Thursday, August 04, 2005

Political Animal, Musical Genius, Healing potion - Nitin Sawhney
Text by Ashanti OMkar (
Pictures by Akin Falope (

The name Nitin Sawhney is one that most Asians would recollect when mentioned, simply by virtue of the fact that he is one of Britain’s most prominent Asians, not for riches as is usual, but for his incredible achievement in the last decade or so, in various forms of music. Highly educated, very eccentric, but also someone who has faced the realities of racism and rejection, someone who many record companies discarded from just the mention of his name, saying: “Oh, we don’t do Bhangra music”, to which he retaliated: “Well, nor do I”; to becoming one of UK’s most sought after artistes. With highly political views, that he cannot hold back, Nitin, a seemingly nice, chilled out guy, has gone on to keep achieving standards of music that are appreciated by some of the world’s foremost authorities.

Being a Hindu Punjabi, the third son in a spectacular lineage, who married away from caste, to proud parents Brahmin Bharatanatyam dancer and English teacher Saroj and research Chemist, Anandeshwar Sawhney, Nitin was born shortly after their arrival in the UK in 1963. With equally illustrious Grandparents, a grandfather being a German literature professor and a poet in dual languages English and Hindi and a grandmother being a poet and Ghazal singer, well known in Air India Radio - this is just a drop in the ocean of his rich cultural heritage - being the youngest son, he was inspired by his middle brother and his guitar (his brothers are both successful financial types) and in his house, the exposure to various forms of music also permeated the non conformist in him. Dulwich hospital, London, saw baby Nitin in 1964, in all probability not knowing how much of an impact this child would make on Britain and it’s Asians - neither would his parents have expected the trauma the child Nitin would go through in the hands of racists and bullies, when they moved to Rochester, Kent, a predominantly ‘white’ area with no support systems in those days for such intolerance. Creating his own identity became integral to Nitin’s psyche over the years and strong family ties are also indubitably vital, to his wellbeing - both his Mother and father have featured in his albums, as a natural progression. Having studied law in Liverpool and then completing accountancy in Hatfield (Hertfordshire University), with roommate Sanjeev Bhaskar; Nitin is not just a musical genius (a word that cannot be avoided when recounting him), but also a fighter, who has made the most of his struggles and endeavours at every given opportunity to make the world a better place.

Imagine my thrill when his latest offering, the long awaited Philtre (Healing portion) came in the post. Having hurriedly put it in my laptop’s music player and immediately entranced by its soothing tones, I was transported to a place of tranquillity and peace - a lot to achieve in the middle of a working day. To add to this, the announcement of Nitin’s tour, one of the shows being at Shepherds Bush Empire imbued more anticipation, as he had teamed up with some amazing artistes like Philadelphia’s Vikter Duplaix (who did a spectacular job, considering that Kanye West finding, John Legend as first in line for this role in Philtre and was not available for recording, due to time commitments), UK’s human beat box/soul singer Taio, Jayanta Bose, Davinder Singh, Sharon Duncan and Britain’s very own singer an AR Rahman finding, Reena Bhardwaj, to produce one of his best offerings. On watching the sold out show with music that I can term as un-classifiable (Nitin does not approve of pigeonholing music and it shows in every work of his), the audience, an eclectic mix of people, but mainly white, it gave a sense of his music being international on so many levels and also in many ways a slap in the face of his past tormentors - the English, Bengali and Spanish lyrics, the Spanish guitar and ‘real’ instrumentation, politically engrossing animations on the screens and an impeccable band of musicians. To my amazement, the best was yet to come - little did I expect that not long after, I would have the opportunity (Thanks to Pedro and Rakhee of FNIK, Sumeet, Nitin’s super vigilant Manager and relative and his assistant Gaby) to have a tête-à-tête in his own minimalist South London house cum studio with Nitin himself; the man that distinguished musicians like AR Rahman have, in the past got me listening to and becoming a staunch follower of his music and thinking - his major outlook is that he is a human being like everyone else - what a wonderful way to look at it, doesn’t one think?

