Nitin Sawhney: A musician in touch with his heritage

Nitin Sawhney went back to his roots to play in India

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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition