October 2011
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The ‘Meaning’ Of Nitin Sawhney


With roots in India and Britain, musician-producer-composer Nitin Sawhney crosses musical borders with regularity. Combining a host of world music influences in jazz and electronica frameworks, he continues the provocation in his lyrics, in which he addresses political and spiritual issues and editorializes about multiculturalism. His art has earned him numerous awards, for film scores, for concept albums, even a UK Asian Music Award in 2009 for “Best Alternative Act.”

As his Wikipedia entry notes: “Much of Sawhney's attention remains focused on the areas of education and community building, accepting the role of Artist in Residence for no less than five separate performing arts organizations across Great Britain and Asia. Sawhney joined Sir George Martin as a patron of the British Government's Access-to-Music program, and he is also patron of the Raindance East Film Festival and the British Independent Film Awards. Sawhney appears regularly as an arts and current affairs commentator on topical discussion and news programs such as the BBC's Newsnight, Newsnight Review and HardTalk. He has also written for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent and The Observer.”

Nitin Sawhney: ‘Don't let anyone tell you that your identity should be based on nationality. You should find who you are yourself based on your own personal experiences and you shouldn't ever let anybody tell you who you're supposed to be.’

As he has become better known, Sawhney has drawn his share of detractors too, although the respect for him is so great that even the most acidic review concede something special at work even if a concept is deemed to be flawed in some crucial way. As one critic put it: “Basically, Sawhney is the grown up, nationally successful version of that annoying kid at school who was good at absolutely everything.” Melding so many disciplines into art that is musical, visual and oftimes political has not Sawhney invulnerable to criticism, but it has given his art a complexity that demands more of listeners and critics than the usual pop music in being both personal and accessible--danceable, even--while having real bite in being conscious of being part of a multicultural, inclusive society a-borning.

‘Taste the Air’ by Nitin Sawhney, featuring Natty, from the album
Last Days of Meaning

In an August 2005 interview with an Indian website, headlined “I Don’t Trust These Politicians,” several interesting, revealing exchanges occurred. To wit:

You like drawing and painting as well. How important is the design around your music for you? Could you imagine doing the artwork by yourself or do you think you should stick to the artform you are specialized in?

Nitin Sawhney: No, you shouldn't stick to the artform you are specialized in. I think you should be open to different ways of approaching. Creativity...you know...it could be anything. I'm not into just being stagnant and doing only one thing. I like writing. I've even written a play for the National Theatre of London. I write music for musicals, write music for films, for orchestras, I've worked with dancer Akram Khan. We did a thing with Antony Gormley recently who's a sculptor. We just like working in lots of different ways. There are lots of things I like to do. I think it's import to express yourself in many different ways.

The covers of your records ar usually held neutrally and rather show abstract images of yourself than any “exotic” and culture specific elements that are typical for your music. Is that because your music is supposed to be a mirror of your individual person in the first place and should not be associated with nationality?

NS: Yeah, exactly that! I'm not really into making statements of nationality so much as statements of emotion, statements of identity and like you said of individuality and ideas, expressions and personal feelings. In terms of the artwork of the album I kind of artistically direct what happens on the albums and work together with the artists.

‘Daydream,’ Nitin Sawhney, from the album Last Days of Meaning

You work with many different musicians from all over the world and integrate their styles into your music. Do you consider this approach as possibility for those artists and yourself to change own preconceptions of music?

NS: I don't really have any preconceptions of music, I don't really think of it as opportunity to change preconceptions, I don't see any barriers in music. So if other people have those preconceptions that's their problem. Different artists I work with are very very talented people and I wouldn't try to change what they do. You know I simply like working with musicians. Whatever they take away is up to them. I wouldn't dictate to anybody what they should learn from that experience.

As a kind of internationalist what would you suggest to young people who are growing up mutliculturally, torn between different cultures, to find a balanced identity?

NS: Don't let anyone tell you that your identity should be based on nationality. You should find who you are yourself based on your own personal experiences and you shouldn't ever let anybody tell you who you're supposed to be. I think that's very important. Because I think there are lot of people out there politicians, governments, media, television, fashion, whatever...people always trying to tell you what you're supposed to be. So it's really important to be strong about who you are and really have a strong sense of awareness about your identity.

