“We exist in more than one narrative”: Sarathy Korwar & Idris Rahman in conversation - Features - Mixmag

“We exist in more than one narrative”: Sarathy Korwar & Idris Rahman in conversation

Ravi Ghosh hosts a conversation between Sarathy Korwar and Idris Rahman, discussing the influence of South Asian classical sounds on contemporary music and the pros and cons of scenes

  • Interview: Ravi Ghosh | Sarathy Korwar photgraphy: Rishabah Sood | Idris Rahman photography: Lisa IndigoBurns Wormsley & Richard Kaby
  • 9 September 2021

Sarathy Korwar and Idris Rahman are at the forefront of contemporary jazz’s interdisciplinary and international approach to composition and performance. Idris (clarinet, saxophone, production) plays Afrobeat, reggae and dub with his band Soothsayers while producing Mercury-nominated albums for his sister, pianist Zoe; Sarathy (drums, percussion, tabla, production) brings Indian rappers into his club-ready productions, while reimagining the titans of spiritual jazz on his live album 'My East is Your West', and driving forward Afro-Indian percussive collaboration on his album 'Day to Day'.

Fresh from playing We Out Here festival together in August, Idris is readying the release of a new album with his band Ill Considered, 'Liminal Space', on which Sarathy is guesting. Over lockdown, his Afrobeat band Soothsayers also recorded a new album with Brazilian musicians, which is in the pipeline.

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Sarathy is working on an album exploring South Asian futurism, developing a new musical notation system that’s circular rather than linear. He’s also been researching ideas of utopias and dystopias, and unpacking their colonial origins to reveal worlds that lean more towards the Hindu and Buddhist understandings of karma. The new album will be called 'Kal', meaning both yesterday and tomorrow, a welcome paradox, he says.

While all somewhat distracted by the tense finale to an India-England cricket match, we talked to them about South Asian classical music, the sounds they grew up with, the ‘London Jazz Explosion', and the evolving South Asian underground.

To start off, perhaps you could each summarise the role that Indian and South Asian classical music plays in your work?

Sarathy Korwar: From a conceptual perspective, Indian classical music has shaped the way I think about music in a very deep way: that cyclical approach to music making and ideas of improvisation.

Being in a family where both my parents were semi-professional and sang Indian classical music, there was a lot of Hindustani music in the home: playing tabla and being encouraged to play tabla. So I grew up playing a lot of classical music, playing with a lot of Kathak dancers, instrumentalists and vocalists.

Physically speaking, my set-up right now is a combination of the drum kit and the tabla next to each other, and I’m finding ways to combine techniques and sounds that make it unique to me.

It’s been about developing a language on the instrument that felt comfortable for me to play. I’ve been moving further and further away from the tabla’s traditional vocabulary and where it’s situated in classical music—as an accompanying instrument, to singles or instrumentalists—to really trying to figure out how it can be played in conjunction with the drum kit.

That’s where I am with it right now, having in the past gone away from playing any classical music at all and not wanting to be part of that scene, because I didn’t feel like it spoke to me. Today I’m developing my own space for it.

Idris Rahman: For me, Indian classical music is something that has been a vague presence in my life since I was a teenager. My dad used to occasionally be involved in bringing musicians over from Bangladesh and India for performances. That’s when I first started being aware of sitar, tabla, and the form of Indian classical music.

I’ve never really played Indian classical music, but it’s influenced me from the periphery. I listen to a lot, and use some of the approaches—trying to work out from a layman’s perspective which elements of it are useful for improvisation, different scales and tonalities. And learning the way the music progresses and is shaped, its tensions and releases, suspenses and climaxes, and how drone music works: music with just one key centre. It’s informing a lot of the free-improv stuff that I do.

In the last few years I’ve been getting into it more and studying it...well, I don’t really have the discipline or the time to study it properly; it’s a proper full-time dedication. But I would like to get deeper in it.

It sounds like you both see this music as something to be integrated into other styles rather than practiced as a standalone form—what do you put that down to?

