Nitin Sawhney :: Beyond Skin
Ever have the feeling that an album is going to be good, just by its cover? Every so often a release comes along that defines a musician's career; a milestone against which each successive work is compared. I give you 1999's Mercury Music Prize nomination, Beyond Skin.
May 11th, 1998 was a momentous occasion in the history of the largest democracy in the world and the importance of it has been captured perfectly in this breathtaking piece of work. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the news that India had successfully carried out test explosions of three nuclear devices, just a few hours earlier. Like on September 11th, 2001, I knew, from that point on, the world we lived in would not be the same.
Released during the height of the 'Asian Underground' craze, Beyond Skin, like most of Sawhney's works, has a central theme: coming to terms with India's contribution to the nuclear arms race (Sawhney calls himself a 'British Asian pacifist'), in the name of progress.
One of the most impressive things about the music on this album is its refusal to be confined to any one field; flamenco, trip-hop, hip-hop, rn'b and dn'b all get thrown in the mix. Just don't expect to find any booty-shakin' jams à la MIDIval Punditz or KK here. In a genre that is inundated with classical Indian raagas layered over techno-inspired electronica, Sawhney has created his own niche in the World Music arena.
"Homelands" is the perfect example of Sawhney's "outernationalist" (apologies to Thievery Corporation) approach. Uplifting strings make way for the vocals of Rizwan Muazam Qawwali and Nina Miranda while flamenco guitar, tablas and violins round out the stunning 6 minutes. "Nadia" (rivers) is a lite drum n' bass number featuring the sublime classical Indian vocals of Swati Natekar (see also Talvin's Ha and Jakatta's 2001 house anthem, "American Dream"). "Tides" will appeal to fans of the jazz genre and Sawhney's earlier works. The album closes out with a chill-inducing interpretation of J. Robert Oppenheimer's legendary Bhagavad Gita-quoting "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" speech. The pounding beats and programming that accompany the words do not help to lessen the eerie-ness factor.
Truly a defining moment in the past, present and future of Asian music, brought to us by the always innovative peeps at Outcaste Records.