Composer, guitarist, screenwriter
Nitin Sawhney has worked against the odds, finding success through adversity. "From oppression comes expression," is one of the favorite quotes of this artist, who has crossed boundaries of all kinds, from cultural to religious to musical. He appears to recognize no artistic limits in his personal career, and composes music, produces, acts, and writes screenplays.
Sawhney was born in 1964, a year after his parents moved to Rochester, Kent, England, from Delhi, India. He was raised listening to traditional Indian music at home, and was exposed to different styles of piano and guitar, which he learned to play. As a British Asian growing up in the 1970s he was the only Indian student at his school, where he was bullied and had to endure daily racial abuse. The National Front, a white nationalist group opposed to multi-racialism and immigration, dominated the community where he lived in Southeast London. Sawhney was banned from the music rooms at school because he play Indian ragas, a form of traditional Hindu music. He later learned that the teacher who banned him was also a member of the National Front. The prejudice expressed against him would form a basis for Sawhney's musical career, however, because the prejudice he encountered made him even more determined to pursue his love of music.
Sawhney spent several years in England, where he began producing music, and went on to attend Liverpool University as a law student. While there, he shared a flat with Sanjeev Bhaskar, and together they developed a comedy act called Secret Asians, which became a radio show that overturned ideas of Asian stereotypes and won a prestigious Sony Radio Award. The show led to a contract with BBC radio, and to the Ethnic Multicultural Media Award (EMMA)-winning BBC-TV sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. It was the first Asian comedy series to receive recognition from the BBC.
While touring in 1988, Sawhney was re-united with old school friend and acid jazz keyboard player James Taylor, and he subsequently left the BBC series in order to pursue a career in music. Taylor signed him on for a tour with the James Taylor Quartet, and the opportunity opened up several career avenues for Sawhney, as he became exposed to the jazz club environment. He decided to forge out on his own, and founded his own band, The Jazztones. The group played at concerts hosted by notable deejays, including Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge.
Sawhney then returned to his traditional roots by forming The Tihai Trio with percussionist Talvin Singh. In 1993, with the assistance of an Arts Council Grant, Sawhney released his first album, Spirit Dance, which was recorded for World Circuit Records. He soon signed a contract with Outcaste and released Migration in 1995 and Displacing the Priest in 1996.
Demand for Sawhney as a producer, writer, and re-mixer was also increasing, and during the 1990s he began writing music for theater, film and television, including the major BBC2 documentary series The Sikhs, and a British feature film, The Dance of Shiva, about the role of Indian soldiers in World War I. In 1999 he released his fourth album, Beyond Skin. Neil Spencer in the London Observer called it "the most accomplished fusion of Indian and Western influences to date, entwining funk and flamenco with the subcontinent's classical forms and adding a narrative that reflects his experiences as a British Asian." On the album sleeve, Sawhney asks the question, "Indian, what does it mean?"
In December of 1999 Sawhney was commissioned to write a new musical piece for the 2000 season of the long-running BBC concert series The Proms. The result was Urban Prophesies, which was conducted by Cameron Sinclair and premiered at The Royal Albert Hall in London on July 18, 2000. In 2000 Sawhney also won the South Bank Show Award for Popular Music for Beyond Skin. The album received additional recognition when it was placed on the shortlist for the annual Technics Mercury Music Prize.
At the end of 2000 Sawhney began work on his fifth album, Prophesy, by setting off on a trip around the globe to seek out different perspectives, music, and cultural themes. "I started in the studio with the bones of the album, then went round the world to find its soul," he explained in the June 17, 2001, edition of the London Observer. The album was recorded on six continents with the help of more than 200 musicians, resulting in a musical, cultural, and political fusion of East and West.
