Pop: V&A vibes

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The Independent Culture

BEFORE NITIN Sawhney takes to the stage, a formally dressed museum employee politely entreats the packed crowd not to knock over the priceless statues at the back of the room. It's hard to imagine The Sex Pistols commencing their Jubilee boat-ride with such a civic-minded request, and yet the implications of Sawhney's genteel ram-raid on the shop-window of Victorian cultural imperialism are every bit as revolutionary as anything Johnny Rotten came up with.

In daring to question the pat assumptions of Eastern spiritual superiority to which Indian as well as English performers have too often had recourse, Sawhney opens up a whole new avenue of dialogue for the different musical forms he brings together. Just as the subterranean influence of cockney Mod-revivalism is one of the most intriguing ingredients in the heady musical cocktail mixed by his former collaborator Talvin Singh, so Sawhney's occasional excursions into out jazz-funk piano pay tribute to his grounding in an exotic Kentish furry-dice heritage.

The bulk of his set tonight comes from the fine forthcoming album Beyond Skin: his fourth, the third for the Outcaste label, and his most successful attempt so far to reconcile different traditions into a single coherent flow. With its seamless blend of flamenco, club and eastern styles, a song like "Homelands" is the stuff of which Mercury Prize nominations are (or ought to be) made, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable as a live experience.

The surroundings don't do any harm: a beautiful semi-circular room, mirrored along the back wall, with remnants of early evening sunlight pouring through the stained-glass windows onto improving Victorian mottos inscribed in bas-relief. But the sonic mosaics refuse to be outshone by the ones on the wall. And when classically trained Indian singer Jayanta Bose goes head to head with hyperactive rapper JC001, it's like the great guitar and vocal duels of Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Gillan all over again.

It's not just the textures but the substance that compels. On the surface, the seductive swish of "Broken Skin" recalls vintage Soul II Soul - whose classic debut album was probably the cultural breakthrough most directly analogous to the current British Asian upsurge - but the song itself turns out to be a thought-provoking analysis of Indian nuclear testing. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it Mr Kula Shaker: Nitin Sawhney forsakes fusion for fission.