An Interview With Percussionist Sarathy Korwar
Image credit: Fabrice Bourgelle
Sarathy Korwar is an Indian anomaly on the insulated London scene: his star is ascendant. From being chosen as a part of the Steve Reid Foundation programme – wherein he was mentored by industry stalwarts like Kieran Hebdan, Sam Shepherd and Gilles Peterson – to releasing his debut record, ‘Indefinite Leave To Remain’, on the famed label Ninja Tune; from garnering praise in Allmusic, Bandcamp and the Guardian (besides being featured on a New York Times playlist) to supporting jazz titan Kamasi Washington on his recent UK tour, Korwar’s done it all. We had a chat with the percussionist to find out how it happened and what’s next on his ever-expanding horizons.
You’ve studied extensively under the tutelage of classical musicians back home in India. When and how did you become interested in treading the boundary between Eastern and Western musical traditions?
Like any of us growing up in urban India, I’ve been exposed to Western music since a young age. My association with classical music, however, stems from when I first began learning the tabla. In Fergusson College I began to play the drums after gravitating toward jazz and blues. A lot of 60s and 70s rock ‘n roll, too, which is what made me want to play kit. I got my first one when I was 16 and I’ve been playing kit since. I moved to London to study at a contemporary music school called the Tech Music School for two years in 2009. I don’t even know if it exists anymore, I think it folded into BIMM.
Did you learn a lot there?
I did, actually. A lot of my technique was developed at that school, and it clarified some essential rudimentary concepts. Those years were formative: I could spend four or five hours in practice rooms, so the first couple of years I was literally practicing all the time. That’s where I really got a firm grasp of the instrument.
How did the Steve Reid Foundation happen?
The Steve Reid Foundation was something I’d heard about – that they were looking at emerging artists who needed that extra push, who’d benefit most from interacting with established musicians. What got me excited was that the mentors weren’t just popular names, they were also critically acclaimed. I received the Steve Reid Award in January 2015. By the time I found out I was in, I’d left England and was already home in Pune – I’d made up my mind that regardless of whether or not the Steve Reid award worked, I was going to make the album. To that end I’d already spent time with the Siddi community in Ratanpur near Bharuch, in Gujarat.
Why this community specifically?
I was introduced to a fascinating documentary called ‘All The World’s A Stage’ by Nirmal Chander by the ethno-musicologist Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, who’s been deeply involved in the Siddi community over the course of many years. Her incredible work with the Siddis became my point of reference. She got me in touch with the right people when I realized I wanted to go there.
What kindled your attraction?
Firstly, their unique history: where they come from, who they are, what they look like – because nobody would look at them and assume they’re from Southern Gujarat. They have very East African features, they’re dark skinned. The other interesting aspect to this is the geography of the slave trade it represents; obviously, these aren’t the slaves that were ferried to Europe or the Americas. Lots of Africans came here as merchants and sailors before the slave trade as well, but a lot of them also came from the Spanish, English and Portuguese colonies. This affects their society today in unique ways – some of their lyrics, for instance, are in Swahili.
Which languages do they speak?
Gujarathi or Hindi. They’re very heterogenous and have assimilated into the local culture completely. They’re Indians.
The community at Ratanpur, where I travelled, is predominantly Muslim. A lot of the Siddis converted to Islam when they came to India, perhaps to avoid the casteism rampant in the Hindu fold. There’s very few of them who’ve reached any sort of upward mobility; the society borders on tribal but hasn’t been allowed Scheduled Tribe status by the Government, which is a problem. They’re treated terribly and have no benefits, either.
You mentioned they sing in Swahili. Does this mean they’ve retained linguistic roots?
Not really. The strangest part is that they have no idea what they’re singing. Their art forms contain unexpected links to their ancestral past. There are traditions they may not understand but have maintained. Of course these people have been studied very extensively; for me, though, I knew that regardless of how interesting the academic intricacies, I had a different purpose. I wanted to spend time with the community, record the singing and try to use these amazing instruments in my music – there’s an instrument called the malunga, for instance, and there are no instruments like it in the country. It’s a single-stringed instrument, a gourd-resonated bow of the sort that’s characteristic to Africa. In construction it’s a cousin of the Brazilian berimbau. There are hardly any surviving people who can play it.
I recorded the one person who plays the malunga in Bharuch, Salim Mohammad Siddi. I found a real connection with this man. I also recorded a song and dance troupe of a dozen odd performers. Then there’s this thing called the Siddi dhamaal, which is basically a drum ensemble that features polyrhythms and multiple distinct drum parts – very unlike Indian percussion. It’s an African phenomenon.
The idea was to go and record all of this and make my own album inspired by their distinct music, so I took a lot of these samples and went into the studio with some musician friends.
Yes. We’ve recorded about 80% of this album in Dawn Studios, Kothrud.
I’m guessing this is the first Ninja Tune album to be recorded in Pune.
In Kothrud, no less, which sounds absolutely crazy if you’ve ever been to Kothrud. The other day someone asked me “what’re you doing on Ninja Tune?” and I said, “I have no clue what I’m doing on Ninja Tune”.
These past couple of years do sound like they’ve been crazy. How did the connect with the label happen?
Through the Foundation. The programme agreed to both, help make as well as market the album. I knew exactly how I wanted the album to sound because by the time I got it to them I was pretty much already done with recording. It was produced by me and (Steve Reid Foundation alum) Emanative. He mixed it entirely as well. I then got help from Gilles and Kieran, they’re really nice people and very helpful musicians. Kieran, especially, really made me feel good about my own music. He’d tell me, “listen, you’ve been chosen for a reason – just stick to your guns.” It’s such a big confidence boost when Four Tet tells you “don’t try to make your album sound like something it isn’t.” That’s when I knew it was coming together.
Floating Points, Four Tet, Koreless, Gilles Peterson – they’ve got a great deal of output between them. Did you listen to a lot of electronic music at the time of your selection?
Not really. I mean, of course I’d heard some Four Tet and Floating Points. None of Koreless’ stuff though, to be honest.
What about Gilles Peterson?
That’s a funny story. I first saw his name when I came across a CD at the British Library in Pune. It was called Impressed with Gilles Vol. 2. I had no idea who he was, obviously, but that CD made it evident he had an interest in jazz, which is what got me interested in him. I’ve been following him since. He’s a huge presence in London, so you become aware of the extent of his influence as soon as you move here.
Did these mentors have any musical influence on this record?
The first time they heard any of the record’s music was once the album was all done being recorded. But Gilles plays the music often on his radio show, and Kieran sent the album over to a lot of industry contacts, which is how Ninja Tune got in touch with me.
Did you ever imagine you’d be releasing your debut on such a well-established label?
Not a chance. Realistically speaking I always hoped I wouldn’t have to self-release, that a label would pick me up. Just never thought it’d be this one.
How do you think it’s helped?
Just the fact that they’re Ninja Tune – the sort of reach they have is incredible. They posted one of my tracks on SoundCloud and it had over 15,000 listens in three days. I had a SoundCloud following about 80 strong at the point so that was just ridiculous. They have a whole mechanism in place to handle every aspect of a release – as an artist I really am now only concerned with making music, which is how it should be. I’m lucky to be in the position where I have a label and a booking agency.
written by Tej Haldule