‘Confessions From the Womb,’ Nitin Sawhney, featuring Tina Grace and Jon Bilbrough, from the album Last Days of Meaning

Sawhney’s new album, his ninth, titled Last Days of Meaning, is eliciting the usual bifurcated critical response. Typically ambitious, Last Days of Meaning is a musical tale about Donald Meaning, an embittered old man harboring many of the prejudices and fears now swirling around the world at large and centered on immigrants, terrorists and rapidly changing societal mores and cultures. Donald Meaning is given voice throughout by actor John Hurt, who, as The Guardian notes in its review, “sits in a room raging against childhood memories, society, himself and a small tape recorder sent to him by his ex-wife.” The tape recorder in question contains the album’s songs, which limn Manning’s emotions and work their way through his anger to a place of empathy and, finally, hope. Last Days of Meaning is a bit of reflection on the ravages of age, and the entrenched attitudes that sometimes come with the passing of time. Sawhney himself describes the album as being “a parable about entrenchment and dogmatism” in contemporary Britain, but could also be about almost anyplace in the civilized world right now. Hurt is spectacularly chilling and infuriating as Donald Meaning, and the music is crafted to enhance his shifting attitudes, from blues-influenced tune to pop/soul ballads to Indian-tinged pieces. Complex and provocative, Last Days of Meaning may in time be considered a masterpiece, but right now, in its youth, it’s a dazzling work of musical and dramatic art quite unlike anything else in the nominal pop world, although it may indeed by a record that is in a category unto itself.

‘Homelands,’ Nitin Sawhney, from the album Last Days of Meaning

A couple of contrasting perspectives on Nitin Sawhney’s Last Day of Meaning:

‘…something that’s ultimately unique’

Nitin Sawhney's ninth studio effort is a concept album in the truest sense of the term. At times challenging and often melancholic his brand of social commentary is perfectly suited to the broad musical spectrum that he employs. On the surface Last Days Of Meaning is a diverse set of songs in different styles weaved together with spoken word sections; however, the narrative it creates is rather compelling.

The protagonist is a character in the twilight of his life, played with some gravitas by John Hurt. When we first meet Donald Meaning in his bleak and cold flat, it's difficult not to feel that he is a stereotype of an ageing population, isolated and confused by modern society. However the way in which Meaning is fleshed out over the subsequent 50 minutes brings depth to his story. The intervening songs form part of a mixtape sent to him by his estranged ex-wife. They comment on his situation, but not in a malicious way, there's sympathy present here as well.

‘Tender World,’ Nitin Sawhney, featuring Tina Grace, from the album Last Days of Meaning

Musically the album starts with a fuzzy blues riff which gives way to a solitary piano and soulful vocals provided by Yolanda Quartey: "It's an easy life for the angry kind, with a heart that's growing cold. Just close your eyes and blame the world." “The Devil and Midnight” sets the scene for Sawhney's kitchen sink drama effectively, the song becomes a full blown blues stomp by it's conclusion and makes Hurt's opening monologue seem all the more bitter.

The classical Indian influences of Sawhney's earlier work only start to appear by the fifth track, “Say You Will.” A sitar and chanting are used as the backdrop to a composition that relies on Nicki Wells and Jon Bilbrough's enchanting multi-lingual performance to illustrate the changing demographic of modern day Britain. It's something that Hurt subsequently comments on when he makes derogatory comments regarding immigration.

The album continues to highlight different styles with electronica, folky pop and instrumentals punctuating the venom and despair of Donald Meaning's existence. “Projector” sums up the central characters predicament eloquently when Tina Grace and Jon Bilbrough sing, "an album of hate, a diary of fear, a mirror of hate, your world is but a tear.” However the album can be listened to on a different level as well, taking the tracks on their own without the context of Hurt's commentary provides an equally satisfying experience.

As Last Days Of Meaning draws to a close there is a sense of hope that Donald won't wallow in pity as he opens his front door to an unheard visitor. It's a story that doesn't need a concrete conclusion, as essentially it's a snapshot of a life and in a wider context a comment on British society.

