Interviewing Nitin Sawhney

At 20:30h Tina, Malik and me arrived in Treptow a very clean and artificial looking suburb compared to rest of Berlin. After a ten minutes walk, we reached the arena Berlin where the popdeurope festival took place and where Nitin Sawhney was to perform.

I could already hear some familiar melodies – probably the soundcheck was going on. There was a small queue at the entrance so we went through the press door and entered a very nice beach kind of area right next to the Spree river. There was even a swimming pool inside the river attached to a lovely wooden stage with hammocks and canvas chairs where people could chill.
So after we got some drinks we leaned back and enjoyd the panoramic view while Der laechelnde Schamane  was spinning some pleasing Asian Underground records.

After one hour many people went inside the Arena so we followed them because it was getting a little cold anyway. Nomad Sound System, Berlin’s most wicked Oriental Electronics formation around DJ Shazam, was playing live and warming up the people inside.

I thought that the renovated industrial hall with its 7000 sqm was huge although the area in front of the stage was getting more and more crowded.

Around ten o’clock when Nitin started with a piano solo there were actually over 1000 people inside the Arena. Besides drums, bass and guitar charismatic vocalists like Tina Grace, soulful Sharon Duncan, human beatbox Jason Singh and even beautiful Bollywood singer Reena Bhardwaj were part of the band. Supported by impressive visuals the musicians performed slow goose skin songs as well as groovy soul and impulsive beat driven songs inspired by flamenco and Indian classic. You could recognise wonderfully modified versions of songs from Philtre and Human but also classic tracks like The Immigrant, Sunset and The Conference. The visuals contained old shots of Indian circus people, immigrants arriving in England, parts of an Indian silent movie, sociocritical shots of a beggar, trashy and provocative animations against Bush but also abstract and very artistic illustrations.

All in all it was an amazing and harmonious concert and again Sawhney has proven that music has got no barriers or predjudices. It’s all about peace, tolerance and humanity.

Right after the last song Madlen from V2 Records (Sawhney’s label) called me up, that was around midnight I guess, we met up, talked a bit and waited for ten minutes before we went backstage all together.

Nitin was sitting with his band, some of them were eating and surely discussing about the gig. So Madlen introduced us to him and we went next door where it was little quieter. Malik started taking pictures already, Tina was preparing the recorder and after I was told that I have 20 minutes only, the label guys left and I could start…

Hi Nitin, I’m Manoj from Masala Movement and I’m a freelance writer for which is the biggest Indian online community in Germany.

I’ve already written a detailed article about your background and your music, so tonight I’d like to ask you more specific questions.

Alright, cool!

How did you like the reaction of the German crowd compared to other European countries?

It was nice. I thought that crowd was really into it. I don’t know how much they know about my music in Germany. I mean we sold records here but it’s not like in some other countries where we sell a lot. We haven’t giged in Germany for a very long time properly so it was interesting seeing how they react what was great. We could hear them get more and more enthusiastic cause the evening was long and by the end they were really down. Even from the beginning they were really good so it was a great reaction actually and I’m pleased for that.

What is the most annoying question people ask you because of your Indian origin?

Hehehe… maybe that one…hehe. Well let me think. I don’t know.. I don’t really get annoyed by questions. I think people ask things…you have to sometimes correct their way of thinking. Maybe they have a very simplistic way of looking at Asian people.

They maybe compare me to Talvin Singh. I find that very annoying cause I kind of think he’s one person I’m another person. We just happened to be around the same time but we do very different things. Talvin does his thing and I do mine.

You have djayed in India as well. How was the response and what is your impression about the Indian club and popular music scene.

Great! It’s cool. It’s very nice actually and very good vibe. We did it in Mumbai, Bangalore and couple of other places. And we gonna go there again I think to do something in Jodhpur and Mumbai. So it would be doing some more touring over there maybe with the whole band next time. Should be really good. I prefer to go with the whole band and also we probably do some promotion of all the first singles from the new album.

Then there is a really good vibe with Reena Bhardwaj as well because Reena has done really well supported by A.R. Rahman she has recorded Yeh Rishta for the movie Meenaxi.

That was really popular over there so it would be good to do something over there with her as well. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

What do you love and what do you hate about India? Is there anything in India that makes you feel more complete and makes you feel home although you grew up in UK?

