exclusive interview with Nitin Sawhney

interview by dimmSummer
date: 11.04.03
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is EthnoTechno's interview with Nitin Sawhney in the UK, we're sitting in his studio and I guess my first question for you is Why? Why do you do what you do? Why is it that you make the music that you make?

Nitin: Well the music I make, I make in lots of different ways, sometimes I work on my own albums, I work on orchestral scores, I work in film and television, I work with loads of different people, so it's first of all a question of what as well. But in terms of why I do what I do, I do it because I've always been a musician, it's about catharsis. I always think that there's two elements to any kind of artist, whatever field they happen to be in. One element is expression, and the other element is communication. Expression at its best is catharsis, it's getting rid of ghosts, it's getting things out of your system, it's allowing you to get stuff out that you perhaps wouldn't be able to get out just through words. Communication at its worst is about commercial sellout. I try to make the catharsis of my expression something that I share with other people. When I make an album, when I make a piece of music, I think more in terms of sharing what I've done rather than making it for commercial exploitation or trying to pander to other people's expectations of what Im supposed to be. The one thing I always believe is just be yourself and people can hear the honesty in what you do.

ET: And you've found commercial success. That wasn't a goal but through the honesty in your music, you've found that. That's resonant, people did find the truth in your music and they see that so you're successful and you can reach more people.

There's a recurring theme in your last few [album] covers, the screaming head. Who is this? Is it you? Is it your soul, or a collective soul? What does the screaming represent?

Nitin: Well the screaming is me. The sculpture on Beyond Skin was a plaster cast of my head and the last one, it was my head going through latex.. So yeah, I've kind of screamed into these things. The idea is a cry for identity, it's the idea of not being heard or seen as who you are, it's the fact that we're constantly drowned by other people's projections of who we're supposed to be. Whether that's the media, politicians, schools, your parents, whoever, people try to impose their idea of who you're supposed to be upon who you actually are. So it's very difficult to be seen for who you are. The idea for me of making good music is almost like a cry to be heard as who you are.

ET: When did you first find out who you were? What was the defining moment when you said 'This is who I am' or are you still discovering who you are?

Nitin: I'm tempted to say that I found my name on the inside of my underpants, but yeah I'm still discovering who I am like anyone else is. It's a quest, isn't it? It's like trying to search for your own sense of who you are. But then at the same time I feel a lot more comfortable with that than I ever have been. I don't feel the need to define myself to other people. The music is the nearest definition to explaining who I am, really, because it comes from somewhere very genuine, so I don't try and simplify notions of identity, I'm much more into saying 'Look, this is what I feel, these are the things I think, and you can make of them what you will.'

ET: Your music has myriad influences that reflect who you are on the inside and it's quite diverse. I saw your show for the first time and it's an amazing show, there's actually nothing like that in the U.S. I know you're heading to the U.S. to DJ. On stage, how many people are in the band? The vocalists, the instrumentalists?

Nitin: Probably 9 or 10 people onstage, or sometimes 11. I don't have all the singers on at once, I'll sometimes have 2 or 3 singers on at the same time. It's more like being a director of a film when I make an album, there's a lot of characters involved. Sometimes some people are more important to particular scenes than other people are, so when I do a live show I've got a lot of characters to populate the idea that I'm trying to get across. It's a very good cast of people and they're all trying to express their own take on the idea that lies behind the music.

ET: How long did it take you to find the right people for this cast? Was it a struggle, or did it just all fall into place?

Nitin: It's a constant process, you're always working with lots of different people and trying things out. Itšs about experimentation and pushing your own head and pushing ideas. The music is the key to everything, the ideas generate who you are going to use on particular songs. For instance, it's not appropriate to use a certain type of voice on a track that Tina originally sung, or that Jayanta sung. You can only use certain types of voices for certain types of tracks, so you can't just go off on tour with just one or two people because it wouldn't be appropriate. So yeah, it takes time, you've got to find the right people. You've also got to think about if you're going to be on the road for a while, you've got to get on with those people. I don't believe in the idea of just getting loads of session musicians who are just into money -- they've got to be behind the idea, the feeling of what's going on, they've got to understand what's happening.

ET: It's interesting you said you had to find a certain voice for a certain track, because on your recent release Human the track "Heer" has a female vocalists, and in concert it was a male singing, which was obviously a different take on it. Why was it reversed?

