Jazz percussionist Sarathy Korwar has released one of the albums of the year. He talks to Duncan Seaman about it.
Few albums have been greeted with such critical fanfare this year as Sarathy Korwar’s More Arriving.
A jazz record strongly influenced not only by politics, Indian classical music and the working-class rap scene in Mumbai and New Dehli, but also the experience of South Asian immigrants living in Britain, it is one of the most radical and life-affirming musical statements of recent times.
Korwar, who is US-born, raised in India and now based in London, recognises he has captured an important moment. “I feel like it has, and it’s been a long time coming at the same time as well,” he says. “I started making the record in 2016, with how I was feeling at the time just post-Brexit.
“I think the album over the course of the next two years, from 2016 to 2018, really took shape in the way that I was feeling about the world at the time, and it does still feel very timely to me, anyway. It’s sort of ironic that it’s taken three years to make an album about 2016, but that’s kind of how it feels.”
Korwar has described More Arriving as a “protest record”. It was, he says, intended to open a conversation about how Indian music is perceived in the West. “Basically for me it works as a protest record on a number of different levels – one, just being the mere fact that me as a South Asian first-generation immigrant is making a jazz record or whatever you call it, a contemporary music record that’s being played out in the UK, is itself a fact that is political. You can’t shy away from that because there are very few other people making this kind of music at the time.
“But equally, also the things that I’m talking about on record are we are stereotyped all the time, the fact that we don’t get to control our own narrative. These are the issues that start with me and those are the things I’m talking about on the record.”
There was a phase in the 60s of Western musicians discovering Indian music and appropriating elements into their own records. Korwar feels nowadays “it calls for a much more diverse narrative of what South Asian music is”.
“I think over the last 30 or 40 years we haven’t really grown out of that idea of what Indian music looks and sounds like. For a lot of people it’s about sitars and a very sort of meditative, spiritual music. Hardly anyone thinks about hip-hop as Indian music at the moment. Whereas now what’s really happening in the country is hip-hop, it’s the biggest independent genre of music, so I think it’s about diversifying that idea. There’s all kinds of music happening, there’s all kinds of different stories, there’s all kinds of different experiences of being South Asian that get neglected or overlooked. You get presented this one homogeneous idea of what it is to be a South Asian migrant in this country.”
The album’s title refers to 1970s attitudes towards immigration that seem to have found a voice again during the Brexit debate. Korwar says he felt compelled to confront prejudice. “Even the cover art is sort of a throwback to the 70s and 80s protest movement headed by a lot of South Asians at the time, like the Grunwick strike or the coal miners’ strikes, all these strikes that had a lot of South Asian presence in them. Equally it feels like the term ‘more arriving’ has always had this negative rhetoric attached to it, it’s never been one of positivity, it’s never been about more people coming and that being a good thing. For the album to be called that is to play on that negative rhetoric and to kind of tongue-in-cheek say, ‘Yeah, there are more coming and you’re going to have to deal with it’. It might not be a negative thing; in fact, it’s a good thing – enriching our cultural experiences, making our NHS function, all kinds of great things that immigrants do.
I think over the last 30 or 40 years we haven’t really grown out of that idea of what Indian music looks and sounds like. For a lot of people it’s about sitars and a very sort of meditative, spiritual music. Hardly anyone thinks about hip-hop as Indian music.Sarathy Korwar
“Of course I’m angry with what’s happening, but more philosophically speaking, I feel like these things always go in cycles about how people feel about things and hopefully we’re getting past those barriers and slowly realising that we might need people in the long run.”
Korwar’s musical starting point was a growing fascination with the independent spirit of India’s gully rap scene. “I was interested because it’s a real DIY scene, it’s also coming from kids who are growing up in predominantly working-class neighbourhoods. Their access to hip-hop was all through YouTube. They were making beats on very old laptops, like Frutti Loops software, basically doing whatever they could to make beats and make music. It seemed like a really exciting thing that was happening, this was back in late 2015-2016. Since then the scene has just exploded, it’s now the biggest independent music genre in India and is competing against Bollywood.
“That’s how it started. I wanted to meet a few of these people so I picked out in my head some of these rappers who I’d come across online and quickly it became clear to me if I was going to collaborate with all these people it was going to be about their experiences of what it is to be living where they are, and that would paint a very diverse narrative of what it means to be Indian, and then subsequently what it means to be South Asian in a larger context.
“It became about all these MCs coming together and telling their stories and in a larger context being about what it is to be South Asian in 2019.”
Korwar was cautious not to simply appropriate what these young MCs were doing. “I was very aware of that,” he says. “But also I was interested in new situations that they might not have been in before, playing with live musicians, playing with a predominantly more jazz set of song structures. So I was hesitant also because I wasn’t sure how they would react to this, but luckily everybody was really open-minded and very happy to give it a go.
“Of course I don’t come from the gully hip-hop scene, nor do I come from a predominantly working-class background in India, so I was very aware that I didn’t want to go into a situation that was equally foreign to me in some sense. Even though I’m Indian, I can’t claim to have the same experience as these people. That’s almost the point of the record, really. I wanted to go in there and say, ‘Look, this is me’ - everybody can see through who I am in India - and just go in there with the genuine intention of making a good record.”
Korwar has also described the record as “multiple brown voices across different realities”. He felt it important to have a spectrum of views. “Often what ends up happening is you get painted with the same brush. Somebody who’s growing up in Bombay and somebody who’s growing up in Bradford, for instance, have very different experiences of what it is to be brown. I wanted to feature a varied range of voices to drive home the point. It seems obvious that people care about different things in different parts of the world, as soon as you spell it out, of course that’s true, but it’s often something that gets overlooked, especially with minorities. It’s the same thing with Muslims, the ‘Muslim experience’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s the same thing with the South Asian experience – there is no one South Asian experience and that’s what I wanted to talk about.”
More Arriving came out on the Leeds-based Leaf Label. Korwar says: “I’ve been a fan of the label as a listener for a while. I listened to Polar Bear and The Comet is Coming but also Colleen, Efterklang, all these people. I wasn’t sure it would be a great fit to be honest, but I just loved their music and I thought I’ll send it to them and see what happens. They responded almost immediately and were really excited about it. I loved the label, I loved the sound, but they’d never done anything like this before on their label, so it was a new start for both of us. They just seemed very invested in the project and that’s all you can really ask for as an artist, to find a label that is equally excited about the music as you are. I think I’m really lucky to have found them.”
More Arriving is out now. Sarathy Korwar plays at The Crescent, York on October 17 and Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on October 23. www.sarathykorwar.com