SK: I think we’re both very aware of the deep tradition of Indian classical music, so just dabbling in it doesn’t really make any sense. Coming from jazz or Indian classical music, you realise that if you want to go into this music you really have to go in, otherwise there’s no point. It’s just going to come across as very gimmicky or appropriating sounds and ideas.

I feel like it’s a part of me, but it doesn’t speak to me fully. I was never comfortable just playing tabla and I was never comfortable just playing drums, whether it was a contemporary jazz and rock & pop school that I went to for drums, or with my guru playing tabla. I didn’t feel like I was able to express myself fully in either of those environments. It had to be a combination of the two.

Also, the Indian classical music scene has lots of problems. Lots of power and politics and hierarchies. The closer you get to any scene or music you realise that there’s a lot at play which exists in wider culture: the misogyny, the caste and class-based politics, and when it comes to Indian classical music, the religious politics.

IR: I agree with that. Those reasons are the same as why I moved away from playing Western classical music. That also has politics and hierarchies and institutions that are set up to favour certain people. It’s a very standardised way of doing things which doesn’t allow a lot of freedom of creative expression. Both Indian and Western traditions have set parameters for the sonic palette. It’s harder to push the boundaries from the inside than it is the outside. I think we both put ourselves outside of those traditions.

SK: Yeah. It felt more natural. If I came from a scene where I was only listening to and playing Indian classical music, it would have been easier for me to make that decision to push from inside. There are people doing really interesting and progressive work in this music, but it just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t my thing.

Read this next: How Asian Dub Foundation's stand against racism connected generations of British Asians

You’re almost an inverse of each other in terms of how you discovered Western classical or Indian classical music. How much is that down to, Idris, growing up in the UK, and Sarathy, growing up in India—and where are we in terms of their respective receptiveness to other cultures?

SK: For me, Western music was always aspirational. White music actually, not even just Western music. White music was aspirational music. We live in a globalized world, so I saw it all on TV growing up. That was until I discovered what jazz and blues was. Everyone I grew up with would be listening to music that was either sung in English or used Western instruments, and a lot of the contemporary independent music scene in India is still based around...

IR: Western aesthetics...

SK: Exactly.

Like the idea of pop-stardom?

SK: Not just that. When Jon Hopkins or Four Tet play in India, people rock up in their t-shirts. Through the internet, people follow trends. That’s the aesthetic we grew up with and the bubble we grew up in as middle class urban kids in India.

Then I came here and realised that people had a very different idea of what Indian culture could be. People didn’t have any idea how I grew up. Everyone thought it was a huge culture shock. That’s the first question I would get asked when I moved here; everyone would say: ‘Oh, it must be a huge change!’ I don’t know what people are trying to say, because it’s not actually that different [Idris laughs]. The bigger shock was that people thought it was a culture shock. It’s ironic.

How does that tie into 'My East is Your West'?

SK: That came from me feeling that a lot of the ‘spiritual jazz’ heroes of mine—Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry—who I listened to a lot after I moved to the UK, often had a simplistic approach to Eastern sounds, for lack of a better term.

IR: Yep.

SK: Like there’s some pretty bad, out of tune harmoniums and badly played tabla on a couple of Joe Henderson records. It’s kind of unsettling. So 'My East is Your West' was all about representing it properly. If you’re trying to do a Hindu-jazz record in 2019, then it’s got to sound...

IR: Authentic.

SK: Yeah. And there are five Indians and five UK-based people playing that album, so it needed to be equal. Rebalancing the scales a little bit.

IR: It’s quite a rare thing actually, to have a fusion-y album that is balanced between Indian and Western musicians, and sounds authentic.

SK: It was hard. And given it was fusion, part of me was thinking: ‘This is not a good idea’...

IR: But that album really works!

SK: It’s the album that’s made me the most money...

IR: Is it! Did it go down well in India?

SK: I don’t think too many people have heard it in India. It’s more here. But what I got right there, out of luck more than anything, was finding the right people to play on the record. People who were sympathetic to jazz and Indian classical music, and understood both things really well. People like Giuliano Modarelli (acoustic guitar) and Al MacSween (keys), who had spent the time in India learning this music but had also studied jazz.

