London-based percussionist and producer Sarathy Korwar makes music that is influenced by jazz and Indian classical forms, but at the same time it challenges the decades-old conventions of Indo jazz. Rishita Roy Chowdhury writes about his new album, More Arriving, and speaks to him about its politically charged, pro-immigration message for post-Brexit Britain.
Sarathy Korwar’s music has been described as “bold”, “fearless” and “defiant”. The percussionist and producer is among the few musicians worldwide whose output is resistant by nature to all generic categorisation. Tags like “world music” and “multicultural fusion” also do no justice to Korwar’s tunes, which incorporate many influences and yet give us something more than the sum of those.
Born in Maryland, United States in 1987, Korwar relocated with his family to India early in life. He was brought up in Ahmedabad and Chennai, before moving to Pune for college. Now based in London, Korwar is drawing upon his peripatetic past to create music that reflects a cosmopolitan dynamism that is in short supply in contemporary records.
Yet this cultural intermixing is only one aspect of his music, and to dwell of it may covey the impression that Korwar is a formalist of some kind, and his music anodyne and apolitical. Nothing could be further from the truth. The dominant tone of his work is polemical. The music is hard-hitting and is often inspired by social and political themes. It’s Korwar’s objective as a musician to help communicate, as he told us, “the voices of the brown diaspora” to a global audience. His latest studio album is called More Arriving, the punning title refers to the immigrant influx in the West, and is issued as a challenge to all nativist groups (quite in the vein of Suketu Mehta’s recent book, This Land Is Our Land).
But let us return to the music for a bit, for it is here that the disruptive note is first struck. The 31-year-old musician is well-versed in jazz techniques, as well as in the traditional school of Indian classical music. In his albums, he combines elements of these two forms, challenging orthodoxies on both sides.
Korwar said, “It’s taken a long time for me to imbibe both jazz and Indian classical music. My own form of Indo jazz is created in a way where I find both genres compatible with each other. It’s a constantly evolving sound that involves a lot of experimentation. For a long time, I did not try and combine the two genres, but studied them separately and in-depth. After many years of doing this, I organically started combining the two kinds of music in my own way and began to develop my own unique sound.”
Today, Korwar is lauded for his virtuoso-level jazz drumming skills. But few people know that he is also a trained tabla player. He told us that he started playing the tabla when he was eight, and mastered the instrument in about a decade. At the same time, he was drawn to Western music, particularly by the works of American jazz musicians, like John Coltrane and the pianist Ahmad Jamal. Korwar finally started playing drums aged 17.
His dream of creating an original sounding confluence of Indian classical music and jazz took him to London in 2009. There he perfected his tabla skills under the tutelage of the prolific tabla player Sanju Sahai.
Initially, Korwar was playing in various indie/jazz projects and also playing the tabla. Recalling that time, he said, “I knew I wanted to end up making more music of my own, so in 2015 I applied for the Steve Reid Foundation which helped me fund my first album Day To Day. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to continue making my own music and now, three albums and many collaborations later, I feel part of the music scene here in London.”
With his successful debut album, Day To Day (2016), Korwar gained instant prominence on the international jazz stage. The album featured traditional folk tunes of India’s Siddi community, as well as sounds of East African, Sufi and classical provenance—all this fused with a solid foundation of electronica and contemporary jazz.
About his approach to mixing Indian rhythms and Western beats, Korwar said, “I internalise both rhythmic concepts and let the resulting music emerge as organically as possible. You can’t try and intellectualise it too much. You’ve got to just play and experiment a lot. The resulting music is not always what you intend, but it’s a process and you get better with experience.”
He then went on to set up the UPAJ Collective, comprising jazz musicians from across South Asia, as well as Indian classical musicians—a collaboration aimed at pushing the boundaries of the British jazz scene.
Last year in November, Korwar, with the UPAJ Collective, released a triple vinyl live album titled My East Is Your West. After the release, the band performed a sold-out show at London’s Church of Sound. It sparked a debate on the cultural appropriation of spiritual jazz and became a talking point in music circles across the UK. The album received the Guardian’s “Contemporary Album of the Month” award in November 2018.
In his short career, Korwar has collaborated with acclaimed musicians, like Shabaka Hutchings from the band The Comet Is Coming; clarinettist Arun Ghosh; and producer Hieroglyphic Being; as well as with groups such as Penya and Ill Considered. He has toured with prominent jazz musicians Kamasi Washington, Yussef Kamaal and Moses Boyd among others.
More Arriving is Korwar’s latest album, which came out on 26 July. It is an impressive follow-up to My East Is Your West, both thematically and musically. Racial divisions, class-based discrimination and the immigrant’s life in post-Brexit Britain are all issues at the heart of this album, which itself has its roots in styles as varied as classical Indian, hip-hop, jazz and spoken-word music.
Korwar described the title of the album and the meaning it holds: “More Arriving is a tongue-in-cheek play on the immigration ‘problem’ in the UK. It’s a phrase that is used often in mainstream media to talk about immigrants, refugees and more broadly people of colour, and has a very negative rhetoric behind it. But for me, the title says, there are more people coming and you’re going to have to deal with it!” More Arriving is Korwar’s protest album.
About its musical influences, he said, “The idea for the album was to reinterpret jazz tunes predominantly from the ’70s that had some Indian influences in them. I found that many of these tunes portrayed a very tokenistic understanding of Indian music and I felt like there was an opportunity to revisit these tunes and rework them for 2019. It really brings into question the notions of Eastern and Western music, and hopefully opens up a conversation about cultural appropriation though music, especially in the jazz world.”
The album features performances by The Comet Is Coming’s Dan Leavers (Danalogue) on synth, Tamar Osborn on the baritone saxophone and Indo-jazz pianist Al MacSween, Jamaican-Indian rapper Delhi Sultanate, emcees Mawali Prabh Deep and Trap Poju, London-based poet Zia Ahmed, Indian American classical vocalist Aditya Prakash, and writer Deepak Unnikrishnan from Abu Dhabi.
He has also been a keen follower of India’s gully rap scene, since before it was glorified by Bollywood. He said, “I have been very curious about hip-hop in India for the past couple of years. It seemed like a lot of the music was coming from working class neighbourhoods—with young rappers, producers, b-boys—all embodying the spirit of hip-hop and a DIY culture to express themselves. I wanted to meet a few of the rappers I really liked, and that’s how the record started taking shape.”
More Arriving, an eight-track album, took three years in the making, and Korwar calls it a “modern brown record” that contains a multitude of “brown voices”. The lyrics are as confrontational and politically charged as one would expect. For instance, the track “Bol” has the poet Zia Ahmed reciting these words: “I am Shiva. I am Al-Qaeda. I am auditioning for the role of terrorist one. Yeah, I can do that in an Arabic accent.” Korwar believes the album is reflective of the immigrant experience in Britain and elsewhere.
Having recently visited India for a performance, Korwar is optimistic about the changes he has observed in the independent music scene in Indian cities. “I see a bright future for independent music in India. Audiences have become more discerning and expect a certain standard from musicians,” he said.
Korwar is now all set to tour the new album across the UK, Europe and Asia. The journeys are sure to figure somewhere in his future songs.