Profile Nitin Sawhney's new album, London Undersound, flawlessly blends the personal with the political.
First, a warning: the smallest summary of Nitin Sawhney's artistic achievements reads like a sobering rebuke to even the most ambitious of high flyers. A comprehensive list would fill this entire page, but among the edited highlights are prize-winning albums, Hollywood film scores, orchestral pieces and computer-game soundtracks. In his relatively short career, Sawhney has also collaborated with dozens of world-class artists including the sculptors Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, the choreographer Akram Khan, the rai singer Cheb Mami, the London Symphony Orchestra and the former Beatle Paul McCartney. As well as being a multi-instrumentalist, club DJ, remixer and producer, Sawhney has earned honorary degrees for his music and awards for his community-education work. Since launching his solo recording career in 1993, the 44-year-old British Asian has also found time to develop fruitful sidelines as a comedian, film-festival patron, newspaper columnist and political activist. Two weeks ago, he played at the BBC's Electric Proms concert series in London before taking his band on tour. Sawhney's latest album, London Undersound, was conceived as a musical panorama of the city he calls home. A rich patchwork of diverse sounds and styles, it bursts with beauty and vitality, but also anger and anxiety. On the opening track, Days Of Fire, the guest vocalist Natty reflects on the aftermath of the July 7 bombings which rocked London in 2005, killing 52 people, and the police shooting two weeks later of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician mistaken for a terrorist. "London has become a much more uncertain and insecure place," Sawhney explains. "A lot of civil liberties have been curtailed. But the whole album is just about different human stories. It's a kind of microcosm of diversity, with a certain flow, an underlying feeling to it, the same way that London has itself." Sawhney likens his role on the album to that of a film director, corralling an impressive cast of collaborators including Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of the sitar virtuoso Ravi, and Barcelona's rowdy flamenco-punk collective Ojos de Brujo. Paul McCartney also guests on the album, crooning a tender and rueful ballad called My Soul. The Liverpool legend has worked with Sawhney before, on his dance-pop collective project The Fireman, and his presence on London Undersound is pleasingly unshowy: not a self-conscious superstar cameo but woven into the free-flowing, egalitarian mix. "I've known Paul for a long time and he's always been really supportive," says Sawhney. "He's a great person who's seen a lot in his life, and I just thought it would be interesting to get his perspective. It's a very human performance, a really vulnerable performance. He's very open, he doesn't get precious about things. We just chucked ideas between us." My Soul was recorded just as McCartney was going through his bitter and extremely public divorce from Heather Mills, and it opens with a snippet of speech in which the ex-Beatle reflects on the pains of being pursued by paparazzi photographers. "I said I wanted to hear something he felt strongly about, in London," Sawhney recalls. "What I liked was it fits in very well with the concept of the album, because it's a metaphor for freedom and feeling watched, and feeling that your identity and your soul is being taken away. That's one of the themes of the album, so it works on this microcosmic level." In interviews, Sawhney has a reputation for sombre attitude and heavy subject matter. Which is strange, since he began his stage career in comedy, forming a double act called the Secret Asians with his university friend Sanjeev Bhaskar. Both later joined the cast of the celebrated British-Asian comedy Goodness Gracious Me on BBC radio, but Sawhney pulled out just as the show transferred to television, launching Bhaskar to international renown. "I did comedy with Sanj for quite a few years," Sawhney recalls. "Then I was a writer and actor on the radio series for two years, and I did the TV pilot, but I left three days before they did the full series. It was good fun but I decided I really didn't want to get known for that, because I saw how big it was going to be. To be honest, I thought it was going to be more of a cool little side project." Sawhney claims that he has little time for a private life, and it comes as no surprise that he describes his relationship status as single. The secret of his prolific work rate, he claims, is a competent team of helpers, plus a keen interest in Hindu philosophy and quantum physics. "It's all about finding interesting ways of getting into a flow of consciousness," he explains. "That really helps me in terms of putting ideas together in a cohesive way. There are a lot of quantum physicists who were interested in Eastern philosophy. The impact of those ideas dates back thousands of years, but there is also a lot of Arabic influence, which is rarely acknowledged. Early scientists like Ibn al Haytham, a Persian mathematician, who was born in in 965AD and actually came up with two of Newton's laws of motion." Sawhney is clearly a deep thinker and a political animal. A critic of intervention in Iraq and the ongoing "war on terror", he has composed scores for a play about Fallujah and a forthcoming film about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. He also expresses alarm at the UK prime minister Gordon Brown's proposed "testing" of citizens for Britishness and the recent election of the new right-wing London mayor Boris Johnson, a man who once referred to Africans as "piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles." His own family background may be Hindu, but Sawhney is acutely aware of the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and anti-Asian feeling stirred up by cynical politicians in the wake of September 11 and July 7. He quotes the veteran US left-wing academic Noam Chomsky's theory that both the British and American governments are exploiting a climate of fear to justify strict new anti-terror laws which allow unprecedented levels of surveillance and control over their own citizens. "It's used as an excuse for fear and religious intolerance," Sawhney nods. "More than anything, it's about political opportunism and the curtailing of civil liberties. It completely undermines the rule of law. But what I wanted to do with London Undersound was just present an album of feelings, not add to that already oversaturated argument." In fact, Sawhney himself is a great advert for multiculturalism. Born and raised in a mostly white corner of Kent, he routinely encountered racism in the street and the classroom, but his home life was a globalised feast of music and art. His research chemist father, Anandeshwar, was a fan of flamenco and jazz. His mother, Saroj, a schoolteacher and a trained Indian classical dancer. The youngest of three brothers, Sawhney grew up playing Bach and Chopin at home, and sitar and tabla at the local Sikh temple. He began improvising on the piano at five, joining a jazz band while still in his teenage years. Such precocious dynamism may help explain why he is now the most visible and successful British-Asian composer in the world. But Sawhney still worries about becoming a "bottleneck artist" whose high profile somehow deflects attention from other musicians with ethnic-minority backgrounds. "To be honest, I think there is a degree of tokenism in how Asians are perceived," he says. "I'm very lucky that I'm getting a platform for this album and playing at the BBC Eclectic Proms, but it makes me sad there aren't other artists out there getting that kind of attention, or having that history of support from the music industry. Ten years ago, there were more." Despite Britain's much-trumpeted multicultural music scene, Sawhney claims that record companies and retailers still practise subtle forms of institutional racism. Even after his 1999 album Beyond Skin made the shortlist for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, he was shocked when he went incognito to search for it at a major London record store. While all his fellow Mercury contenders were displayed together, regardless of genre, his album was relegated to the "world music" ghetto - a narrow, condescending, colonialist term. Sawhney may sound angry and even despairing in interviews, but his music is mostly a mellifluous and uplifting fusion. Whatever its political context, London Undersound is ultimately an album to soothe the social and cultural tensions of recent years. "The album is cathartic," Sawhney nods. "In fact, all my albums are primarily responses to what I'm seeing and feeling at the time. Music has a therapeutic power, it has the ability to get things out of your system, to focus your feelings and emotions about what's going on. I'm just talking about what I feel, I'm not trying to tell anyone what to think."
London Undersound is out now on Cooking Vinyl.