by ZEKRA RAHMAN WHENEVER Nitin Sawhney releases an album, everybody expects him to deliver music that will stimulate the mind. That is why it will come as no surprise that his eighth studio album is another socially and politically charged one about London after the 7/7 bombings. Titled London Undersound, it features a mix of established and unknown artists of different age groups, who share their unique experiences of how London has changed since the July bombings. Eastern Eye caught up with the world-class musician and cultural pioneer to find out more about his album and his views on London, racism and the British-Asian music scene. Tell us about the idea behind your new album London Undersound? Firstly, it is trying to get across a whole lot of different ideas and feelings about how London has changed over the past few years. Secondly, it is about working with a number of different collaborators to get across their experiences on the city, particularly in terms of its political and sociological landscape and soundscape. How would you say London has changed since 7/7? I think London has become more paranoid. There are writers like Noam Chomsky and John Pilger who touch upon the idea that if you create an atmosphere of fear, then people go running to the government for help. As a result, we have seen a lot of our civil liberties curtailed. There is a lot of stuff that has come through in London, which we weren’t willing to accept a few years ago and as a result, there is an increase in paranoia and racism. But there are aspects of hope. People are using the Olympics to celebrate the cultural diversity of London. It’s an interesting time because we are at a crossroad as a nation, of either accepting people’s diversity or becoming entrenched in racist perspectives. Do you think the songs on the album reflect this change? I didn’t want to make this a heavy, intense album but there are aspects of it that do. I wanted it to be an album that was very listenable and was more thought-provoking rather than slamming people over the head saying, ‘this is what I want you to think’. How compatible were the experiences of the collaborators you featured on London Undersound? They all have perspectives on how they feel about London. It has got a large cultural range and age demographic as well as a mix of celebrities and people who are unknown. I think their views were quite compatible. I sat down and talked to them all before, individually and independently, about it. I think from there, a picture of London does emerge from the music. It has its own flow and narrative. I believe people who hear it will be able to hear me in there, but it’s also an anthology of a lot of different artists. Creativity is personal. Do you think it is possible to communicate other people’s ideas without colouring them with your own? Yeah, I do. I also do colour them with my own because I am making an album. I like to engage with people in
EASTERN EYE October 17, 2008
different ways. I haven’t really got a set agenda that I am trying to say, ‘I want to achieve this’ before I make the album. The idea is to put together something and then find the cohesion in the work. From a Hindu philosophical way of thinking, I think that things have their own flow and I try to follow that as naturally as I can.
important that we say racism is racism. I think the album speaks for itself in terms of celebrating cultural diversity. We all should respect each other, regardless of our cultural heritage. It’s difficult to make those specifics work in a way that creates an accessible album. It can alienate and isolate people who otherwise would listen to it.
Of the people you worked with on the album, who inspired you the most? I did feel very excited by the piece with Natty. I think it was a very good starting point to touch upon what happened with 7/7 and the killing of [Brazilian] Jean Charles de Menezes. I think it was quite a pivotal moment for London because until then, the city felt quite removed from the justifications of the war. Afterwards, a lot of Muslims felt under seige from the way the media attacked them. It showed how we haven’t moved on from the institutional racism that surrounded the Stephen Lawrence affair. The fact that no one was punished for what happened is testimony to the fact that we have allowed something to happen in terms of what we tolerate from a racist perspective.
How did your experience as a BritishAsian in London influence the music? It feeds into everything I do. Tracks like Bring It Home sound like a drum ’n’ bass track but it’s actually in a six-beat cycle, the third section is in ek taal and I have used tihais in the way that the vocals are constructed. Then there’s a track called Ek Jaan, which is in Hindi and there is a tarana in Day Break and [Indian dancer] Anoushka Shankar is part of the album. So there are all those aspects of my heritage, but then I also feed on my experiences of London and the diversity within it. I grew up as flamenco artist, jazz pianist and classical musician who also plays the tabla and sitar, so my background is bought into the way I structure the music.