It’s not that you can’t borrow from other cultures, but go and understand them and respect them. Spend the time. That was the point.

IR: How did you put that material together?

SK: It was all cover versions. Open arrangements where we basically had soundchecks to rehearse [laughs]. It was very much a last-minute job. It’s hardly edited. We did the gig in March, and the album was out in July.

IR: A last minute jam. It doesn’t sound like it though. It sounds properly well thought out.

Idris, you also draw on Bengali folk music. Are you able to talk through that a little?

IR: I’ve spent a bit more time looking at folk music, particularly from Bangladesh. I did an album with my sister, Zoe, called 'Where Rivers Meet', and we went to Bangladesh a couple of times, collaborated with a few people, and then recorded with Zoe’s trio here but also with Kuljit Bhamra on the tabla, and a couple of singers including Shayan Chowdhury Arnob.

Our dad came from Bangladesh, so that was an interesting journey into our roots. Our mum is English, and we were born here, so we were never really surrounded by Bengali culture or music, so it was an exploration. We researched songs that my dad had been singing around the house when we were growing up.

SK: What did your dad think of it?

IR: He loved it. We actually got him to recite a poem on one of the songs which was a very deep experience. There’s a lot of family history and emotions involved. Zoe and I had been playing for around ten years each at that stage, and the first time we played that music in public he came. After the gig he said: ‘Now you can play music’ [both laugh].

SK: Classic dad.

IR: Some of the songs were not even Bengali. Some of them were written by Hemanta Mukherjee (Hemant Kumar) for Bollywood films in the 1950s and 60s, and a lot of them were Rabindranath Tagore songs.

I’d like to do another album like that at some point, and to research more into Baul music as well. I’ve worked before with Kishon Khan, who has a project called the Shikor Bangladesh Allstars, which was really interesting, especially the philosophies behind Baul music and how it combines with dub and ties in with Rastafarianism. Those combinations just seem to work.

It’s something I had picked up on about 20, 25 years ago. One of the first things I did when I had my first studio set-up was to get a couple of CDs of field recordings from Bangladeshi villages. I sampled and combined them with some dub backing and created a few tracks. I sent them off to some random labels and they got really excited straight away, but then I had to admit that they were samples, and they got less excited... [laughs]

To bring it back to London, you’re both loosely in this ‘UK jazz’ scene. What’s the experience of being in that scene as musicians who incorporate Indian and South Asian sounds?

SK: Scenes are such strange phenomena: part-manufactured, part-here because there’s a need for them. It’s partly to do with the people who are collaborating a lot and putting out records together; being on each others’ music a lot and sharing the same philosophy and ethos around making music.

Sonically, it doesn’t even matter that much. The sonics come after the idea that you want to be making music as collectives, or that you want to affect sound in the same way. There are shared ideas between these bands and musicians who inhabit this UK jazz scene.

Having said that, I’ve always felt at the periphery of a lot of stuff. I think that’s inherently how you feel if you’re a minority in any space. I have never felt like the scene has spoken for me completely. I’ve always felt like there’s a scene and I’m sometimes included in it, but sometimes I’m not.

IR: I think that’s the same for me.

SK: It’s about taking advantage of that when you can because you realise there are opportunities to play and collaborate with people and for people to hear your music who may not have done so if it wasn’t for ‘the scene’.

But equally, you’ve just gotta keep doing your own thing. I think that what Idris and I do is very unique. And it doesn’t really matter who it speaks to. As long as you want to make that music, then make that music. We’ll still be hopefully making music long after any scene dies. That’s the idea I remind myself of.

IR: I think ‘the scene’ has probably been quite helpful to both of us in the fact that it exists, and there’s a young audience. I think I’m on the periphery more because I’m a bit older, but also, just being a Brown saxophonist, it’s not a stereotype that you can rely on. I probably would have gotten further if I wasn’t a Brown saxophonist—if I was Black or white. [laughs] It would have made it different, for sure.

