The whole world is Nitin Sawhney's palette.
Nitin Sawhney is very comfortable in his own skin as he lounges in a hotel room in San Francisco in old jeans. But he prefers in his music to go beyond his skin. Like to a 150 piece orchestra from India. Nelson Mandela. Miles Davis. Flamenco guitar. “The whole world is my palette that I can select different shades from,” says Sawhney, 39. “I am not trying to fuse music together; I feel that’s really contrived. I just try to make music I believe in.”
Nitin Sawhney’s beliefs though can be a matter of some controversy. His album Beyond Skin, which Elle magazine dubbed “the album of the year”, begins with Atal Behari Vajpayee announcing the successful conclusion of India’s nuclear tests in 1998. It ends with the father of the atomic bomb Robert Oppenheimer quoting Krishna from the Bhagvad Gita “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
“A lot of people have interpreted this to mean it’s an anti-nuclear album,” says Sawhney. “It is in a way since I am very anti-nuclear. But it is much more about the hypocrisy of nationality and religion.” He explains, “Here you have a Hindu prime minister saying how proud he is of the bomb and then you have a German scientist using Hinduism to condemn the bomb. I thought it was a great way to encapsulate the album.”
Beyond Skin went on to be nominated for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize. Sawhney moved on to two more albums since then, Prophesy and Human, as well as the scores for the television special Second Generation and other films like Anita and Me, set Shakespeare to music and produced Varekai with Cirque D’Soleil. He’s written for Sinead O’Connor and remixed for Paul McCartney and Sting. But if his music teacher at school in Britain had his way, Sawhney would never have ended up in music at all.
His music teacher in senior school was a member of the openly racist anti-immigrant National Front. Once he heard Sahwney practicing Indian classical ragas on the piano and burst in demanding to see the sheet music. “I said what do you mean?” remembers Sawhney. “He said you can’t be playing piano without sheet music. I said I was improvising with Indian classical music and we don’t have sheet music because it’s an oral tradition. He looked at me as if I was a freak and said, ‘Get out’ and banned me from the music room.”
Sawhney snuck in anyway. When he heard the teacher approaching he just switched to Bach two part harmonies. But the music teacher was not a case in isolation. Sawhney was one of the only Asians among 700 kids in his school in Kent. The area was such a bastion of neo-Nazis he was routinely beaten up or followed home by a van full of abusive members of the far right shouting threats.
“It was a very weird thing growing up in that environment and very isolating,” says Sawhney. Though his father listened to Indian classical music and his mother was a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, they pushed him towards a more stable career like law. Sahwney, in fact, did study law at Liverpool University before he decided to follow his muse. But he doesn’t blame his parents. “As immigrants their main priority was survival. And they want their kids to do well. At that time there was no precedent for Asian kids in England to make their own music.”
What his struggles with his own dreams as well as with the far right contingent in his school and neighborhood did do was make him really grapple with issues of nationality. His parents, immigrants from India, knew for sure where they came from. Even as they struggled to create new lives in an often unwelcoming Britain their roots were secure. Sawhney found his very being under attack, his place in British society constantly challenged. “I guess if someone tends to attack you on the basis of something you tend to become quite defensive about that,” he says. “So over time I was making music that was having an almost miltiantly Asian vibe to it.”
But in the end he realized that was another way he was being manipulated, his music put into a box, his musical palette circumscribed. When he called record labels and introduced himself, “they said we don’t do Bhangra. And I’d say neither do I.” His music in fact roams the world for influences and Sahwney credits sources as diverse as the Velvet Underground and urban R&B. He has used new British vocalists like Reena Bhardwaj, flautist Ronu Majumdar as well as the voices of his own father and Nelson Mandela. What he’s never used is his own voice. A review in the BBC described that as a Nitin Sawhney shaped hole in his music.
Sahwney, not surprisingly disagrees with that assessment. “It’s like being the director of a film,” he says. “You don’t want to play all the parts yourself.” He confesses that sometimes when he listens to solo albums he finds it strange to hear one voice on all the tracks. “For one or two tracks it’s great. Then you are like please let’s hear something else.” Being in some ways behind the music is a lot more freeing for Sawhney.
“You are thinking of creating sonic images. Not sitting there worrying about the ego trip of one singer or one musician.” But Sawhney says society still prioritizes nationality above artistic expression.
“If an Asian artist makes a film or makes music it’s still the main thing that people talk about. This is an Asian thing” says Sawhney. “I think I am a great worry to the retail industry because they wanna stick everything in a box to categorize and simplify,” retorts Sawhney. Instead he would like to embrace his diverse musical influences and not compromise the artistic nature of his work to “fit into some stupid category that they have invented for the convenience of the store manager.” In fact, according to Sawhney, the world music section with its five albums from India and six from Africa and eight from Cuba is nothing short of “apartheid in record shops. It’s about segregation, not integration. And I believe in integration”
It’s a concept he finds increasingly under attack everywhere. After 9/11 he resisted coming to an America that he found frighteningly unilateral, especially after he heard about a man in a New York mall who was arrested after he hrefused to take off a T-shirt that said “Give Peace a Chance.” But now he says after meeting groups like Project Ahimsa which have raised money for the victims of the 9/11 backlash he feels a little more relaxed knowing that there are other dissenting voices out there.
Meanwhile in his native Britian, despite the record-breaking success of a film like Bend it Like Beckham, he sees growing “paranoia about immigrants and asylum seekers. In fact asylum seeker itself now carries a negative connotation.” He points to a recent survey that found 39% of British teenagers believe the single biggest political issue is regulation and control of asylum seekers.
He recounts a joke by extreme right wing comedian Bernard Manning scoffing at the people like Sawhney and his parents claiming to be British. According to Manning if that were the case then a dog born in a stable should call itself a horse. Tony Blair’s own Home Secretary David Blunkett floated ideas for a test of Britishness for newcomers. Sawhney is appalled. “Who will define what Britishness is. I thought we lived in a multicultural pluralistic society where people’s values are respected. What he’s tried to do is eradicate the diverse nature of British society.”
The idea of Britishness is nonsensical to Sawhney, because he finds the whole concept of nationality befuddling. “That’s just something that happened to you by chance,” he says sharply. “You just happened to be born in that particular geographical landmass. That doesn’t make you better than anybody else.”
Yet Sawhney has learned to channel his anger not just into shimmeringly beautiful music but he can also get a laugh out of it. He was one of the original moving spirits behind the hit British comedy series Goodness Gracious Me which poked fun at Brits, South Asians and British desis with equal vigor. He still remembers the episode about “Going for a British” where a group of Indians go to an English restaurant and harass the waiter as they try to order the blandest thing they can find.
But even that says Sahwney had a context. He had often seen how loutish English people would go to Indian restaurants and “get pissed out of their heads, throw food around and poke fun at the waiters who were mostly very quiet and humble.” After that episode aired on television a cab driver told him, “You know you were in that sketch last night, that really made me laugh. I do that all the time. I go to Indian restaurants and have a bit of a go at the waiter but I never thought of it that way.”
That’s what Nitin Sawhney hopes people will get out of his music – that they will look at the world again and say “I never thought of it that way.”‘
Lately the sunshine makes a different shape around me
– Nitin Sawhney, Human, 2003