What were the challenges of tying together the different perspectives? Everyone was really open and honest in their contribution, so it was not so much of a challenge. But at the same time, to create cohesion and to follow the vocabulary of the music was a challenge. I did go through a lot of ideas with this one because I wanted to create something fresh that could embrace diverse types of music but also create a feeling that emerged from the album. I think I was thinking more cinematically than usual and that’s come out in the album. Are there any songs that portray how London’s different Asian communities responded to each other after 7/7? What I didn’t want to do was to get into very specific issues. But there have been issues which have come about. There are tensions between Hindus and Muslims because Hindus are worried about being labelled in the same way as Muslims. I think that’s bulls**t, because I am a Hindu. I think it’s very
Do you think music can shape the way we look at each other? Music is a very powerful language. I don’t try to preach to people, I just throw out ideas and really, it’s more cathartic than anything. I’m just expressing what I feel. At the same time, I respect bands like Public Enemy who came out with Fight The Power and NWA with F**k The Police. They were people who actually had something to say. It’s part of the responsibility of artists to look at what’s going on in the world and challenge it. How would you say the British-Asian music scene has changed since 7/7? Since 7/7, there has been a real shift. There is a lot of fear as to what people will think of the ‘other’. People are very fearful of music from other cultures at the moment – it is subliminal but it’s there. There is not enough embracing of musicians from an Asian background. I really like people like Bobby and Nihal, who do a lot of work to promote Asian artists in this country, but I don’t think it’s enough. There needs to be a shift in the mindset of the mainstream. I would like to see Asian bands being nominated at the Brit Awards. You wouldn’t see that because there is a lot of racism against Asian bands and musicians. People want to marginalise them and categorise them in a way that isn’t fair. What advice would you give to young British Asians who aspire to be like you? I would say, don’t try and be like me (laughs). Try and find your own voice, your own identity and don’t let anyone ever compromise who you are. It’s a difficult time right now for the music industry because of the whole download thing. It’s very hard to break through, but if you stick to what you believe in and your own identity, people will hear your voice eventually. What is next for you? We have a full-scale tour of the country and we are also going to be touring Europe. We are also playing at the Electric Proms in October. In addition, I am currently writing four film scores and a video game for Orchestra. I am DJing quite a bit too. I’ll keep going and do what I do. London Undersound is out now.
with DJ San-j Sanj
See where he is DJing at www.bollyparty.co.uk
YES, it’s true that I am not presenting my Central Show on Club Asia any more. The weekday programme that I have hosted since May 2005 has now made it into the broadcasting cemetery. Although I had fun doing it, my fondest memories are of the warmth and love I got from the listeners. Ultimately, that is what keeps a presenter going. However, I haven’t left Club Asia, I’m not emigrating, getting married (I’m already married, thanks) or joining a rival station. I’m actually in the process of establishing a new weekend show on Club Asia. I can’t give much away, but all I can say is watch this space or listen to the airwaves. This change has been a long time coming for me, as there are not enough hours in the day for me to fulfill all my projects. The first one to be tackled now that I have a little more time is my album. Before you laugh, I started recording it way back in 2001 and seriously, I want to complete and release it before the decade ends. The last album I released was Bombass in 1995. Boy, that was
almost 14 years ago – that’s like two seven-year itches, the same time Ram and Sita spent in the jungle and three UEFA World Cup tournaments. Doesn’t time go fast? I had better rush, I have got work to do and I’m sure you have as well. My Top 5, based on requests and response when DJing 1. Oop Cha rugg-ed mix by DJ Ed (new entry) 2. Speaker Baja from the soundtrack C Kkompany (down one) 3. Balle Shava by Tigerstyle (down one spot) 4. Singh Is Kinng from the soundtrack Singh Is Kinng (non mover) 5. Shake It Up by DJ Sav V (new entry) Stop, look and listen For all the Eastside Londoners who trek west to Cafe Chai (in Ealing) every Friday for a dose of Bollywood, save yourself the trouble and come down closer to home on Saturday, October 25. I’m hosting Diwali Diva & Desi Don at IG1 Bar & Lounge. For more information, log onto www.bollyparty.co.uk
act of the week UNDERGROUND artist Asi Khan, who represents the desi scene in Norway, has done everything from producing and DJing to being part of a sevenmember band. Now an MC, he is promoting himself in the UK and the US because he feels they are better markets for his music. The 21-year-old spoke to Eastern Eye about the desi hip hop scene in Norway and why it’s easier to get a record deal outside his home country.
development in Norway, so I’ve been appreciated better by listeners outside the country. The market for desi hip-hop is better outside Norway and if I want to get signed, I should try to get my music out in the UK or America. But I’m not only doing this to get signed as soon as possible. I believe in learning from this journey I’ve started. I want to stay in Norway and make the desi scene there grow bigger.
Tell us about your latest song? It is called Ajj Dinn Vaddiya, and is about the one day you are feeling lucky. This track features Shaz, who also grew up in the same area of Oslo as me.
Why should a record label sign you? Desi music is getting more and more influenced by hip-hop music. Asian rappers are already making their fan bases out there and a lot of them can make it independently, without being signed to any major labels. The labels will come to us – maybe not right now, but very soon. Just let this desi hiphop grow a bit bigger.
What’s been your biggest achievement so far? To be played on the Bobby Friction show. I had someone from the BBC trying to get hold of me for two-three weeks. I was Artist of the Week, the Week’s Newcomer and one of the Top 5. That was real cool, to see people in the UK appreciating my music. What are you working on next? I’m trying to fix a mix tape I’m going to release on the Internet and hopefully shoot a video for one of the tracks on it. What’s the biggest challenge in trying to get a record deal? The hip-hop scene is under
Check out Asi Khan on www. myspace. com/asikhan