Well my family…hehe…whole of my family is still over there so I meet a lot of my relatives and so on whenever I go over.

Also I like the way things flow. Quite often people aren’t so judgmental all the times. I think that’s quite nice. But then there are lots of things that make me feel uneasy as well, the levels of poverty, the corruption, the inequity between people, the imbalances. The rich can be very indifferent about poverty. It can appear very callus. There’s a real dog eat dog kind of atmosphere in certain parts of India. Other parts are very warm and very generous and have a very strong sense of humanity. But other parts a very capitalistic they would have picked up the worst parts of the west.

It also worries me about nuclear parasite that people think it’s a good thing. I can’t understand that…that people actually think it’s good to have nuclear bombs…can’t understand anyone thinking that.

If you get sick of your own music sometimes what are your methods to gain new energy and motivation to proceed?

Hehe…well I never really get sick of my own music. I rather get sick of playing music or writing music. So I just carry on playing, there you go. But I like to do other things…at the moment I do quite a lot of Thai boxing and other keep fit things. Also I read a lot of different types of books. Lot of books on ancient hindu mathematics like the vedantic ways of thinking and even how that connects some of modern physics and stuff like that. I find that really interesting.

But also just hanging out with friends and seeing films.

You compose lots film music as well including Mira Nair’s new movie. Which movie would you recommend to every Indian born and brought up abroad?

Pather Panchali from Satyajit Ray! That’s an amazing film. That’s the most powerful and brilliant film I’ve ever seen. And Pakeezah which is actually also a great film.

You have even set an old Indian silent movie from 1929 to music and worked with Bollywood singer Reena Bhardwaj.

Yeah…I’m doing that I haven’t finished it yet.

Okay. So what do you think about the recent Bollywood movies and music?

Hehe…well some movies are really crap with cheap dance and crappy music as well but there are some very good films as well. Lagaan is a fantastic film.

You know there are certain films I really think are incredibly classic. I love what A. R. Rahman does in films like Bombay. Yeah, there are a lot of really good films but I prefer the older ones. The old black and white ones with music from Ilayaraja and with actors like Nargis and people like that.

You like drawing and painting as well. How important is the design around your music for you? Could you imagine doing the artwork by yourself or do you think you should stick to the artform you are specialised in?

No, you shouldn’t stick to the artform you are specialised in. I think you should be open to different ways of approaching. Creativity…you know…it could be anything. I’m not into just being stagnant and doing only one thing. I like writing. I’ve even written a play for the National Theatre of London. I write music for musicals, write music for films, for orchestras, I’ve worked with dancer Akram Khan. We did a thing with Antony Gormley recently who’s a sculptor. We just like working in lots of different ways.

There are lots of things I like to do. I think it’s import to express yourself in many different ways.

The covers of your records ar usually held neutrally and rather show abstract images of yourself than any ‘exotic’ and culture specific elements that are typical for your music. Is that because your music is supposed to be a mirror of your individual person in the first place and should not be associated with nationality?

Yeah, exactly that! I’m not really into making statements of nationality so much as statements of emotion, statements of identity and like you said of individuality and ideas, expressions and personal feelings.

In terms of the artwork of the album I kind of artistically direct what happens on the albums and work together with the artists.

You work with many different musicians from all over the world and integrate their styles into your music. Do you consider this approach as possibility for those artists and yourself to change own preconceptions of music?

I don’t really have any preconceptions of music, I don’t really think of it as opportunity to change preconceptions, I don’t see any barriers in music. So if other people have those preconceptions that’s their problem.

Different artists I work with are very very talented people and I wouldn’t try to change what they do. You know I simply like working with musicians. Whatever they take away is up to them. I wouldn’t dictate to anybody what they should learn from that experience.

Ojos de Brujo has made a wonderful remix of one of your tracks. Do artists usually remix your music on their own initiative or do you ask them to reinterpret your songs?

Well I’m trying to find people for remixes. Even Visionary Underground made a remix of my work. People who I think are interesting or have their own individuality or identity I find interesting. I mean Ojos de Brujo I like because they’re mixing traditional Flamenco influences with Hip-Hop and all kinds of modern dance influences and they’re very clubby but they’re very good and talented musicians as well. So I really relate to them a lot.

