A biting, direct message: Nitin Sawhney
A biting, direct message: Nitin Sawhney © Nina Manandhar

“I have strong political views,” says Nitin Sawhney casually, halfway through a discussion of his latest music projects. He certainly is not joking. At the time of the interview, Sawhney’s Twitter account led with a tweet railing against “this vile, disgusting, bigoted, nasty government” and an “unashamed, smug indifference to homophobia and misogyny . . . endemic to this government, who revel in their repulsive views”.

No holding back there then. In case any doubt lingers Sawhney’s new album, Immigrants, and the concert tour linked to it, now postponed to spring 2021, promise to be among his most political work, allying his music with a biting, direct message in the words.

“In the 1990s I wanted to create an album [Beyond Skin] that addressed my concerns on identity, race, even religion, and to put those into musical expression in a way that was congruent with the world I saw around me,” says Sawhney. “I was overwhelmed by the positive response.”

It follows that the new album goes further in that direction. “Things have changed in the past few years in the way immigrants are depicted,” he says. “Since the [Brexit] referendum there has been an increased propensity for politicians and the media to use immigrants as a scapegoat. I wanted to look at immigration from a positive perspective, so this album includes collaborations with people who are from different heritages and who speak different languages.” One of those is Canadian rapper Spek, who has written some punchy words for one of the singles already released (“Looking for a home but I’ve nowhere to go, trying to make a living but I’ve nothing to show”). Sawhney says some of the tracks will be subtle, others hard-hitting like this one.

“I like to create albums, not single tracks,” he says. “I am a novelist rather than a short story writer. Human (2003) was a chronological, autobiographical album. Beyond Skin (1999) starts with the [then] Indian prime minister [AB Vajpayee] announcing nuclear tests and ends with Robert Oppenheimer [father of the atomic bomb].

“The shape emerges as you work on it, just as a sculpture starts out hidden in the stone. It is the same with music, where you start with strong opinions and play around with what you have. I am not trying to create anything didactic, just capture my feelings and ideas. My central belief is that every human being on this planet has equal value and worth. Everything is based on that principle.”

Could he be tempted to enter politics to fight for those principles? Not surprisingly, Sawhney has strong opinions on this subject too. “Powercorrupts,” he declares. “The only politician I ever met who I trusted was Nelson Mandela, because he fought solely for justice. With artists everything they do is altruistic, rather than intended to consolidate their position. I wouldn’t want to be in the position where that [corruption] happened to me.”

Although the cancellation of live performances has brought some lockdown blues, Sawhney is still extremely active. As part of the Royal Albert Home series he produced a one-hour session online under the banner “Nitin Sawhney and friends”. A high priority has been continuing his work as chair of the PRS Foundation, engaging with young musicians and helping them to develop their talent. He also says he has been playing more classical music than at any time since he was a child.

The range of his musical achievements is all-embracing. Sawhney’s solo career has brought enough awards to make his mantelpiece groan, including the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. He has collaborated with a host of names, from Anoushka Shankar to Paul McCartney (“funny, intelligent, open, inspiring — I thought of how I was in the giant shoes that John Lennon had been in”).

Sawhney performing in 1999 at the time of ‘Beyond Skin’ © Redferns

He has written ballet scores, music for video games (Ninja Theory), for television (the BBC’s Human Planet) and film (an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and a new score for Hitchcock’s silent film The Lodger, performed live by the London Symphony Orchestra).

It is a dizzying CV. The roots to his openness to so many kinds of music lie in his childhood, though not in the way one might expect. Sawhney’s most vivid memory is of a teacher banning him from using the school’s music practice rooms for six years after he was found playing an Indian raag from memory. Only western classical music played from scores was acceptable.

“We were one of the few Asian families in the Medway towns in Kent,” he says. “We led an anomalous existence in relation to the cultural life around us. My mother would read prayers in Sanskrit and that was juxtaposed for me with morning assembly at a grammar school with a heavy Christian emphasis. I was compartmentalising my life, but in music everything came together — classical, flamenco, jazz, even Cuban. I was always travelling in my head to get away from what was going on around me.”

Time for thinking has not been in short supply recently. During those extra lockdown hours, Sawhney has been catching up on his interests in modern physics and Hindu philosophy, reading widely about the nature of reality, time and consciousness.

This, after all, is the up-to-the-minute Renaissance man who joined physicist Brian Cox on one of his TV science programmes and took part in a conference organised by CERN, operator of the Large Hadron Collider.

“I have been following [research] into mathematical modelling of consciousness by Johannes Kleiner at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy,” Sawhney says.

“We are learning so much about the universe, or multiple universes, that things I used to put down to science fiction are starting to look like realistic hypotheses. Science gives me a perception of the universe closer to philosophy than I would have imagined.”

The thought makes his mind jump to a composer whose music he played a lot when he was young and who also had to look inward. Sawhney was struck by the fact that, in 1816, Beethoven wrote down words from Hindu scriptures. He was 46 at the time and already severely deaf.

“Musicians, when they travel inside, find something deeper,” he says. “I think it revelatory that Beethoven could have written such music when he was deaf. He was an often angry and frustrated man, coming from a childhood with an abusive father, a misfit at odds with the world, but how elegant his music became.

“Such an individual voice evolved without him being able to hear what he was writing. It shows how musicians can connect with a deeper consciousness, a product of meditation through music. In the same way that helps me create music as I want to create it.”

Three singles from ‘Immigrants’ are available now, with a fourth due on September 25. The album is expected in Spring 2021

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

Get alerts on Music when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article