Gig review: Sarathy Korwar at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Sarathy Korwar. Picture: Rishabh Sood
Sarathy Korwar. Picture: Rishabh Sood
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“Snap poll/which racist do you want on your bank note?” spoken word artist Zia Ahmed intones atop a rattling flurry of Indian percussion a few minutes into tonight’s powerful set by London-based percussionist Sarathy Korwar.

Although nominally a jazz record, More Arriving - Korwar’s second solo album, recently released on esteemed Leeds label Leaf – is far removed from respectful revivalism.

There have been traces of Indian music on jazz-orientated records before, both as shallowly ‘exotic’ window-dressing and as a genuine inspiration for legends such as John (and Alice) Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Classically trained in both jazz and Indian music, Korwar – born in the US, raised in India – achieves a genuinely seamless union of the two musical languages, whilst also drawing from reggae, offering the most compelling fusion of hip hop and jazz since the Blue Note-sampling early 90s, and reviving the radical politics of 70s funky avant-jazz.

That said, there can be a downside to creating an album that mashes musics both traditional and on-trend from far-flung corners of the world into an invigorating smoothie amidst a flurry of international guest vocalists. Namely, how are you supposed to recreate it live?

Tonight, Korwar solves the dilemma by multi-tasking. The visa for MC Malawi - the Indian focal point of Mumbay, one of the many highpoints of More Arriving - fell through at the last minute. Rather than ditching a key element, Korwar has a respectable stab at recreating the absent MC’s verbal acrobatics.

Elsewhere, the ever-hectic hands of keyboardist Al MacSween dish out both bass lines and synthetic ghosts of the Indian classical music that enriches the new record. Korwar and Ahmed step in for absent Indian classical singer Aditya Prakash for the central refrain of Bol, a propulsive, hypnotically drawn-out centre-piece of the set.

It’s remarkable how rarely you notice – let alone miss – the absent instrumentation and singers tonight. In their place, Korwar and co. unleash a more muscular take on the new album’s compositions, drawing attention to Korwar’s immense prowess as a drummer. A rare virtuoso who remains immune to pointless showing-off, his sturdy pounding turns the absence of key contributors on the likes of “Coolie” into an opportunity rather than a threat.

Korwar ends the tight, one hour and small change set with a brief statement in defence of humanity’s need to move freely across the world. A triumphant result of such borderless ethos, More Arriving, and tonight’s powerful live rendition of it, might just be potent enough to sow the seed of doubt into the mind of even the most fervent proponent of borders, walls and divisions.