Spend half an hour in the company of Nitin Sawhney and you’ll quickly see why the word that crops up time and again in profiles of him is ‘polymath’. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation with Weekend, the composer and multi-instrumentalist bounces from discussions of race and identity to a technical deconstruction of Western classical music (“obviously a melodic minor is played differently descending and ascending…”) via theoretical physics (“there are some incredible new theories on universal consciousness…”) and the influence of mathematics on the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Fittingly, for a man with an instinctive aversion to lazy categorisation (“labels get in the way of creativity,” he insists. “If you’re an artist, you should be able to explore freely how to think”) – the 56-year-old’s career has brought him success across multiple disciplines: as a recording artist, as a composer of more than 50 scores for film, television theatre, dance and ballet, and even the occasional swerve into comedy (that’s him in Goodness Gracious Me’s famous “going for an English” sketch). In addition to the CBE, his honours include an Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award, a Commission for Racial Equality Award and honorary doctorates from six universities. And he is surely the only man to have both conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and DJ’ed at dubstep and drum’n’bass nights.
He is also an occasional broadcaster, in which capacity he has just launched a new show, Accents with Nitin Swahney, on Scala Radio. With a playlist spanning the musical map from Rachmaninoff to [Malian kora player] Toumani Diabate, the four-part series criss-crosses the globe as part of its creator’s mission to “widen dogmatic definitions of classical music”.
“It’s partly looking at the idea of classical music,” explains Sawhney. “For me, the dogmatic definition of classical music is based on a Euro-centric perspective on history, so it’s about broadening that. I’m also playing a lot of music that I perhaps wouldn’t consider purely classical, but which juxtaposes well against the classical repertoire – Western, Indian, African… all kinds of music from everywhere.” (Some of this falls into what is often called “world music” – though that’s another label Sawhney resists, on the not unreasonable basis that, unless it’s made on Mars, all music is world music.)
Over the years, Sawhney’s musical voyages have taken him all over the globe – for 2001’s MOBO Award-winning Prophesy album, for example, he recorded with indigenous peoples from Australia to America and South Africa. The latter included a conversation with Nelson Mandela at his house in Johannesburg where, having arrived early, Sawhney took the opportunity to finish his host’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in his garden.
“It was amazing, because the last thing I read, the last passage in the book, is ‘Now we are free to be free’,” he recalls. “And then to walk in, knowing his whole history… He was more powerful-looking than I thought he would be, but then I remembered that he was an ex-boxer. It’s strange thing when you know all about a person, but you’ve never spoken to them, and suddenly they’re larger than life in front of you.”
But it was another hero, Ravi Shankar, who ended up playing a more significant role in his life. A musical prodigy from a young age, Sawhney was introduced to the music of the world’s most celebrated sitar player by his father; four decades later, he was at Shankar’s bedside, holding his hand, as he passed away. “To have known him, and been at his deathbed, was incredible,” he says. “And also to become godfather to his two grandchildren [Nitin produced Shankar’s daughter Anoushka’s Grammy-nominated Traces of You album, which also featured her sister Norah Jones], is quite insane as well. He was someone I idolised so much when I was very young. He was an incredible, consummate musician. His skills were superhuman.”
When I see people talking about being proud of being a certain nationality, I always think: well how? You haven’t contributed towards that in any way. Where does pride come into that?”Nitin Sawhney
Other collaborators have included Sting, Shakira, Jeff Beck, AR Rahman and a certain Paul McCartney, who co-wrote and sang My Soul on Sawhney’s 2008 album London Undersound. “I still think it’s amazing that he came to this house, where I am now, and recorded that with me,” he says. “He also came to see me at the Royal Albert Hall four days after George Harrison’s death, which was incredible. He’s just a really nice bloke. He still sends me a Christmas card every year.
“It’s interesting, because on one level he’s very down to earth, and on another level he’s a legend. It’s happened to me a few times, meeting people like that. And it’s taught me not to lionise people, or put them on pedestals, because when you meet human beings, it’s important to engage with them as human beings. Otherwise you’re no longer seeing them as flawed. You’re dehumanising them.”
This, he adds, is the problem with statues, which have become a focus of anger during the recent Black Lives Matters protests. Questions of race and identity, of course, have been central to much of Sawhney’s work, including his landmark, Mercury Music Prize-nominated 1999 album Beyond Skin, in which he sampled his parents’ experience of leaving Punjab for England on the key track Immigrant. Two decades on, he says, those pre-millennial days now feel almost like a lost age of optimism compared to the landscape in which he about to launch his 12th album, Immigrants.
“In some ways, this album is almost a sequel to Beyond Skin,” he says. “But it’s ironic that, in the sequel, it feels like we’ve regressed, rather than moved forward. It’s good that the songs have a currency, but the reason why they have is sad, really.”
Growing up in Rochester, Kent, Sawhney was the only Asian pupil in a school of 700. He was punched, kicked and called ‘curry face’ on a daily basis, and was even followed home by a van with a loud hailer telling him to “go home”. Has this been a driver, in some ways, for his artistic output?
“I think constantly that is the case,” he says. “I’ve been in therapy now for six years, and I think that’s an ongoing thing. You’re constantly confronting demons and stuff from the past that triggers you in different ways.”
Patriotism is something he finds a slightly alien concept. “I understand people feeling pride in culture,” he says. “That’s something you can contribute to. But when I see people talking about being proud of being a certain nationality, I always think: well how? You haven’t contributed towards that in any way. Where does pride come into that?”
It was these conflicted feelings of national identity that, in 2005, led him to turn down the OBE. “I turned it down for several reasons,” he explains. “One was the war in Iraq, which was still very much in my mind. But also because it’s got the word ‘Empire’, with its negative associations of colonialism.
“So I turned it down, but my dad afterwards said to me, ‘I wish you’d taken it’. I asked why, and he said, ‘First of all for my birthday it would have meant a lot, and secondly, it’s a symbol of how far we’ve come as immigrants and as a family.
“When he died, it resonated with me. And then the year before last, I got a letter, with this offer of the CBE, on his birthday. And I thought, well that feels like a sign. And then, weirdly, it was presented to me on my mum and dad’s wedding anniversary. So that was very special, and very personal.
“It’s not something I pay a lot of attention to,” he adds. “But I have put it on my profile on Twitter, because right now I feel like: why is it only people of colour who feel the need to apologise for getting honours? It’s about me as a musician, it’s not about me as a member of the Empire, so I don’t see why I should apologise for it.”
Accents with Nitin Sawhney is on Scala Radio – catch up at planetradio.co.uk.
Immigrants is out later this year.
An edited version of this interview appeared in Waitrose Weekend published July 16, 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend