Nitin Sawhney has done more soul searching than most 'overnight sensations' reaching his current plateau through years of perseverance. Missing out on last year's Mercury Music Prize has done little to dent this most progressive of artists' forward momentum. The next chapter in his story is about to be unveiled in the form of 'Prophesy', a huge, sprawling travelogue that has Nitin's guitar and keyboard motifs at its heart, whilst over two hundred musicians from as far as Africa and Australia, New York, Chicago and Bombay contributing to its powerful narrative. With a new £600,000 record deal on the progressive and essentially more powerful V2, Nitin decided that the only way to inject some real life blood in to his gritty world view was to record much of the music at street level itself - infusing his sophisticated blend of jazzy chords and Bollywood breakbeats with some urban humour and street level philosophy; adding a very human touch to his pan global aesthetic.
Starting life as one part of the anarchic Asian comedy team Goodness Gracious Me, (it's hard to picture his sombre features cracking jokes now, but he featured heavily in a sketch called 'Let's Go For An English' for the record), it was a chance encounter with Acid Jazz keyboard man James Taylor (of JTQ) that finally got Nitin noticed as a hot young jazz guitarist. Mining this Acid Asian Jazz vibe for three successful solo albums gained Sawhney a reputation as a sharp live act that featured the bass talents of Shri (from Badmarsh & Shri), and the tabla overlord Talvin Singh in some of its early incarnations. However it was the soulful mix of moody Massive Attack style grooves and sweet soul vocals of 'Beyond Skin' that first alerted the world to his burgeoning song writing skills, fulfilling the promise of all his early ambition. Anyone who has witnessed Nitin's live show (honed to perfection after years of touring) will have been impressed by the effortless morphing from soul to jazz, drum 'n' bass to funk, classical Asian tabla cycles to flamenco guitar and thunderous bass. These coalescing influences came to a head last year when touring with Sting, supporting the tour along with Algerian Rai superstar Cheb Mami. The tour with Sting exposed Nitin's music to a global audience, bowled over by the man's obviously huge talent and the accessible intelligence behind his instantly affecting melodies.
Yet Nitin remains determined that any new allegiances formed through his new high profile work both upwards and downwards, both using his celebrity admirers like Madonna and Sting to broaden his audience while simultaneously keeping a hawks eye focus on human fragility and the growing global distopia. His more populist sensibilities have formed part of a natural growth spurt - and he explained his new love of writing lyrics and songs; "I do like writing songs, but I also think it's good to capture moods and emotions and I like writing lyrics a lot at the moment, that's something that I'm really into. Trying to articulate what I feel or things I see around me, and also it was great to work with amazing lyricists like Terry Callier." I share Sawhney's admiration of Callier's awesome songwriting talents, yet he had the good fortune to work with Callier on a song called 'The Preacher' from 'Prophesy'. Nitin enthused about the Chicago singer's narrative talents, wanting to capture some of the spirit of Callier's epic, Biblical storytelling. He explained how they came together; "He's great, he's a big hero of mine. He's come from that almost, storytelling background, when I first heard 'Timepeace' and I heard 'Lazarus Man', that track conjured up such an epic image, I think that marks him out as different. He just came round to my house! And just hung out for a bit, and I just played him stuff, he talked through some ideas and I talked about what this album was about, and he was really interested and said that he'd love to participate, so I just said we should hook up soon, and we ended up meeting in Chicago."
Sawhney's new approach (despite a hefty advance and a bigger, badder label to play with) stemmed from an idea of 'development' - and our generally accepted state of information and technology overload. He elaborated; "Originally I set out to question this whole notion of development, it was a thing going through my head for a long time, what the terminology 'developed world' meant. I always felt that was shoved down my throat the idea of the developed world being synonymous with technology, power and wealth and political power and all of that. Then I was thinking about who the really developed people of the world are, from Aborigines to Nelson Mandela, or native Americans to kids in Soweto. They were people that I thought had a real sense of balance in terms of their perspectives having met them. For instance I was amazed to see the sheer optimism and sense of hope that kids in Soweto had in what we would term abject poverty, it seemed to be the opposite. So I was really inspired by all of that, I didn't really want to try capture just being in the kind of sterile environment of the studio. So it was quite important for me to travel and capture the breadth of all of that perspective of balance."
This hands on approach has given 'Prophesy' a touchy feely realism that cuts through sheer studio slickness and gives songs like 'Nothing' or 'Acquired Dreams' (with its 93 piece orchestra from Madras) a grandness and a realness that is both intimate and sweeping. Being a tourist was never Nitin's intention nor did he want to extol a cut and paste CNN style musical reportage; "I got fed up with the whole simulated reality - with television, the whole prioritisation of the news and so on is something that throws off our sense of perspective. It's very much nationality based, I mean you'll hear about ten thousand people dying in one country and then, if you're in England, they'll prioritise three people dying in this country, and you realise then that everything is about patriotism and nationality rather than a true sense of balance in terms of a world perspective. I think I wanted to get away from all that crap. The whole thing that happened in the wake of the millennium and all the paranoia I had seen around that, people talking about the millennium bug, asteroids hitting the earth and Nostradamus and all the rest of it, it kind of struck me that there was a disproportionate sense of what was going on. I mean when you meet Aborigines they are quite happy to talk about eighty thousand years of their culture, they're not really bothered about the last two thousand years. It was meeting people who had a much more developed sense perspective which reaffirmed what I understood 'development' to mean, which is much more of a spiritual thing really." This worldview is most definitely not regressive, as Sawhney is no technical Luddite either - he just lives with a healthy distrust of becoming a slave to technology. He continued; "It's when people start to replace reality with technology, when people become so obsessed with the Internet or television or mobile phones that they actually forget about the importance of physical interaction or its consequences, that's really what I've got a problem with."
Armed with just a Laptop and a guitar Nitin hit a semi-planned, semi spontaneous expedition - the highlight being a meeting with Nelson Mandela. His collaboration with Cheb Mami came through some production work this multi-talented man did on Mami's last album with none other than funk legend Nile Rodgers - all this leading to the Spanish flavoured Rai song 'Moonrise' on which Mami sings to devastating effect. Seeking out sounds both atmospheric and musical kept Nitin's ears alert to anything that might capture the essence of his mission. One such contribution came from Chicago taxi driver Jeff Jacobs whose frazzled voice rambles from inside his cab, his bafflement with the global status quo something that everyone can relate too, his dry humour cuts through the unnecessary stress many people carry with them on their average day surviving city life. His message is one of 'take a look at yourself, does it really matter what time you arrive somewhere?' We are all victims of the rattrap - the thing is to not get caught. Nitin explained further; "We were asking people about development and technology in different countries and just trying to get different perspectives and see what people interpreted that terminology as being, and he just went off on one! [Laughs] Which was really cool, he was just driving this cab and just talking really - it was just so good. I can't stand contrived rapping where people are constantly bigging themselves up or talking bulls**t, and basically capture something that I thought, yeah, I can relate to this; this is someone talking common sense not from a political or preaching perspective but just talking about things that matter to him that you can relate to it quite easily."
Crediting his many collaborations on 'Prophesy' was important for Sawhney in the creation of such a huge tapestry of stories and musical influences. Pillaging cultures for their indigenous qualities with the crude snap happy aesthetic of a tourist was the last thing on his agenda. An impassioned Nitin explained; "I wanted to make sure that when I was working with people that I gave something back as I didn't want to feel like I was exploiting anyone or just taking stuff where ever I went. If you walk around and steal from different cultures, that energy is not a good one, particularly to put on an album. So I was really trying to meet with people and create a mutual exchange and sometimes that worked really well. I wrote the piece for the kids on Soweto in the morning and then they translated it in to three African languages for me, and at the same time we made a donation to their school for stuff that they wanted. Things like that, making sure that people didn't feel like, 'oh, he's just come from abroad - he just wants to walk away from something and not give anything back'. I mean Jeff Jacobs has a large publishing part of that track and I think that's what I want the album to be about, not walking round like some f***ing tourist just stealing from people." And as to his place in the so-called 'Asian Underground', that to be frank, is neither 'underground' nor overtly 'Asian' after so much media hype, Nitin never felt part of some fictitious movement at all. "I don't think in terms of music and nationality any more. I find nationality quite a thing that holds back music, or people's perception of music. Music doesn't really have any barriers, the way I look at music it's what Mandawy Yunupingu says on the album 'music is a universal language', it's something everyone can relate to the emotion of. I think from that point of view, I've never tried to be part of a vibe or a movement, or anything like that; I've just tried to do the music I believe in and work in that way. I think most people that I know, and that I admire work in that way, I think the categories and fads tend to come and go but if you keep what you do with a sense of integrity, centred and focussed in what you believe in then everything kind of works around that really." If any further proof is needed 'Prophesy' will blow any doubters away with its unified vision of a world that is both in crisis and full of optimism and beauty.
Text © Mike Flynn