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London-Based Musician Sarathy Korwar Celebrates South Asian Voices, Turns Racial Stereotypes On Their Head

The United Kingdom is going through a renaissance in socially conscious music. Some of that is owed to Brexit. However, London-based percussionist Sarathy Korwar says it is primarily due to young working class musicians, who are driving the scene.

Korwar was born in the United States. He lived in India for 22 years and has lived in the United Kingdom for the past decade. His work fuses styles of jazz, electronica, hip hop, and Indian classical music.

His recent album, “More Arriving,” comes from the independent Leaf Label. It celebrates the influx of refugees and migrants who continue to flow into the UK and serves as a statement of brown pride.

“People have always moved for centuries, and people will continue to move regardless of borders and the state of the world,” Korwar told Shadowproof.

Its universal theme can speak to how India deals with Kashmir or how China deals with Hong Kong or how the United States deals with Mexico and various Central American countries. The album may also resonate with people who have fled war-ravaged countries, like Syria and Yemen.

The concept for the album came from Korwar’s desire to capture “diverse South Asian voices, both from India but also from the diaspora.” He felt “a part of both of those realities, growing up in India.”

“I felt like I wanted to capture these multiple different realities that South Asians face and showcase that there is no one particular south Asian voice. There’s no homogenous South Asian voice.”

Korwar added, “I heard about the hip hop scene in India back in early 2016. I began to check out a few of these MCs that some friends of mine were talking about, who were coming from Mumbai particularly. I got really interested in what was happening in India in hip hop.”

He saw parallels between the Indian hip hop scene and the jazz scene in the United Kingdom. Many of the new and rising musicians were from working class backgrounds.

The process involved making music with his band in the UK. He laid down foundations and then traveled to India with these jams. The MCs in India worked with those jams, and he would bring back what they did to the UK. The cross-pollination unfolded throughout 2017 and 2018.

Tracks like “Bol,” “Mango,” and “Pravasis,” grapple with the otherization that occurs in British society. The lyrics rattle off stereotypes and turn them around on the very residents who perpetuate a culture that excludes brown people.

“I’m really targeting people who feel like there isn’t space anymore for people to come over to our shores, people who think that the country is full, people who think that South Asian-ness is one particular thing, people who think that Indian music needs to look or sound a particular way,” Kor shared.

“If there’s no sitars in it, no tablas, is it really Indian music?”

Korwar’s sound does not fit tidily into one compartment. Nor should it. However, that can fluster music critics seeking to label the music as part of a particular genre. That seems to parallel the way Western societies typically reject the mixing of certain cultures.

“If you can’t see it in black and white or in the compartments you’ve learned to see it in, suddenly the world doesn’t make sense anymore,” Korwar suggested. “Some people are like, ugh, now I can’t take it. This is not right. And some people might want to actually find out more. So, there’s a choice that you rationally or irrationally make as an individual all the time.”

“And I think that’s definitely where my music lies for people who find it difficult to take because it is between jazz and Indian classical music and electronic music, and they just can’t figure it out.”

Korwar lists John Coltrane, Ahmad Jamal, Muddy Waters, and The Doors, as some of his influences. He frequently mentions that he listened to classic rock while developing his sense of music. The inclusion of The Doors is deliberate, a way to define himself when met with critics or reporters, who have conceived notions of an Indian musician (e.g. Ravi Shankar).

“People don’t expect me to have grown up listening to the music I did because they have an assumption of what my life growing up in India was without anybody knowing about it,” Korwar asserted. “The reason why any of this happens is so I can get to control my own narrative. I get to control my own story and say this is what it was for me. This is what it is for me, and being able to get the chance to showcase that to the rest of the world is a really great thing for me.”

Both the lyrics and the music video for “Bol” deal with the stereotypes a British Asian or south Asian deals with while living in the UK. It has a “tongue-in-cheek” element to it, which to Korwar makes the song rather empowering. It flips the racism on its head and allows the victims to mock the oppression.

Spoken word artist Zia Ahmed provided the lyrics for “Bol,” as well as “Mango,” which Korwar said is both playful and a bit sinister. Ahmed plays with the word mango. He also confronts the colonialism that South Asian families endured.

“When [Ahmed] talks about how the British [cut] through your country as if it were a mango, you know all these things are real,” Korwar added. “But equally is the exoticism of the mango fruit and how everybody associates mangoes with the Indian subcontinent.”

Korwar crafted the album with an arc that gave off a particular sonic experience.

For example, his love of Qawwali music, which is a form of Sufi Islam music, led to the sound for “Bol.” Qawwali typically consists of musical compositions that may last up to 30 minutes or longer. It involves rhythmic patterns that feature hypnotic loops.

As a project, it defies the pervasive corporate culture within the industry that pushes artists to record hits, which can quickly shoot up to the top of lists of most streamed songs on Spotify, Pandora, etc. Each song is part of a larger illustration, varying in length from two to 12 minutes.

Korwar praised the Leaf Label for giving him the autonomy to create the album. They let him bring in his own person to do artwork for the cover. He was able to hire a South Asian to write the press announcement for the album’s release.

“Often labels have a particular way of working and that’s the way they do it, whereas these people were really malleable and interested [in the music],” according to Korwar.

In 2016, Korwar had the opportunity to support jazz musician Kamasi Washington.

“There’s a certain hope that comes with his music. At a time where it was the age of austerity, people telling you jazz is dead, people telling you your band needs to be small because you can’t tour with a band that’s more than four people, for example—the very kind of like pragmatic efforts to tell you how to build your career—here comes Kamasi with a ten-piece band.”

Korwar recalled, To see that it’s possible to be a jazz musician and to be playing to these kinds of venues and crowds that he was playing to is incredibly inspirational.”

“More Arriving” is available on streaming services and for purchase. It will have an album launch in September. Korwar will tour, and he hopes to perform the album in its entirety in mostly the same order as the tracks appear on the album.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."