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Knitting Sore Knee
Nitin Sawhney in General
Member Name: spacelamb
Nitin Sawhney in General
Date: 09/10/01, updated on 09/10/01 (795 review reads)
Advantages: oh he's just amazing
Disadvantages: none to speak of
You don’t know who Nitin Sawhney is, do you? Come on, tell the truth. Nobody’s cross.
Nitin Sawhney is one of my gods (alongside Luc Besson and Zippy), and not just because he works from south London (centre of the universe). The Guardian, apparently lost for words for once, said last year that “it would be easier to jot down what this man can’t do than what he can”, and never has there been a truer word spoken. (Well I don’t actually know that – I mean he may have no culinary skills to speak of, but until he appears on Celebrity Ready Steady Cook I will have no evidence either way, and I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
So why haven’t you heard of him? First, he doesn’t release singles, so you’re not likely to hear much of him on Radio 1, or catch him in a race with Mrs Becks for the chart top spot. And second, we Brits aren’t very good at being international. The range of influences in his music is so diverse that it will probably put most people off before they’ve heard a note, and of course his name is Nitin (so much harder to remember than, say, Gordon or Edmund).
Let’s have a practice. NITIN sounds like knitting, so that should be a breeze. SAWHNEY sounds like sore knee (ouch). Say it once. Say it again. Shout it. And don’t forget it.
Nitin grew up a British Asian in Rochester, and suffered a certain degree of racial abuse at the hands of Kentish folk. He turned to music to escape, but was famously banned from the school music room by a teacher who (it later transpired) was a member of the National Front. Nice. The theme of dual nationality is still heavy in his tunes. (Slightly irrelevant but interesting fact: Hanif Kureishi, another of my heroes, also grew up a British Asian in Kent (Orpington) and now writes damn fine novels, often with a theme of dual nationality. I would heartily recommend The Black Album.) I̵
7;m not going to tell you his life story or anything (mostly because I don’t know what his first girlfriend was called / whether he has a peanut allergy etc), but here are a few biographical details which might make you think, “Ohhhhhhh, him. Why didn’t you just say so?”
The first thing is the BBC2 sketch show Goodness Gracious Me, which takes the p*ss out of outmoded Asian stereotypes. You know the one – an aunty hits other members of the family with her shoe a lot; it’s a bit silly, but quite entertaining. Anyway, it started life as a radio programme called The Secret Asians, and was written and performed by Sanjeev Bhaskar (who is still in the telly version) and, yep, Nitin Sawhney. He also wrote the rather funky theme tune. Does anyone else remember the original version of this song, by the way? I actually had it on vinyl when I was about four. I’m not sure what my parents were thinking.
The second thing is his collaborations - he has played with The James Taylor Quartet, and in Tihai Trio with Talvin Singh who won the Mercury Music Prize in 1999. Nitin was nominated for the same award in 2000 for his album Beyond Skin, but lost out to Badly Drawn Boy. The world is a crazy place sometimes. He’s also a writer, lecturer, producer and actor, but I’m not going to list his complete works. The Guardian has made my excuses for me.
Interested yet? Want to buy some of his stuff? Do ya? Do ya? He’s made six albums (including one ‘best of’ thing), which are:
Spirit Dance (1993)
Displacing the Priest (1996)
Introduction to Nitin Sawhney (1999)
Beyond Skin (1999)
Spirit Dance is currently and annoyingly (I am still trying to get a copy) out of production, although it is soon to be re-released on Nitin’s own label, Positiv-id. Hurrah. Time for a wee confession now: I don’t own Migration or Introd
uction either, so I’m not going to be able to review them. Yeah, I see your eyebrows furrow. What do I think I’m playing at? Sorry. I have heard some of his earlier tunes played live though (more on that later) and they’re ace.
DISPLACING THE PRIEST uses a lot less technology than its successors, relying instead on more traditional Asian instruments and patterns, which gives it an epic and haunting sound quality. There’s a lot of tabla, piano and non-lyrical vocals, although no sitar as far as I can make out (wot no sitar?). I’m not going to do a track listing, I’m afraid. (In other people’s music reviews that seems to be the point when I switch off. If you really want to know then buy the album, or go to www.nitinsawhney.com.) In any case, it’s not really a ‘tracky’ album because each one flows into the next so gracefully. (Having said that if I had to pick a favourite, it would be ‘In the Mind’ (track two). This is basically just hand drums and female vocals (by Jayanta Bose), which sounds a bit hollow on paper, but it’s beautiful.)
The album is about religion and spirituality, and that old dual nationality chestnut. Normally I hate music that has deliberate issues, but in spite of the passionate messages of this album it comes off sounding eloquent and subtle.