SK: I feel like with the London jazz scene, it’s primarily young, Black, working-class kids who went to Tomorrow’s Warriors together and learnt jazz together, and have really known each other for a long time growing up. And now they’ve blossomed. That’s a really good story, and it’s amazing that they have a space to do that, so in a way, it would be wrong for us to be more part of that scene. That’s them; I’m not that guy. I didn’t even grow up in this country.

That story has always been an easy one for journalists and anyone in the industry to latch onto, and it’s valid and amazing; they’re all making really interesting music. I feel like I just get mentioned as the token non-white, non-Black jazz musician in order for people to say that London is a diverse place. But there’s more than this [London jazz] scene happening. And like Idris said, you’re grateful for the mentions because, realistically, it’s helping your career, but you know that those mentions come with a pinch of salt.

So when you’re playing together at We Out Here festival, for example, do you believe you’re able to present your music authentically within that space?

IR: Yes. Because when you get to play music, it cuts through everything. It doesn’t even really matter what you look like. Can you communicate to an audience, and if you can, then that’s it—you’ve done your job.

SK: What is the end goal here? The end goal is to not have these constructs play a marked part in the way we make music.

IR: Yeah.

SK: Having said that, going on stage and being musicians and playing in those spaces, which are primarily occupied by predominantly white and Black musicians, being South Asian obviously comes with some power and representation. For our gig at We Out Here, Idris, it was you, me and Zia Ahmed: three South Asians on one stage. I don’t think that’s happened before [at the festival]; not that year anyway.

Of course the audience could be thinking: ‘Okay, these guys are capable of making this kind of music, or sounding like this’. But ultimately, hopefully people are just listening to the music and choosing whether they like it or not.

IR: I grew up in a very white culture. I’ve never really thought of myself as being non-white. I should have clocked it earlier! [both laugh]. It might have helped. I could have actually used it more effectively, if I was being cynical about the music business and if I wanted to negotiate my way through it and use my non-whiteness. But I haven’t really noticed until fairly recently. Indian music is a part of the palette that I’ve drawn on, but it’s not something that I’ve really thought is my own.

You both mentioned people using Indian sounds in a more tokenistic or cliched way, and I wonder whether the more fleeting nature of electronic music, with sampling, and club culture in general, is guilty of that. Where are we in terms of that relationship between Western club culture and South Asian music?

SK: I think sampling is quite a problematic thing anyway, because you’re taking a lot of power away from the people who originally made that music. Equally, there’s a growing club culture in South Asia, and here in the diaspora as well. I feel like it’s about representing these people more than anything else: having more South Asian DJs, producers, electronic musicians.

It’s less about the sound. It’s about having people express their identity, and how they want to see music that’s coming out of those regions. There’s still a lot of work to do there. It’s one thing for Four Tet to make an album with Lata Mangeshkar samples, which is cool, but then you need South Asians to interpret their ideas of who Lata Mangeshkar is, and what her music’s impact is on them. Because there’s still very much a Western gaze.

IR: When I came to London in around 1994, it was actually quite exciting. There was a lot going on in the underground Asian music scene at that particular point: Asian Dub Foundation, Talvin Singh, State of Bengal—Nitin Sawhney was starting out around that time as well. I was watching from the outside and it was really influential; some of those bands went massively global and influenced a lot of hip hop. Producers like Timbaland took stuff which, I believe, came from the UK 90s Asian underground music scene, before it then found its way into mainstream hip hop.

SK: I think there’s a growing scene again, with the Daytimers crew, with young DJs like Nabihah Iqbal, Ahadadream, Manara. I just want to reiterate that this is one narrative, and we need to also look back at the subcontinent—DJs and producers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, who are all doing really interesting stuff, and have to be considered when we talk about South Asian music and club culture. Because obviously their perspective is going to be very, very different.

There’s still a need to have a nuanced perspective on what South Asian club culture can be. I think it’s still a very narrow idea. The more people there are to contribute to the sound, the more complicated and fucked-up it’s going to get for some people to understand what South Asian music is, and scenes are built and broken for a reason.

Scenes break when they no longer sound like a single thing anymore. And that could be a good thing. The end goal is to not be able to put music into these boxes, and for us to all be able to make the music we want to make and it doesn’t have to resemble each other. Because we’re not the same.

