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Bridging The Gap: An Interview With Sarathy Korwar

Sarathy Korwar isn’t a name I knew of before May this year. The young London based Indian musician sort of appeared out of the blue with news of a debut LP releasing through Ninja Tune. Alongside this there were details of him being granted an award with The Steve Reid Foundation, a charitable trust established by Brownswood / Gilles Peterson with the dual objective of helping musicians in crisis and also supporting emerging talent. Through this he was mentored by some of the biggest names in modern music - Four Tet, Emanative, Floating Points, Koreless and Gilles Peterson – all trustees of the foundation.

‘Day To Day’ employs elements of traditional Indian classical/folk instrumentation and ties it together with field recordings of the Sufi and African influenced music of the Sidi community for an astounding Indian-electronic-jazz record. As a country that struggles with identity, India has been trying to grapple with the uncomfortable implications of music that combines western and Indian elements (‘fusion’ if you insist on the word) for years. How do we successfully articulate a mixed culture in music without exoticising it for western ears, or sounding like we’re trying to reinforce a changing identity we’re barely aware of ourselves?

Korwar did the incredible by managing to strike that balance on the new album. And the reason is works is simply becuase he puts the quality of music first and foremost - before the limitations of defining your music through genre and more importantly, before nationality of its creator.

Currently based in London, enjoying the positive reviews for his release and working hard at touring the LP, Sarathy speaks with us about his connection to the Sidi community, his experiences with The Steve Reid Foundation and opinions on the Indian scene today.

We’ve heard of how you came upon the Sidi community, what specifically drew you to their way of music and performance? Why do you think it resonated with you?

An ethnomusicologist named Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy told me about a specific troupe of Sidi musicians that she had spent time with and I was intrigued to know more.

The first thing that fascinated me was their background and the various influences that their musical tradition imbibes. I started out wanting to make an album that had folk music or devotional music at its centre and the more I heard of the Sidis’ music the more I wanted to work with them.

I think their music resonated with me because their music is so unique (with East African, Sufi and Indian influences) and it was also quite different to the kind of music I make, sonically.

What do you mean when you say that you want to think of music in an ‘anthropological sense’? (read in this article)

In the context of the interview I meant I am more interested in the people that are making music than the music itself. For instance it was very important for me to see and understand what motivated the Sidi musicians to make music. When collaborating with other musicians, I want to be able to share a similar sensibility about music making and other things like the kind of instrument they play or genre they come from are not very important to me. I believe that if you work with people you admire and inspire you then the music is bound to be something you will be happy with ultimately.

How have your live performances been going so far? Tell us a little bit about the set-up and recently sharing the stage with Kamasi Washington!

The Kamasi tour came out of the blue and before I knew it we were up in the morning driving a van full of equipment across the country. It was great. The timing of it couldn’t have been better either as the gigs were a week before the album launch. Just getting the chance to play my music to 2000-3000 people every night was amazing. For the live gigs I play with a five-piece band (guitar, bass, piano/keys, sax and percussion) whilst triggering the recordings of the Sidi musicians from a sampler.

Malunga player Salim Gulammohammad Sidi. Image courtesy Sarathy Korwar

What did you expect when you got selected for the Steve Reid Foundation?

I had no idea what to expect! At that time, I knew I wanted to make an album and was already in India busy making field recordings when I heard the news about getting the award. So before any of the mentors had heard it, the album was already about 80% finished (in terms of recording). I guess at the time I was just hoping the mentors would be able to direct me in the right direction towards getting the album finished and out there for people to hear.

How has the mentorship affected your music? Could you tell us one or two memorable moments from the experience?

The biggest influence that the mentorship has had is simply making me feel more confident about the music that I am making. Just knowing that people who I respect and admire in the industry think that the album is decent makes me feel so encouraged and motivated to just keep moving forward and make/play more.

The first time I came across Gilles Peterson’s name was when I rented a compilation CD (Impressed with Gilles Peterson Vol 2) from the British Library on FC Road in Pune. ‘A Street in Bombay’ was one of the tracks on that compilation and that was also the first time I came across Amancio D’Silva. I immediately loved the song and listened to it quite a lot, not knowing anything about him or Gilles. When I met Gilles I told him about it and fortuitously found myself playing the song in London with Gilles in the audience and at that moment it felt like I had come a full circle.

Also, I had no idea how much support to expect from the mentors. Nick Woodmansey aka Emantive offered to met up for coffee to discuss how my album was going and offered to mix and co-produce the entire album. He was very generous with his time and was a big influence on how the album ultimately sounds.

Why did you decide to name your debut album ‘Day To Day’?

Day To Day is my attempt to draw attention to and celebrate the so called mundane and banal rituals or practices that we observe on a daily basis. I think these physical motions can be very vital and hold us together emotionally and mentally. It’s something I noticed the Sidi musicians do with ease and is something that I aspire to do all the time.

Did you have any fears while creating the music on ‘Day To Day’? Were you worried about being exoticised and fetishized for your music’s very unique compositional elements, having to carry the weight of representing a very small, relatively unknown community correctly (if that was your aim at all) or simply being pigeonholed?

I was most worried about how the Sidi musicians would feel about the resulting music. Fortunately for me they like it and understand the reason why I have gone about using their music in the manner that I have. It felt great to see them share the album on their own social media accounts...

Living and working in London, I am always worried about being exoticised to a certain degree so I have been as careful as possible when promoting my music to focus on who I am and what the music is about. I think there is a larger question about how music made in India or by Indian musicians is viewed in the West for sure. But conversely, I am also happy that there is space for an album like mine to be out on a reputed label like Ninja Tune.

We read in one of your interviews that the musical atmosphere in Pune was a big encouragement while you were there. How so?

Pune was great for me because I got a chance to play with a variety of different bands and watch so many great gigs at places like Shisha Café and Cafe High Spirits. I was exposed to a lot of different music and felt quite inspired and motivated to play and learn when I lived there. I have a great tabla teacher named Rajeev Devasthali whom I studied with (and continue to study) who made learning and thinking about music very exciting for me.

What’s your opinion about the non-Bollywood side of modern Indian music right now?

I think the scene is getting stronger and stronger. I don’t think musicians feel burdened by claims of plagiarising western music. I do feel that the music scene is still quite elitist and not easily accessible to people who don’t have a lot of money though.. I may be wrong but that’s the general perception I have.

How do you feel about the reception for ‘Day To Day’ from Western and Indian media so far?

It’s been really positive and encouraging. This being my debut album I wasn’t sure how much coverage and attention it would get but I have to say I’m really happy about the way it is going.

What are your plans for the future?

For the moment I just want to tour the album and enjoy playing it live. Hopefully bring the band to India at some point soon.

**Follow Sarathy on Facebook and SoundCloud for updates and more music**
Interviewed by Diya Gupta
Image credits: Fabrice Bourgelle

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29 July 2016