The musical composition in Prophesy is interwoven with narratives, including part of an interview he conducted with Nelson Mandela that is used in the song "Breathing Lights." In "The Preacher" he uses voice tapes of Martin Luther King, and in "Street Guru" he includes the voice of a Chicago cab driver. For Sawhney, the highlight of making the album was his interview with Mandela. In an interview with Laura Kyle for Geographical, Sawhney described Mandela: "He has such a sense of humanity and openness. He said there are many good people trying to achieve a more balanced world for everyone. He feels strongly about the struggles of people all across the world, regardless of nationality, religion or race." In an excerpt from Sawhney's diary published in the London Daily Telegraph, the artist wrote that at the end of the interview Mandela told him, "We are free to be free." Another of the album's songs, "Moonrise," was recorded in four countries. "We did the percussion in London, the vocals in Paris, the strings in Brazil and the flamenco guitar in Madrid," Sawhney told Katherine Tulich at the Herald Sun. The album won the boundary-crossing category in the Radio 3 Awards for World Music 2002, as well as the Best World Music Act category at the 2001 MOBO Awards.
In 2002 Sawhney collaborated with choreographer Akram Kahn and sculptor Anish Kapoor to create Kaash, a one-hour dance about the Hindu god Shiva, the creator and destroyer of the universe. "Kaash" is the Hindu word for "if," and the composition uses the time cycles of Indian classical music. "You can hear the structure evolving organically," Sawhney told Jann Parry of the London Observer. "It feels as if it's developing itself. You can slide rhythms across each other so they land at certain points, like people talking at the same time and ending a phrase together." In 2002 he also recorded the music for Cirque du Soleil's Varekai. In 2003 Sawhney released Human, an album that continues in the same vein as Beyond Skin and Prophesy in dealing with the concepts of faith and prejudice.
While Sawhney's music includes musical forms from around the globe, he dislikes being labeled with the "world music" tag. He feels it carries too much extra baggage and too many preconceived notions. "I equate the idea of musicians being shoved into a world music bin in record stores as a musical apartheid," he told Tulich of the Herald Sun. "It marginalizes the music, as if to say the 'real' music or the mainstream music is in another section. We should all be A to Z."
For the Record . . .
Born in 1964 in Rochester, Kent, England. Education: Attended Liverpool University.
Co-developed BBC radio show Secret Asians, which later developed into the BBC-TV show Goodness Gracious Me; joined James Taylor Quartet, 1988; formed The Jazztones; formed The Tihai Trio; released Spirit Dance, 1993; released Migration, 1995; released Displacing the Priest, 1996; wrote music for BBC2 documentary The Sikhs; wrote music for British feature film The Dance of Shiva; released Beyond Skin, 1999; wrote music for The Proms, 2000; released Prophesy, 2001; collaborated on Kaash project, 2002; released Human, 2003.
Awards: South Bank Show Award for Popular Music for Beyond Skin, 2000; MOBO Award, Best World Music Act for Prophesy, 2001; Radio 3 Awards for World Music for Prophesy, 2002.
Addresses: Record company— V2 Records, Inc., 14 East 4th St., New York, NY 10012. Website— Nitin Sawhney Official Website: http://www.nitinsawhney.com.
In addition to his music, Sawhney often writes articles about music and his own life experiences for various publications, including the London Observer and London's Daily Telegraph. His boyhood experiences have clearly shaped his musical and cultural interpretations, but it is his musical talent and his widespread use of different genres in order to break down artificial barriers that make his music outstanding.
Spirit Dance, World Circuit, 1993.
Migration, Outcaste, 1995.
Displacing the Priest, Outcaste, 1996.
Beyond Skin, Outcaste, 1999.
Prophesy, V2, 2001.
Human, V2, 2003.
Birmingham Post (England), October 9, 2001, p. 16.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 9, 2001; April 6, 2002.
Geographical, December 2001, p. 95.
Guardian (London, England), September 17, 1999, p. 24; June 15, 2002, p. 13.
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), August 11, 2001, p. 112.
Observer (London, England), June 17, 2001, p. 14; December 30, 2001, p. 6; May 19, 2002, p. 11.
"Nitin Sawhney," Bazna, http://www.bazna.com/Biogs/nitin.asp (December 4, 2003).
"Nitin Sawhney," BBC Music Profiles, http://www.db.bbc.co.uk/music/profiles/sawhney.shtml (December 4, 2003).
Nitin Sawhney Official Website, http://www.nitinsawheny.com (December 4, 2003).