A Chat With Nitin Sawhney
aaamusic | On 08, Nov 2011
Nitin Sawhney, Anglo Indian musician, producer and composer fuses Asian and other worldwide influences with jazz and electronica. He has firm views on multiculturalism, politics and spirituality. Sawhney is also keen on the promotion of arts and culture. He is a patron of endless film festivals, venues, and educational institutions. With Sir George Martin and Jools Holland he is patron of the Access to Music
programme. Access All Areas Music interviewer Anthony Weightman speaks to Nitin Sawhney ahead of his performance at The Union Chapel, Islington on 3rd November, 2011.
AAAmusic: You’ve experimented and achieved so many different things over the years. If an artist has established a specific reputation in a particular field, it’s sometimes difficult for them to be taken seriously in some very different creative field, no matter how good they actually are. An example of this might be the legendary Joni Mitchell who once put down her acoustic guitar and took up painting. Can you relate to this problem?
Nitin Sawhney: I enjoy working in lots of different ways. Music is about creativity. It’s a passport to different kinds of ideas and ways of thinking. It’s more of a language. It allows you to work with lots of different media. It’s the only medium where you can work right across all the other art forms. You can put music to theatre, film, dance, video games…whatever. It’s allowed me to get behind the scenes in lots of different ways of thinking. That’s what I find interesting about working in a diverse way. I don’t see it as going into new territory, even though at the moment I’m writing a play for Saddlers Wells where I’ve got a really strong cast and I’ll be directing that. For me that doesn’t feel like a mad departure. A lot of my heroes were people who were quite multi faceted in terms of how they approached the arts. They were the real renaissance people. This week I’m going to be talking about Leonardo da Vinci. People I consider to be renaissance people are, even on the comedy level, people like Dudley Moore who was a great classical musician and comedian. I never really thought in terms of barriers between different forms of music and expression. It was about using music as a starting point and then going into many different areas and many different ways of thinking.
AAAmusic: It’s sad that Dudley Moore is no longer with us really, isn’t it?
Nitin Sawhney: Yes, he was one of my great heroes.
AAAmusic: You’ve worked with Jeff Beck in the past. There’s a great story of when he went to see a live performance of an unknown newcomer to the UK who called himself Jimi Hendrix. He came out of the performance thinking this guy’s so brilliant, perhaps the rest of us should just give up. Have you ever had that sort of feeling?
Nitin Sawhney: Actually, it was great meeting Jeff Beck. He’s one of those people who’s a very clever artist and he could probably turn his hand to any kind of idea. He reinterpreted a track of ours called ‘Nadia’ which is quite a difficult piece to play, even for an Indian classical musician to sing. It was quite impressive that he found a way of playing that. So, if he thought that Jimi Hendrix was someone who put him off the idea of playing, it’s quite something. From my angle, I only get inspired by people if I see somebody who’s a great artist or someone who’s got an imagination. If you think of music as a language, it’s about expression. You don’t sit there thinking I don’t have the grammar to express myself in the most wonderful way. It’s about what you have to say in the first place and how you say it. If you thought that way you’d be discounting some of the great punk or rock bands who may be technically limited. You can’t ever be the best musician – there’s only going to be one of those. So, the idea of that doesn’t interest me. It’s much more about what you can do or how you express yourself. The idea of going from DJing at Fabrik to working with or conducting a full blown orchestra is my personal challenge. Being able to move in different ways and work with artists from all kinds of genres is a real privilege. That’s what I feel is my unique thing. I really enjoy working in so many different ways with video games or theatre or film or my own albums. I’m not really comparing myself to anyone except myself. I’m just thinking about what I want to try to get across. That’s the only challenge I think we should have.
AAAmusic: I suspect the comment by Jeff Beck may have been made jokingly.
Nitin Sawhney: Fair enough!
AAAmusic: You touch upon the loneliness of elderly people in your latest album Last Days of Meaning. In the East it’s common to find that the senior generations of a family are very much a part of the family group, even to the extent that there are grandparents and great grandparents living in the same household. In the West that tends to be less so. How do you feel about this situation?
Nitin Sawhney: It’s about respect. It’s interesting for me. The whole idea of using John Hurt on this album was partially about how, as we get older, we can get more intransigent and we gain a sense of fear about the outside world rather than engaging with it. It’s almost a cautionary tale. As we get older we can become more insular and in doing so we can pass our prejudices on to the next generation. I felt that’s what pretty much happened with the last general election and what I was looking for was a metaphor for that intransigent way of thinking. That was the thing I originally focused on. So, in getting John Hurt in to play this old man, it was almost a Christmas carol type idea. It was more looking at it as a symbolic concept rather than focusing on an elderly person in their own right. Society at the moment is pretty ageist. Even the music industry is probably at the forefront of that. The whole way that fashion works is actually about disempowering. Recently I read that we’re the worst in Europe in terms of ageism, which is quite horrendous. That’s something that is quite worrying.
AAAmusic: I’ve actually been in a nursing home when a highly intelligent and creative elderly person is hiding away in a private room to separate himself from people of his own generation who seem to be unstimulated and just staring vacantly into nothingness. Do you find this sort of situation also very tragic, where they’re cutting themselves off from people of their own generation?
Nitin Sawhney: I totally feel that. They can be cut off as well and their experiences can cut them off. The way they feel undervalued can also cut them off. It’s about valuing people as human beings and not dehumanising them. The problem is we live in a culture which objectifies both men and women and in objectifying we judge people by their appearance. People tend to feel the pinnacle of their appearance when they are young. When they get older they are made to feel less worthy by society by the way we’re constantly told to think by television or the media or by the way that politicians dismiss the elderly as not as valuable in terms of their contribution to society as young people.
AAAmusic: It’s refreshing to explore the idea that our older generations really can learn new things and that you can teach an old dog new tricks. There are those who say there’s legislation to prevent direct age discrimination, but not enough to prevent indirect discrimination. How far away do you think we are from genuine open mindedness on this subject?
Nitin Sawhney: Unfortunately, I think we’re a long way from open mindedness. The problem is that we’re not really educating young people to have a sense of respect for the elderly. I guess it is about how we place the value belt. As you rightly pointed out, in societies such as India, or in other parts of the world, particularly in the east, you have a real extended family where the elder people are seen as the wise sages of the family. They have a lot of knowledge and information and wisdom to pass down to the young. I think it is the opposite here. Unfortunately there’s almost like an arrogance that’s promoted amongst young people which is quite often misplaced. The wisdom and experiences of the elderly are often the first things that are abandoned in terms of how family dynamics work.
AAAmusic: In your music you touch upon fear as a human emotion. On the weekend of the London bombings in 2005 I went to a well known London venue to find it half empty because people were afraid. Both the audience and musicians were absolutely determined that the evening would be a success. Do you have any memories of that particular weekend?
Nitin Sawhney: I wrote a track with Natty called Days of Fire. Natty happened to be there when the bus exploded at Tavistock Square (on 7/7/2005) but also he was 2 train carriages behind John Charles de Menezes when he got shot 2 weeks later, so he had a powerful experience. We wrote a track together called Days of Fire. I also worked on a film about Charles de Menezes. I’m confused by a lot of the events on that day. For me it was a kind of strange thing. Something changed in the way that the public conceived of multiculturalism that was about political opportunism rather than anything else. That’s very much what’s happened since. This was an isolated, weird event. Unfortunately politicians used it as a justification, like they did 9/11, to do all kinds of inhumane things around the world and to infuse society with a kind of new sense of paranoia.
AAAmusic: There’s also a mood of optimism in your music. Taste the Air is a very inspiring track from your latest album. Things are very tough for young musicians at the moment. It can take a long time for a talented person to get established. Are there any words of encouragement that you can give them?
Nitin Sawhney: It’s about just being yourself and not trying to second guess the music industry, because it’s constantly changing. In terms of society as a whole, we’re living in a world where lots of things are possible.
What’s exciting is you can learn about anything that interests you which you can develop yourself. You don’t have to go through some institution. The grant system is breaking down. Young people are having to pay three times what they did a few years ago just to get an education, which I think is totally shocking. You can go online with something called the Khan Academy where you can learn online about differential calculus or whatever. People at school thought I’ll never learn that, but it’s broken down and made possible and accessible. Recently, I wanted to learn about a particular flamenco star and I could go to You Tube and watch that particular style. Anything you want to learn you can learn now, which is great. There’s a genuine open university that is now called the internet.
AAAmusic: Some musicians feel very strongly that music should show a respect for women. Especially they dislike lyrics which encourage violence towards women. For example, when I saw BB King live, he referred to his hatred of expressions like I’m going to smack my bitch up. Do you have strong feelings about this sort of thing?
Nitin Sawhney: Yes, I do feel quite strongly about that. Part of the hip hop mentality and a lot of rap lyrics over the last 10 to 15 years has been pretty dark in that respect. I think there needs to be a lot more positivity in terms of roll models and inspiration for young people to latch on to. There’s a lot of negativity. You’re right. Disrespect for women, disrespect for the elderly, disrespect for people from other cultures. Unfortunately, all of that is related and it’s about dehumanisation of people and I think that happens a lot in lyrics. It happens a lot in the media. Anything that does that is sending out negative and destructive messages.
AAAmusic: Thank you very much indeed for spending some time with me. It’s been so good to meet you.
Nitin Sawhney: Pleasure to meet you.
Author: Anthony Weightman