Many years ago, I met a dark-skinned young woman in a sari at a classical
Hindustani concert. When she said that she was in America for the first time, I asked her if she was Indian. She replied, just a shade too politely, “I’m English; my parents are Indian.” I was very surprised at myself for being surprised by this. I always believed, and would have roundly criticized anyone for implying otherwise, that being American was a political characteristic, not an ethnic one. Only a yahoo would think even for a minute that Robert DeNiro or Christie Yamaguchi were less American than someone named Smith or Jones. Why then did I think of other nationalities as being inevitably homogeneous? Why did expressions like Indian-British or Japanese-Italian seem strange and unconvincing? This reaction was obviously ridiculous to me once I consciously acknowledged it. But judging from her reaction, this young woman had encountered plenty of people who would have objected or scoffed at her claim to be British.
For Nitin Sawhney, the question of what it means to be Indian-British is the central issue of his life. He was a co-founder of a highly successful British comedy ensemble called Goodness Gracious Me. Although they poked fun at Indians trying to be accepted in England, their underlying message was: “We’re here, we’re Indian, get used to it.” He has been a screenwriter, an actor, and film composer for many film comedies dealing with the lives of Indians in Britain. And he now devotes his time to composing music and producing record albums, which deal with these same issues in a more serious and thoughtful manner.
These albums have gathered numerous accolades from critics and fans in England. FHM magazine calls him a “genius;” Q magazine describes his work as “epic and diverse.” And there are several online listserves where fans discuss his work with reverence and enthusiasm. Nevertheless, his music has not been well received in the U.S. The publicist for the American branch of his current label told me she had no more demo CDs in stock because they were not planning on distributing his album here. His albums are only available, if at all, in the import bins of underground record stores. How is it that an artist who makes such a profound impact in England meets with so little success here?
There are no doubt many answers to that question, most of which will never be known by anyone. But I think the problem that Americans have with Sawhney’s music is that it has the eclecticism of good rock music, but without an essential element of the “teen appeal” that sells rock music.
Like the Beatles, Sawhney borrows from a variety of sources without mastering any of them. He plays both keyboard and acoustic guitar competently, but without virtuosity. This makes it hard for him to appeal to American jazz and world music fans, who enjoy instrumental and engineering virtuosos like Talvin Singh and Karsh Kale.
But unlike the Beatles, Sawhney does not provide a central forceful personality that rock fans can feel is singing especially to them. In fact, he never sings on any of his albums. Each cut has a different singer or rapper performing in a style radically different from the others. For all their eclecticism, the Beatles still managed to combine their various influences to create a style that was uniquely theirs. But although Sawhney’s music is unquestionably original, it is hard to say exactly what all his different creations have in common.
Beyond Skin opens with a rhythm and blues tune sung by a black female vocalist. But it is followed later by a jazz piano instrumental accompanied by the Indian jazz drummer Trilok Gurtu, then by an electronic techno-dance cut, then a flamenco guitar accompanying a qawwali vocalist, then a tabla player reciting tabla bols over an African drum solo. Most Americans who heard these albums probably wondered how all these different songs ended up on the same CD. Each song is quite nice in its own way, but Sawhney himself seems to be almost invisible on the albums that bear his name.
I think, however, that this invisibility is precisely what appeals to his Indian-British listeners. The best and brightest of them have achieved success by becoming invisible in their own country: soft-pedaling their Indian roots, without ever being accepted as truly British. Sawhney’s song lyrics are somewhat cryptic and ambiguous. But they all seem to express the lost sadness of someone who feels like a stranger in the only home he has ever known.
Listening to them, I cannot help but think of one of the two central characters in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses: the successful Indian-British actor who did voice-overs using every dialect and voice except his own, and whose face was never seen by anyone. Perhaps Sawhney’s Indian-British fans can sense his presence behind the radically different vocalists that appear on his albums, and empathize with a songwriter who writes for every voice but his own.
In fact, one gets the strongest sense of who Sawhney is, not by listening to the albums themselves, but by reading his liner notes. Here he alternately rages at and praises the two cultures that he finds himself suspended between. There is, for example, a comparison between technology and heroin that becomes surprisingly compelling as it unfolds over the length of a paragraph. He is also very good at what a French critic might call mots trouve: using “found words” as a form of “found art.”
The unifying thread in Beyond Skin is his reaction to the Indian atomic bomb. The album moves backwards in time: opening with the voice of Prime Minister Vajpayee, and concluding with American physicist Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita on the day of the first American atomic bomb. In between the songs are the voices of news commentators and ordinary people (including his own father) commenting on the bomb and on Western culture in general.
On the album Prophecy, there are two remarkable tracks that feature the very New York voice of a cab driver speaking conversationally over a hip-hop track that would ordinarily accompany a rapper. This man, identified only as “Street Guru,” explains why he has deliberately chosen a dead-end job. (“A lot of people with technical jobs are slaves to time. … at the end of your life, nobody is going to put on your tombstone that you got there in seven minutes instead of three!”)
It is also important to add that there is a noticeable growth of arranging mastery going from Beyond Skin to Prophecy. The orchestral textures on the second album (especially on the song “Breathing Light”) have a rich lyricism, which do point to the development of a distinctly recognizable style. And Sawhney’s most recent project—arranging and producing the soundtrack album for the Cirque Du Soleil Show Varekai—will enable him to have an influence that goes beyond his current Indian-British cult following. Although he may remain in the background for this and many other projects, this will not stop him from having his own unique impact.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.