Your mother was a Bharata Natyam dancer and you’ve already worked with comtemporary dancer Akram Khan who is inspired by classical Kathak. So what role plays dance in your music on stage.

Well I don’t use dances on stage but on the visuals. I’m very into visual statements. And also tracks like The Conference even incorporate Kathak bhols from people like Birju Maharaj. The first part of The Conference actually uses one of the classic Khatak bhols from Birju Maharaj who’s the greatfather at the moment of Kathak.

Your new album is called Philtre that means healing power. Do you mainly want to reach people in the west or do you think your music has a positive and healing effect on ‘ordinary’ people in the rest of the world as well?

I think I’m just saying that it has got a healing power for me whenever I’m feeling low or feeling isolated or I think that it’s getting too crazy what I’m seeing on television or what I’m hearing from politicians. I go for playing music and I think music is a very strong statement of collaboration and people getting together and making powerfull statements that are positive. You know what I don’t like is when people are very guarded about how they do things and I think politicians are very much into trying to manipulate and brainwash and are very fearful of other people, other cultures, other religions and other ways of thinking. So right now I’m very much into the healing power of music because music is purely about collaboration of people from different backgrounds.

Actually I didn’t want to ask you any political question but considering the recent incidents in London I’d like to know how it has affected you personally and has it changed your opinion about manipulative politics and media that twists priorities through one-sided reporting?

No, it has completely confirmed my opinions about all of that. I mean the fact that you’ve got the head of the London Underground Bob Kiley being former C.I.A. agent who was involved in a project called MK Ultra which is ought to do with mindcontrol. I think it’s very strange when this guy is running the London Underground. He was also the assistent to Richard Helms who is the only director of the C.I.A. ever who served time in prison for lying to Congress. This guy is a really dodgy guy. He was around John Watergate, he was involved with the C.I.A. when they recruted Osama Bin Laden in first place. This guy was responsible for releasing certain germs and gases on the New York Subways to test out how people would react.

I don’t know what to think of what’s happened recently, what to think of these muslim people who have actually been accused for this bombing, whatever happened to fair trials, whatever happened to justice, what happened to the idea of public accountability… I mean I just don’t even understand for one second how a father of an eightmonths old baby can go off and blow himself up unless their is something seriously being manipulated in his mind. Now it’s interesting that the head of the London Underground was actually involved in a project specifically about controlling people’s mind. I find that really frightening. It’s not coming out in the press but it is on the London Transport website. It’s shocking! This guy has got the most dark, dark…worrying history. He’s on the Council of Foreign Relations which is a very elitist and dodgy organisation indeed.

So what I’m saying is that I don’t trust these politicians. I don’t trust Blair at all, I don’t trust Bush at all.

So it has just confirmed what I’ve already thought which is these guys will stop at nothing to do whatever they need to to get more power.

What about the police who shot an innocent guy from Brazil?

Yeah, shocking! This guy…he’s running away…if you see three people who are in ordinary clothes…they don’t even have that police uniforms on…he turns around and they are shouting only ‘Stop!’ and they’ve got guns in their hands and are dressed like me and you…you’d run, I would run. Right? What the hell, somebody’s got a gun, waving at me and telling me to stop. I’m gonna get away!

So this guy jumped over a barrier, they ran after him, he tripped over on the tube…this poor guy who ever the hell he was…he gets on the tube, he’s pinned down by these people, they absolutely make him incapacitated already, he can’t move, there are three of them on him. Right? So what the hell do they need to shoot him five times in the head for? What the hell was that about?

He hadn’t got any bomb on him, he was wearing a jacket like yours, he had no backpack, nothing. There was no reason to suspect anything about a bomb. It’s insane!

As a kind of internationalist what would you suggest to young people who are growing up mutliculturally, torn between different cultures, to find a balanced identity?

Don’t let anyone tell you that your identity should be based on nationality. You should find who you are yourself based on your own personal experiences and you shouldn’t ever let anybody tell you who you’re supposed to be. I think that’s very important.

Because I think there are lot of people out there politicians, goverments, media, television, fashion, whatever…people always trying to tell you what you’re supposed to be.

So it’s really important to be strong about who you are and really have a strong sense of awareness about your identity.

Okay Nitin. Thanks a lot for your time, it was great!

Cool, nice one! Thanks man!