Although its narrative does demand to be heard in a single sitting, Sawhney's latest project is rewarding and doesn't outstay its welcome. While repeated listens will reveal the merits of individual compositions, it's probably an album that listeners will eventually cherry pick their favored tracks from. By fusing the core elements of the work of someone like Alan Bennett, with his own eclectic musical tastes, Sawhney has created something that's ultimately unique.

Jim Pusey at www.contactmusic.com


‘…the latest in a lengthening series of underwhelming, frustrating albums…’

For sheer versatility, you’d be hard pressed to find another creative figure anywhere who can match Nitin Sawhney. Still only in his 40s, the Kent-born polymath’s work rate and range of achievements are quite incredible. As well as nine studio albums, he’s also found time to score the music for over 40 films, several ballet and theatre productions, advertising campaigns for Nike and Yves Saint Laurent, and the soundtrack for the BBC’s acclaimed Human Planet series. He’s collaborated with Paul McCartney, Sting and Brian Eno, has four honorary doctorates and was a founding member of the team behind hit British Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. Basically, Sawhney is the grown up, nationally successful version of that annoying kid at school who was good at absolutely everything.

‘Laugh,’ Nitin Sawhney, from the album Last Days of Meaning

Last Days Of Meaning sees him joining forces with another famous friend, the actor John Hurt, who narrates a number of spoken word monologues on the album in his role as Donald Meaning, a bitter old man who loathes modern society and lives alone in freezing, dingy flat. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this is a full-blooded concept album, intended to provide, so Sawhney’s website informs us, “a response to the fear, dogmatism and entrenchment we sometimes acquire with age.” Using a cassette player sent to him by his ex-wife for reasons unexplained, Meaning listens to Sawhney’s songs, which provide a sympathetic commentary on his depressing, insular little world and ultimately give him hope.

Quite what the average geriatric recluse would make of Sawhney’s eclectic, shape-shifting music is debatable, but for those more familiar with his earlier work, all the usual diverse ingredients are present and correct on Last Days Of Meaning. It kicks off with the bluesy harmonica and guitar of “The Devil And Midnight,” featuring the soulful vocals of Phantom Limb’s Yolanda Quartey, who chastises Meaning by singing “it's an easy life for the angry kind with a heart that's growing cold/Just close your eyes and blame the world." “Confessions For The Womb” has the kind of mellow coffee table beats that Sawhney specializes in, while “Say You Will” sees his other key influence, Indian classical music, enter the mix for the first time. The best moments appear around the half way point with “Projector,” a gently lilting lullaby with longstanding collaborator Tina Grace’s vocals on the chorus recalling Nico in her pomp, and the elegantly atmospheric “Daydream,” a showcase for Ashwin Srinivasan’s blissful flute work.

‘So Long,’ Nitin Sawhney, from the album Last Days of Meaning

Several of Sawhney’s albums have a central theme at their core--Displacing The Priest is a criticism of organized religion; Beyond Skin, which remains his masterpiece, reflects on the development of India into a nuclear power. But unlike these two records, Last Days Of Meaning feels like a selection of disparate musical snapshots rather than a satisfying whole, with little coherence of style to support the storytelling process. Although Hurt’s narration provides some continuity, it strays a little too close to Victor Meldrew-like parody to be a truly convincing portrayal of a tormented man’s twilight years, and Sawhney’s songs would frankly flow much better without his presence.

That Nitin Sawhney is prodigiously talented is not in question, but nevertheless Last Days Of Meaning is the latest in a lengthening series of underwhelming, frustrating albums since the Mercury-nominated Beyond Skin in 1999, characterized by uneven song writing and attempts to stir one genre too many into the sonic melting pot. While not as flawed and over-ambitious as London Undersound or Human, the feeling persists that this is an artist who would benefit from calling a halt to all the grand projects for a while and going back to basics.

Chris White at musicOMH.com, September 5, 2011

Nitin Sawhney’s Last Days of Meaning is available at www.amazon.com

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