Arriving late was the least of my worries and on apologising profusely of my tardiness, Nitin graciously forgave me and invited me in with a smile - having just arrived back home from his European tour, this man’s work never stops - he apologises for the un-tidiness of his spacious abode (he needn’t have) and went on to not only offering me chocolate chip cookies, but also making me some wonderful coffee, out of his pristine kitchen. Still nervous, I sat at the table and turned on my recorder, to take my journey with Nitin, pondering if my many questions were well enough researched. Putting me at ease, he sat down and relaxed by his electric piano and started by telling me about his early days and something that interested me, the bullies. “Having been through the many taunts at school and violently bullied, I became much of a social recluse, hiding it from people, locking myself up in my room and dealing with it by immersing myself in music, something that was fuelled by my regular visits to India (casually dropping the fact that most recently he spent some time with his cousin Miss Universe beauty, Lara Dutta) and early piano lessons from the age of five.” He goes on: “my advice to those who go through such atrocities is to never compromise your integrity, don’t change yourself to their mould, stay true to yourself and weather the storm, no matter what - tell somebody and make constructive use of your time - you can transcend beyond such ignorant people and also make it - it is in all of us to survive as time moves on - ‘Human’ was the album that traces those stages of my life...” On his comedic beginnings: “Doing the Secret Asians as a duo with Sanjeev got me noticed, but all that while, I was still a closet musician, awaiting the break - I was recording with bands and making as much music as possible, as the music I make tends to be a reflection on my thoughts and life at that given time. Being known for the ‘Asians having an English meal’ clip in Goodness Gracious me, it propelled me to the limelight, from being a person who shied away from crowds; I gained a semblance of confidence to begin to put my music out.”

On his hobbies, in conjunction to Thai boxing, evidently reading and acquisition of knowledge is something he loves a lot, thus recounts: “I have just been reading a book on theoretical physics and relativity, as it has a lot of comparisons with ancient Hindu philosophy and how everything is in tandem - you are always taking part in the circle of life.” He is so very humble when it comes to his numerous accolades, in fact, the Guardian has said and I paraphrase, “it is easier to list what Nitin Sawhney has not done than what he has!” Never a truer word said, in my opinion, as he has done so much, at a mainstream level (having come from the UK underground music scene), to mention a few - winning a MOBO award and also Radio 3 awards for world music, one of the first Asians to make the Jazz stage at Glastonbury, working for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, writing plays for the Royal National Theatre, being signed by Hollywood’s top talent and literary agency, the CAA (Creative artists agency alongside Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg), being a judge at the BAFTAs, playing live at Royal Albert hall, passing on his knowledge to students through various institutions like Open University and more recently ‘After Shock’ as workshops for many of UK’s school children.

Politically, his views are well known, as he has in most of his music apart from the latest, ‘Philtre’, where he has been keen to show a more peaceful stance; while also using his media coverage to pass on his views. Most recently, he has made time to be heavily involved in the ‘Make fair trade and poverty history’ campaigns’, as well as Oxfam - having been covered in peanuts in their recent photo shoot and also making knows that he feels music can change the world. In the recent ‘g8’ campaign, he joined many illustrious radical thinkers, like George Galloway MP, Kate Hudson, Bruce Kent and Fausto Bertinotti in making his views known - with the simple slogan - “Fight poverty not war”. Nitin has not only had a meeting with the great Nelson Mandela, having made a tour to Africa, to witness for himself, the plight of its people. He reminisces: “I toured Australia, meeting with Aboriginal people and really knew the meaning of music being the best passport, as I got to jam with many a local - especially in Sueto, South Africa, where walking into certain bars I was warned may get me shot, but instead, I played the African drums with the people there and enjoyed some local food and drink with them! Nelson Mendela was another awakening for me, as I spent time at his house, speaking with him about how cynical I was about reportage of news in the West, where politicians like Tony Blair and Bush are power hungry and forget all humanity. Mr Mandela was one of the few who really fought for a true identity and in one lifetime, his long walk to freedom should be a motivation to us all - a role model of youth of today - the interview was part of the research I did, a pure way of enjoying the process and bringing fresh content to the listeners, with a message straight from the horse’s mouth - Prophecy was the album that came out of this.” Of course, he is too modest to tell us how the album was also a huge worldwide success.

On meeting him for a second time, to conclude the interview, he was at Saddlers Wells Theatre, in Angel Islington, meticulously overlooking a practice session of his latest collaboration, “Zero Degrees” in conjunction with South Bank’s best choreography winner, Akram Khan and his brand of Contemporary Kathak dance; the dancer who can twist and turn his body in ways unimaginable and extraordinary but pure to the artform, Sidi Larbi and the environment created by celebrated artist, Antony Gormley, best known for his sculpture, ‘Angel of the North’. Having teamed up with Akram in the past, in his 1999 offering, FIX and 2002 offering, Kaash, he seemed totally in the moment, hurrying to get back to work. He offers: “This time, at WOMAD, I will just be doing a DJ set, not the full band and music but I feel that I will really relax once Asian music is on main stages round the world, as opposed to being relegated to the ‘ethnic’ or ‘world’ music stages. I hope that many young people make music and try to bring out their own styles, their own experiences and involve themselves in productive activities and my only real message to fans is to follow your impulses, make your dreams a reality, but do it with integrity.” Thus concluded my time with a man that I hope to see on many more occasions, as he is on so many stages and has so many causes to fight and I wish him much success in achieving his plethora of significant goals.

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