Sarathy Korwar, British musician, at his studio in London, July 24, 2019. Korwar mixes Indian classical music, jazz and hip-hop on political concept albums that take aim at cultural clichésImage: Tom Jamieson/The New York Times
LONDON — Think of Indian music, and what springs to mind?
If you live in the West, the answer is likely to be “sitars, flying carpets and yogis on retreats,” musician Sarathy Korwar said.
He wants to challenge that narrow view.
The London-based multi-instrumentalist’s latest album, “More Arriving,” is a vibrant cacophony of Indian classical music, jazz and hip-hop that takes aim at cultural stereotypes and negative attitudes to immigration. It’s definitely not a soundtrack for meditation.
Korwar moved to Britain from India a decade ago and found a following on the London jazz scene with smart, political concept albums that effortlessly splice genres together.
“More Arriving,” which features rappers from Mumbai and New Delhi, as well as skronking sax, “shows you what contemporary India sounds like, but it also shows you what contemporary London sounds like,” Korwar, 31, said.
Since arriving in Britain, Korwar has experienced “everyday racism and prejudice,” he said. With “More Arriving,” he wanted to confront the negative rhetoric about immigration that has become common in the West, he added.
The title was a provocation, he said: To him, it meant, “Yeah, we’re coming.”
People in Britain didn’t understand how diverse life on the Indian subcontinent and in its diaspora were, Korwar said. “What ends up happening, especially in the U.K.,” he added, “is you get stereotyped into this idea of ‘South Asian-ness’ that is very homogeneous.”
You can hear some of those stereotypes on Korwar’s song “Bol,” which stacks up the generalizations. On vocals, poet Zia Ahmed intones about “Karma” and “Kama Sutra,” “Ali Baba,” and “snake charmers,” adding, with a nod to typecasting in film and television: “I am auditioning for the role of Terrorist 1 — yeah, I can do that in an Arabic accent.”
Ahmed is just one of the guest voices on “More Arriving”: The album connects the dots between myriad collaborators to “prove that there is no one voice that represents the community,” Korwar said. Some songs feature rappers from India’s burgeoning hip-hop scene; another uses the words of author Deepak Unnikrishnan, who was born in Kerala, India, and is based in the United Arab Emirates.
“We’re in a revolutionary period for South Asian music,” said Bobby Friction, a broadcaster with a long-running show on the BBC Asian Network radio station. “It’s being made all over the world. There’s South Asians all over Canada, two generations in, all over the USA, three generations in — and over here,” he said, meaning in Britain, “we’re four generations in.”
What Korwar was doing was interesting because it was “multiregional,” Friction added: “He’s working with Marathi-speaking rappers in Mumbai, and then some guy from the East End of London.” These were people who would probably have difficulty communicating with each other, he said. And yet, he added, on “More Arriving” they were “essentially talking about the same things.”
The last time a collision of South Asian traditional and contemporary music came to prominence in Britain was during the 1990s, with a group of artists collectively known as the Asian Underground, including Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney and Asian Dub Foundation. Many of them paired the sounds of Indian instruments with electronic beats.
Singh won the Mercury Music Prize, a prestigious British award, in 1999 — but then “the door closed again,” Friction said. Very few South Asian musicians have managed to puncture the mainstream here since.
Korwar’s own musical influences came together in the Indian cities of Ahmadabad and Chennai, where he spent his childhood. He came from “a very privileged background,” he said, and grew up listening to jazz, blues and also bands like The Beatles and The Doors.
At age 10, he started playing tabla, a pair of tuned hand drums that are a cornerstone of Indian classical music. At 23, he moved to London, and two years later began studying the instrument at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Even though Korwar’s music incorporates elements of Indian classical music, he said he was frustrated that it was this element that the music industry focused on. Many people, Korwar said, “whether it’s venue promoters, journalists, or peers” wanted to paint him as “exotic” or box him in with terms like “world music.”
“I often get picked out as this ‘virtuoso tabla wizard’ who is flirting with jazz,” he said.
Nabihah Iqbal, a musician and DJ whose parents moved to Britain from Pakistan, said that there was “an idea that if you’re South Asian, your music has to be a bit South Asian.” She had been asked, “Why don’t you put sitar in your music?” she said.
In a 2017 review of Iqbal’s guitar-led album “Weighing of the Heart,” which has since been deleted from the music website XLR8R, the critic was perplexed by how “white” the record sounded. “I think people still harbor those ideas and those notions without even realizing it,” Iqbal said.
Korwar’s work highlights other double standards when it comes to Western perspectives on Eastern music. In an ironic reversal of cultural appropriation, his 2018 live album “My East Is Your West,” recorded with the UPAJ collective, reimagined standards by American jazz musicians of the 1960s and ’70s whose heady style was known as “spiritual jazz,” but using Indian classical instruments.
Many of these spiritual jazz artists — including some of Korwar’s favorites like Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry — borrowed liberally from Eastern musical traditions, he said, but often it was the case that their bands had just “learned a couple of basic beats on the tabla.”
“To anybody who understands tabla,” he said, these interpretations sounded like “a baby mucking about on a drum kit.”
Korwar added that the idea of “the East being a repository of knowledge that you can dip into every now and again when you’re having a creative block” was “deeply offensive because you’re not thinking about the fact that these traditions are equally as old, and deep, as your own.”
But while his previous album was about the West looking east, “More Arriving” underlines how imported genres are thriving in India. “How many people think of hip-hop as Indian music?” said Korwar. “No one. But right now, it’s largest independent genre of music in India. It’s battling Bollywood for the first time in terms of sales, corporate sponsorships, sheer numbers. ”
On the track “City Of Words,” on “More Arriving,” for example, Mumbai-based M.C. Trap Poju raps over a 12-minute spiritual jazz odyssey, and “Coolie,” featuring rappers Delhi Sultanate and Prabh Deep, nods to reggae.
Korwar said he hopes that the unique combination of genres in his music will help widen perceptions.
“If you listen to my music and you’re disappointed because it doesn’t sound Indian enough,” he added, “then you should be questioning what you think Indian music is.”
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