Nitin Sahwney

Nitin Sahwney


I once heard a theory that it takes an average of seven years to master a trade or profession. Translated into musical instruments by this premise, Nitin Sawhney must be at least 300 years old.

The impossibly talented singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, actor, screenwriter and in recent years radio show host, has built a reputation for professionalism in so many quarters that the chance to see him live as a musician was unmissable.

I didn’t know what to expect from tonight’s show. Having fallen in love with Beyond Skin as a metal/rock-loving teenager at the turn of the millennium, Sawhney’s pioneering material demonstrated that there are a world of genres out there beyond ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ and exposed how ridiculously restrictive the term ‘world music’ is.

In the best way possible, it’s always a challenge to work out what’s happening on a Sawhney record – who is on vocals, which instruments are in the mix, how sounds have been generated and so on.

Some of this mystery is explained in a live setting – the stage looks like a music showroom, dotted with keyboards, Spanish guitars, tabla and an army of singers. It’s also good to finally put faces to the mesmerising vocalists and musicians that guest on his revolving-doors of albums.

The album of the tour, Sawhney’s latest release Dystopian Dream, sees him look more closely at issues such as politics and social conditions. Instrumental track ‘Spirals’ weaves minor-key sounds between an unsettling flute and strings melody while the lyrics of ‘Dark Days’ particularly make their mark onstage “politicians lying by the grace of God’s hand, it’s a dark day in heaven”.

Past material gets a balanced look-in tonight, a highlight being Spanish-language ‘Noches en Vela (part 2)’ from 2005’s Philtre, showing Sawhney’s enviable adaptability and putting the Spanish guitar he has been clutching all evening through its paces.

The incredible ‘Nadia’ is on the bill, offering regular Sawhney vocalist Nicki Wells the chance to really showcase her versatile capabilities. It’s perhaps a condition of my Northern existence that it’s a novelty to encounter a Western woman singing Hindi lyrics, especially with such perfect pronunciation and conviction. It’s a really rare and astounding thing to see live and is the zenith of the evening.

Another track from Beyond Skin makes an appearance in the form of ‘The Conference’. It’s well accepted that all things oral – storytelling, poetry and rap, are tied inextricably to rhythm – ‘The Conference’ is a perfect illustration of this and although fantastic on record, on stage this track has much more of an impact as the overlapping, timing and intricacies required to pull this off can be really appreciated.

Ending on ‘Prophesy’, a great platform for displaying Sawhney’s talents for writing and production, the room is silenced by the rhythmic, almost tribal power of converged vocals, the building and quickening pace as it slams to a stop like a wave breaking over a rock before disappearing.

Nitin Sawhney is one of the most tireless, experimental and groundbreaking musicians working today. Not only this, but his back catalogue has made some incredibly important points about our use of categorisation, stereotypes and the restrictiveness of comfort zones.

It’s hard to summarise the diversity of his approach and his exceptional ability to merge so many concepts, sounds, ideas and traditions into one entity that works so effectively, so I will conclude by saying if you get the chance to see him live, you have to. You will not only witness a peerless talent, but a bright thread in the tapestry of musical history.

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