Nitin: Different energy. Live, it's a very powerful, dramatic event. If you listen to it and watch it, it builds up in intensity. The particular voice is Reena's on the album, her voice isn't the kind of voice that commands that same level of intensity live. She's got a fantastic voice live but what I do is pull back behind her to expose the fragility and vulnerability and beauty of her voice. But if you've got loud drums and pumping sounds building up behind her, I don't want the woman screaming her head off. But with Davinder because he can almost move into a Qawwali-type feel, with the way he sings he's got almost that kind of power that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and people like that have. He can lead something that's going to build up in intensity, it's a different kind of energy altogether. Like I've always said, it's like the difference between film and theater. When you're making a theatrical play you don't try to do it in the same way that you would a sequence or a scene in a film.

ET: Where did you find your male vocalist? He can do these ghazaal-style vocals but also it's a very jazz type of delivery that he has. Were you looking for somebody to be able to do that, or did he just come along with that package already with him?

Nitin: He's very flexible just because he's such an accomplished musician and singer. He's a great tabla player. This is a guy whošs trained with Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain's father. He's one of the great tabla players around, a very very very talented guy. He's got such a deep knowledge of raag? and of taal that it's not difficult to get him to be flexible because he has a broad understanding of musical expression.

ET: I interviewed Aref months back when he was in New York, and he told me how he met you, but I wanted to get the other side of that story. He said he was learning tabla and that his dad wanted him to go into the classical type of tabla schools in India and he was like, 'I'm from England, this is my vibe and I want to do it this way.' And he joined some little jazz band and one of the other members was you...

Nitin: That's right, that's completely what did happen. I met him through a guy called Keith Waites... it wasn't so much of a jazz band - we both went to Guyana with him as well. So I got to know him through that, but I'd already been working with lots of different tabla players like Pritin Singh and also Talvin, I was in a band with him for two years. I was making my own albums so I asked him if he wanted to play on 'Migration' and he just came down to the studio and played brilliantly. Aref's got a really good vibe, he's a real groover. His thing is much more groove-based, he's completely right in saying that he's grown up in England and he's got his own vibe going on because he's really got that down. He's a club-head, but he also has phenomenal technique as a musician. For instance I got more into the classical side of things and I'll sit there and work out these complex tabla bols and counting out timings and checking to see if everything's right, but Aref is much more like 'I want to go for it, just hit the thing as hard as I can and make a funky groove,' which is cool and that works really well and he's great at doing that. If I wanted to use a classical tabla player, I'd probably go to Davinder or Jayanta, but if I want to use someone who's really going to make everything flow and groove, I'll always use Aref. Aref's just like energy, man. He's got so much energy, he's always vibing and he's excited about everything and he's always into everything, he just checks things out. He's got a great vibe about him and he's a really good asset to any band. At the moment he's doing a lot of stuff with Susheela, which is cool and I think it's good for him to do more and more things. I think soon he's looking into getting his own deal in America, which is what I think he's always wanted, so it's really good for him.

ET: Do you watch the news?

Nitin: Yeah, I do. I quite often write for newspapers as well. I just wrote for the Observer last week and I was just on The Sharp End with Clive Anderson on Saturday morning.

ET: Sometimes I get sick of the news because sometimes it's too much, it's always negative. Do you ever get saddened by what's happening in the world, or do you see hope on the other side?

Nitin: Both, really. You can get very saddened by absolute idiots such as George Bush or Tony Blair, who are really scary people. Really their stupidity, and how infectious it is, is actually very frightening, and that's the perception of many people now. On top of that, I believe in the value of humanity and I believe in human beings. I think more and more it's becoming irrelevant to think in terms of national boundaries and territorialism. I think it's much more important to think in terms of humanity, because I've always believed that one human being is worth the same as any other regardless of where they come from or who they are. I think it gets to a point where that's just so obviously the way to think now. You just watch the mess these guys create everywhere they go, everything they touch just turns to shit, it's just frightening. And I just think, what are you trying to teach kids? What values are you placing into kids' heads? If you sell a knife to some kid in the playground, it's OK for you to go up to that kid a week later and shoot them in the head on the basis that they might attack you one day? What kind of fucked-up thinking is that? But that's basically what's being taught to kids, that's the value system of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. I find it a frightening world in that respect, but I do believe in human nature, I think ultimately people see through bullshit, and they can see when people are lying, when they're deceitful. I think gradually all of that is coming out more and more. Unfortunately it took this long for that to be clear, but I think it's a very foolhardy person who believes that Tony Blair and George Bush are actually making any sense whatsoever.

ET: Do you fear a third world war? If you look at a lot of science fiction there's this idea of a third world war that finalizes a lot of things, and after that there's a utopia, this ideal world comes about. But it's always after this third one which had to happen. Do you fear that within your own lifetime?

