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Sarathy Korwar's musical itinerary

Mis à jour : 19 avr. 2020

From promotion of Indian folklore to social protest.

The first album of the percussionist Sarathy Korwar Day to Day focused on his meeting with the Sidi Troupe of Ratnapur in rural Gujurat, the Sidis are descended from the African Bantu, who traveled to India as merchants, sailors and slaves in the 15th century (if you want to know more about African communities in India. I recommend the excellent site African heritage in India). Mostly Sufi Muslims, their music blends hypnotic chants and percussive African-derived polyrhythms, unlike the Indian percussionist who plays in unison, which reflects their African origins. Sarathy Korwar fuses his field recordings taken during his trip with free jazz. We could expect a wacky album, hardly accessible, but, as strange as it may seem, the result is easy to listen, quite calm, some tracks are even chill out. Sufi's devotional music and free jazz quite fitting, because they both share the same spirit of improvisation. For the Sidis, the act of performing is more important than what they're actually playing. Perform music is a spiritual practice, supposed to get them into a trance, in other words in a state of total self-surrender. This aspect of their music had a huge impact on Sarathy Korwar.

“What's lacking in a lot of contemporary music is complete surrender. While they're playing, they're consumed. All performers should be looking for that, in one way or another.” Sarathy Korwar.

His latest album More arriving is also influenced by ethnography and folklore, but its content is much more controversial. The album came out in July 2019, while the country is divided by debates on Great Britain leaving the European Union. It's a vibrant advocacy against the racial tensions exacerbated by Brexit.

The tone is already set by the cover art of Thushar Moor. The photography he has used for this cover shows the street protests that took place all over Britain in the 1970s and 80s. Organized by the Asian Youth Movement, their gatherings united South Asians and people of color against the rising racism and nationalism of the National Front and their supporters. The cover design pays tribute to their struggle, and as Korwar says: “Now seems like the perfect moment to remember this collective show of strength, pride, and inclusivity, as we find ourselves in similarly divisive times. We need this strength in representation and numbers.”

The title of the album More arriving is no less provocative. It ironically takes up an element of language concerning the problem of immigration. This term is often used by the mass media to refer to immigrants and refugees. It's basically a derogatory expression, but taken out of context it sounds like an injunction.

“More Arriving comes from the scaremongering around Brexit. It’s a tongue-in-cheek play on the fact that there are more people coming and you’ll have to deal with it!” Sarathy Korwar.

This album is more eclectic than the first one, the album aims to envelop the whole diaspora. More Arriving is an explosive cocktail of Korwar's undulating percussion, with among others, The Comet is coming's Danalogue on synths, Tamar Osborn's baritone sax, Indo-Jazz specialist Al MacSween. For the voices, More Arriving features the brown diaspora: the nascent rap scene in Mumbai and New Dehli, the London based poet Zia Ahmed, the Sikh MC Prabh Deep, the Indian classic singer Mirande, or the Carnatic singer Aditya Prakash, and so on.

Two tracks sum up well the mood of the album. The first one is “Bol” interpreted by Zia Ahmed. He was born in London in the Indo-Muslim community, and he's a slam poetry champion. In this song, his spoken word develops the theme of identity with dark humor. It's in fact a rumination, a self-deprecating monologue, with a lot of references to South Asian and Muslim stereotypes. He shows us how the amalgam of these stereotypes create confusion to those who undergo them because they're often contradictory.

For example :

  • “ Open sesame, Ali Baba 40 thieves / Tory grievances” Tory is the British conservative party.

  • “ I am Kama, I am Kamasutra / I'm Slumdog millionaire” Kama is the God of love, and if you haven't seen Danny Boyle's movie. I advise you to see it.

  • “ I am Ganges, I am Gandhi, I am Jinnah, I am five pillars, I am sinner” Jinnah is the founder of Jainism, a religious sect which appeared at the same time as Buddhism. Five pillars refer to the five pillars of Islam: the foundation of the Muslim religion.

  • “ I am cinnamon, I am cardamom / I am not invited to the Houses of Parliament.

  • “ I’m Shiva. I’m Al-Qaeda. I am auditioning for the role of Terrorist #1           Yeah, I can do that in an Arabic accent.”

  • “ Rock the Casbah / Stop the fatwa” It refers to the famous Clash song Rock the Casbah, the song evokes the ban (fatwa in Arabic) on rock music in Iran by the mullah's regime.

  • “I am England shirt made in Bangladesh / I am Curry House of the year 2005” Curry houses are inexpensive Indian restaurants that develop very quickly in Britain, like Kebabs in France.

  • “ I am so damn lost”

Ahmed raps on Carnatic music, a music from the south of India (Karnataka). Aditya Prakash’s chorus sing in Hindi “Speak, for your words are free”. As confusion grows in his head, the music becomes more and more free jazz and furious, for ending up in cacophony.

The video clip released by David Higgs shows Zia Ahmed trying to conform with British society, but no matter if he wears a bowler hat, or if he drinks tea in the English way, he will still be an outcast. This video clip clearly shows the difference between being integrated into British society and being considered British.

The second one is “Coolie” interpreted by Delhi Sultanate & Prabh Deep. Taru Dalmia aka Delhi Sultanate, is an Indian reggae/dancehall artist from New Delhi. Apart from having a solo act, he is also the lead singer of the Delhi-based ska and dub band, The Ska Vengers.

Prabh Deep is an MC from New Delhi too. Gifted with a unique voice that contains traces of the traditional Punjabi folk singers. Indeed, he grew up in the Sikh community, deeply marked by the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. These riots took place following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Assassination in retaliation for the violent repression of the movement of independence of Punjab, and the destruction of the Golden Temple, a holy place of Sikhism.

“Coolie” traces the arrival of the Indian community in Jamaica. A coolie is a farmworker from Asia, the legal term is indentured labourers. Many Indians came to British Jamaica as indentured labourers between 1845 and 1917. The demand increases after the end of slavery in 1830 and the failure to attract workers from Europe. Most Indians who signed on to indentureship did so with the hope of returning to their homelands with great wealth. However, the contract was often explained in English, a language they didn't speak, and thousands of them simply put their thumb print on the contract, without any true understanding of what awaited them. Here, their conditions were deplorable: they lived in rudimentary barracks, with several families having to share a single room, their salary was one shilling a day, and they're not allowed to leave the plantation without a permit. They introduced the cultivation of rice which has become one of the main agricultural resources of the country. But what especially interests our two rappers is that they also introduce the culture of ganja. Gañja is in fact a Sanskrit term to designate cannabis. Indian labourers carry weed seeds with them because they use it to make a flavored cannabis drink, called Bhang. They drink it at celebrations like Holi or Divali. They also introduce the chillum pipe, but smoking cannabis is quite rare in India, they prefer to drink it.

Prabh Deep and Delhi Sultanate try to highlight in this song, the key role Indian community has played in the Rastafarianism. They sing in patois (Patwa), the Rasta slang. In addition to legitimizing their belonging to the Rasta culture, they criticize the corruption of India’s colonial and modern history, describing how both Tata Steel (Tata is one of the biggest Indian companies, it's a vehicle manufacturer) and the East India Company cynically made their fortunes on the backs of workers and underhand dealings.

More Arriving is a motley album, it sounds like a potpourri of all the claims of young Indians (from the diaspora or not). It mirrors the diversity and the complexity of Indianness today. It's also a machete clearing path between ancestral tradition and avant-garde. But, it remains for Sarathy Korwar an honest reflection of his experience of being an Indian in a divided Britain.


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