, when he played the likes of Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Farke Touré of Mali and Jeff Buckley. He says he is an optimist. “I believe music has to offer the panacea to all of the world’s ills. We can be more considerate to each other.”

In India, Sawhney played three concerts, one in Delhi, one in Mumbai and a third at a music festival set in the grounds of a vineyard in the south. His gig in the country’s capital took place in a newly built club, the entry price for which would have been off-limits to all but the wealthiest Indians.

He and his seven-piece band were smooth and seamless, the voice of singer Nikki Wells particularly appreciated by a small but lively crowd. Sawhney played a number of his earlier standards, as well as some more recent songs. One of the crowd pleasers was the sing-along Dead Man, from his 2006 album Philtre. There was a nice moment when he announced the band was to perform one of his earliest tracks, Migration. “This is for my parents,” he announced.