BEYOND SKIN is Nitin’s most widely known and critically acclaimed album. It’s got a screaming bust (as in a head and shoulders torso, not tits) on the cover, and you might – just might – have heard something off it. This is much more eclectic than Displacing the Priest, with a glorious and uplifting drum and bass track (‘Nadia’) and a lot more lyrical content. I’m going to pick my top toons from this one though, because (although it’s all gorgeous) there are some really outstanding tracks.’ Letting Go’ (“don’t be afraid of letting go
, not of anything, not of anyone”) opens with the noise of rain on rooftops, then a pianist and fragile female voice come in. It’s very soothing, especially curled up on the sofa when it really is raining outside. ‘Immigrant’ opens with a sample of his parents speaking about their decision to come to England from India, but is really a piano ballad. I’m sorry to use that description, because it conjures up frightening images of Lionel Ritchie, but that’s what it is, and it’s lovely.
This album opens with a newsflash about the testing of nuclear weapons in India (“people here say they are proud that their country has shown its nuclear capabilities”) and ends with Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb, quoting the Hindu god Vishnu – “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.
PROPHESY is a funky, upbeat album. Which is not to say that the classic strings and evocative, ghostly vocals are gone because they’re still there, but there are more electronic beats and trip-hoppy backgrounds. This album brings together Latin American music, flamenco, rap, jazz riffs – you name it, it’s in here. There’s also a track called ‘Street Guru’ which is dominated by a sample of a Chicago cabbie talking (as cabbies do) about technology and being a slave to time. He sounds like he needs a strong black coffee to be honest, but the rumbling bass behind him lifts the track and makes you start playing drums on your knee. The best tune from this album is almost undoubtedly the opening ‘Sunset’ which I think I’m going to have played at my funeral. It’s blissfully chilled out, although it sounds more like a sunrise than a sunset because it just keeps building and building, and then yawning out into joyous vocals (the London Community Gospel Choir do the last few choruses). ‘Cold and Intimate’ cannot go without mention, but I
217;m going to stop trying to describe tracks now (belatedly perhaps), because I’m not doing them justice and I’m running out of vocabulary. The website has tasters, which I’m sure will be a lot more useful.
A couple of his musicians deserve particular praise. First, Jayanta Bose who is his long-time vocalist, and who just has the most rich, soulful voice. She seems to be able to make any song sound like it was written for her (they probably were, latterly, but never mind.) Tina Grace, who sings on the most recent two albums, is the ‘haunting’ one, whose delicate voice sounds like it might break at any second. It never does, by the way. JC001 is a human beatbox (not a mate of R2D2) who can reproduce all the beats on a complex dance track with his voice alone. Simultaneously. It’s quite incredible. Aref Durvesh is Mr-Tabla-with-the-Lightning-Hands, and last, but certainly not least, Sanchita Farruque is his trad-Indian male vocalist. The versatility of his voice is stunning, indescribable. I can only recommend that you see Nitin Sawhney live to fully appreciate him. All of them. Which brings me neatly to my next point.
We saw him live!! He was playing at the Greenwich Dance Agency about a fortnight ago, and he’s playing at the Royal Albert Hall in December. I can say hand on heart that it was the best musical event I have ever been to, which includes scores of nights out clubbing with top DJs playing.
The track that really made the evening, and I deliberately avoided mentioning this in the review, was ‘Conference’ (from Beyond Skin). Now I don’t know much about Indian music (“but I know what I like!”) – but I had the rather good fortune of ‘working’, about four years ago, with a guy called Shri. He’s now signed to Outcaste, the same label as Nitin Sawhney, and forms one half of the duo Badmarsh and Shri who regularly play at Fabric. Not that I
217;m name-dropping or anything…
Anyway, I used to play in this small-time ‘junk band’. It was purely percussive (as you might imagine) and we basically used to beat the crap out of shopping trolleys, gas pipes, oil drums – anything that made a good sound really. And we took part in this huge Indian production for which Shri was the musical director.
Going back to ‘Conference’ (sorry) – the two things I learnt about Indian music from doing workshops with Shri was that it’s all based on calls and answers, and that it’s horribly fast. ‘Conference’ is a classic example of this, and heard live it just blows your mind. The only real instrument in the tune is the tabla (played at hyperspeed), and then two male voices, part-singing, part-speaking (not distinguishable words, just sounds). I’m sure there’s a word for this, but I don’t know it. And they are basically conversing with each other and the drum – repeating, chatting, shouting, deliberating, interrupting. At at least a zillion miles an hour. It got a standing ovation, and it wasn’t even the last number. I’m still in awe two weeks later.
I think I’m going to bring this op to a close. No wait, I’m not. I’m going to let NME do it for me (oh great joy at nicking things from other publications). Nitin Sawhney is, and yes, I quote, “careering close to the sublime”.
(Remember: ask your local record merchant for Knitting Sore Knee.)