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And Idris, although you said you don’t feel as connected to what’s happening now, your music is being played in clubs and on internet radio whether you intend it or not, whereas say, five, 10 years ago it might not have been. What can we take from that?

SK: [laughing] You’re cool now Idris, whether you like it or not!

IR: It’s good when your music is being played anywhere. It’s not necessarily because it’s attached to any particular scene; it’s being played on its own merits, I would argue. My music from the last few years: Ill Considered, Wildflower, has been played as an add-on to the London jazz scene. So it’s being played in that context, but it’s a little more edgy in some cases.

Let’s stop talking about scenes...

IR: Yep.

I think it’s important to reflect on what these ‘South Asian’ media-driven series signify in a broader sense. Shining a light on South Asian art inevitably creates divisions around timeline, heritage, nationality, and who’s controlling the narrative. There’s also often this Indian focus which tends to dominate. What do you think about these issues?

SK: Any of these constructs, whether it’s race or scenes, are never going to fully represent everyone. You look back at the early 1990s and early 2000s with the Asian Underground, it wasn’t like every South Asian was like: ‘Yes! This is me’. It’s the same here. The London jazz scene is a community of people and it’s of course going to speak to a lot of people, but it’s not going to speak to everyone. Surely that’s the point, because we exist in more than one narrative.

You have to take into consideration the kind of influence that you do have in terms of caste and class, which I don’t think gets mentioned enough when you’re talking about South Asia specifically. Like you said, it’s India-centric, so often when talking about South Asia the conversation becomes about North India: Delhi, Bombay, and we have to ask whether we’re challenging those imbalances. How many Dalit musicians are there; how many Muslim musicians are we including? So while it’s right to celebrate groups like Daytimers, we also just need to be real about what they are.

IR: Part of a bigger picture.

It can sometimes feel so static. Even on the BBC today there’s a big radio feature on how George Harrison incorporated Krishna into 'My Sweet Lord', and the same with some commentary around Oliver Craske’s new biography of Ravi Shankar. Why are we still stuck with these same people, eras and ideas?

IR: It’s because successful white boys gave it the nod.

SK: It’s the same with this. Mixmag is getting us to do this. People are keyed into what’s hot right now. You can’t ignore the fact that CRACK, Boiler Room, Mixmag—all these people are suddenly into the Daytimers crew, so you have to ask why that’s happening. We’re all at a stage where we’re quite sceptical of all this stuff. We’ve seen it before, having been part of the UK jazz thing or whatever else.

Like we said, you need to celebrate it and use it to your advantage, but be very, very careful and aware of the fact that people can pick you up and drop you down any time, and you’ve got to keep putting in the work and connecting to people who matter.

IR: I read in the CRACK Daytimers profile they mentioned that it’s still white journalists basically being in control of the scene, which is true. That was true in the 90s too. The scene is still dominated by white record company people and white journalists, so everything is presented through that lens. But everyone jumps on the bandwagon in making this South Asian music ‘a thing’, and then it will probably be forgotten for a bit, and they’ll jump onto the next scene. You’ve got to be careful that it doesn’t just disappear into nothing.

SK: It’s also about what we value as people. The Daytimers are doing really good shit regardless of whether they get a CRACK magazine feature or not. You’ve got to focus on the people who are doing really good work in the community and remember that. Because there will be times when they’ll be talked about by Boiler Room or whatever; and there are times when they won’t be. You have to cut through that and see it for what it is. That’s how I think about making work too.

IR: I think that’s important with music generally: to isolate the creative process from any kind of ‘what are you going to do with it’ or ‘how is it going to be explained in the media’. Because it’s not about that. As soon as you start pandering to that, the work and the creative process suffers. It’s important not to get caught up in any of it.

SK: It’s fucking hard though.

IR: Very hard.

SK: We get money from this stuff because we live in this capitalist world. It’s about balance, and you can’t always get it right.

Ravi Ghosh is a freelance politics and culture writer, follow Ravi on Twitter

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