Nitin: I'm more scared of a Third-World Massacre. At the moment what's happening is that you've got people in what's called the Third World right now just constantly dying and being ignored. If you have 25 million Ethiopians dying, it somehow seems less relevant than two or three British soldiers, or 4 American soldiers dying. What the hell is going on? The prioritizations that we're force-fed every day are so ridiculously unbalanced it's beyond belief. The value of human life is negligible in the media and in the eyes of politicians. Unfortunately it's almost got to a point now where people have actually started to believe that's the way the world is. It's not that way. We should just get out there and actually see that the world is a very big place with lots of people in it from lots of different cultures. I mean, 11% of Americans have passports. That's frightening. What's going on? This is a very terrifying thing, people need to understand that we are a part of a huge world community and that we have a responsibility to respect each other and not to blow each other's heads off and go around invading defenseless countries on the basis of profit. The time for thinking that way is now. We also need to think about the fact that George Bush has got no respect for the environment. He has refused for a long time to even think about the Kyoto Protocol. There's no interest in restoring the balance in the environment. Well, that's going to be really important for kids just a few years from now. We're already at a point where we can hardly do anything about it. These are very frightening times, and the rubbish that we've come to accept as being OK - here we've got Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, where police who've been proven to be institutionally racist can stop people on the street and search them, or that people can be incarcerated indefinitely for no justifiable reason. We've got people probably being tortured in Guantanamo Bay for no reason. I just think 'What is the world coming to?' How are we accepting all of these things? Where are the people who are out there saying 'This is outrageous, let's just stop this, this is just evil madness?'

ET: Are you familiar with Al Sharpton, the guy who went down to Guantanamo Bay and protested, did the hunger strike for about 30 days? Now he's running on the Democratic ticket for the 2004 election. I was watching one of the debates, and the crowd always loves him. When he opens his mouth, he says exactly the way it needs to be said, there's no bullshit around it, and people are really refreshed by that. The problem is, he's a black man, and he's not going to get elected because the money will never come in. Now it's all about buying the presidency, votes and the actual platform don't matter.

Nitin: Of course he's not going to get elected, because the world right now is run by criminals. It's amazing, even in Europe right now you've got people like Jacques Chirac and Berlusconi, they're convicted, known criminals. Then you've got George Bush who's also a convicted criminal. People imagine he was convicted for some kind of driving offense or something like that. No he wasn't, he was done twice for cocaine possession. This is a guy who thinks it's OK now because he declared himself a born-again Christian when he was 40 years old. I don't see anything but hypocrisy from this guy. He's not even an elected leader, for God's sake. I just don't really understand what the hell is going on when someone like that is running America, and now trying to run the entire planet. In this country right now wešve lost the distinction between what was proper socialism or what was about equality. It's almost like there's certain words that become stigmatized by politicians, like socialism, or anything to do with egalitarian thinking, is somehow supposed to be a bad or frightening thing. Why? Because people should be treated equally? People should be valued equally? It's just very crazy times we live in. None of this is to do with music but it's just things that I think, and you asking if I watch the news. But when I make an album, it's informed by all these opinions and ways of looking at things but I don't try and shove my opinions down anyone's throat. When I make an album, it's coming from emotional expression. A lot of people say 'There's political messages in your albums.' Well where are they? I don't see them. I'm not really trying to make political statements on albums, but I do feel very strongly about balance and about equality, and it's gotten to the point where making a human statement about people dying in one part of the world is not right, that's become politicized. That shouldn't be politicized, that should be about common fucking sense. It should be common sense to think to yourself, well, we should be considering the fact that that many people are dying in certain parts of the world, that's not OK, we need to do something about it, as opposed to focusing on a few American deaths. Nationality has now become an excuse to be a complete bastard to other people in the world. It's like, yeah, well, it's OK, they're not from here, so let's let them die. You're not going to let a guy who's standing next to you die of starvation and you're going to have a fantastic banquet next to him. That's what's going on, the only difference is proximity. They just happen to be further away, so what?

ET: That whole 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality.

Are you already formulating the next album? Do you have other ideas of what you're going to do after the release of 'Human?' Are you going to branch out into movie scores, do you have other ideas that you want to explore?

Nitin: I've already done 25 film scores, so I've done a lot of those. I'm doing a lot more orchestral work as well, I'm working with some classical orchestras this year and next year. I've always been a classical musician as well, that's one thing I like doing. It's about trying different things, different approaches to music. I'm always going to make albums, I love doing it and I like touring as well, it's great to be out there on the road and I know wešve got one of the best live acts going, it's a really powerful live act. It's just a case of getting more people to see it, which is gradually what's happened over time. It would be great to come over to a place like America or other parts of the world. Wešve toured a lot internationally but America is somewhere we've yet to really get into and show what we can do.

Fade into "Heer" -original composition