A desire to reinterpret South Asian music traditions for the modern era courses through Sarathy Korwar’s music. The drummer’s Day To Day, a 2016 release on Ninja Tune, embedded recordings from the Sidi people of Ratanpur (descendants of East Africans who came to India as merchants, sailors and indentured servants beginning in the 7th century) in a soundtrack provided by London’s new jazz generation. And on last year’s My East Is Your West (Gearbox), Korwar’s UPAJ Collective sought to correct what the bandleader sees as spiritual jazz’s misappropriation of Indian classical music through live renditions of pieces by Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Pharaoh Sanders, among others.
“The mistake, or the problem with a lot of this kind of music is that a lot of jazz musicians back in the day—or even now, to be honest—think of the East as the repository of knowledge, where you can spend a week, learn a couple of scales, then come back and put it in your music,” Korwar said. “But these are musical traditions that take years to master and go back centuries.”
The percussionist recently spoke with DownBeat from London about More Arriving, his forthcoming album on The Leaf Label, and what pre-Brexit Britain feels like today.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk to me about the impetus for bringing together poets, Indian classical musicians and rappers, and London jazz players for your new album.
The album started with MCs in India and a general fascination with the growing hip-hop scene there. What engaged me was that it was starting in working-class neighborhoods. This is interesting, because the independent music scene in India has always been largely driven by upper-class forces; if you can afford a drum-kit, if you can afford rehearsal space ... .
Here, you have a bunch of kids working on beaten-up laptops, making their own sounds, rapping in their own languages, learning production and how to spit bars. The internet has completely revolutionized how much access everyone has to music. My idea was to go meet a few MCs and see if there was a possibility to collaborate with them.
The More Arriving album cover references late-’70s/early-’80s British South Asian activism. How do you locate yourself within that history and the music inspired by it?
The album is as much about being British Asian, as an Indian living in the UK, as being an Indian from India. Going back to that Asian Underground movement in the ’90s and 2000s, Asian Dub Foundation were like the brown Rage Against The Machine. Their music had a political message, tablas and Punjabi influences. The point of the album’s artwork is a message of resistance. Although it was a really bad time for South Asians in the UK then—and things are better now—there is a kind of resurgence of the far right happening. We feel like we’re in danger of going back to those times, with all the Islamophobic comments you hear in the media.
But what did exist then was this collective strength and solidarity among the South Asian community, which I don’t think exists in the UK now. Collective identity mattered. It’s recognizing that even if we all have a different identity as South Asians, as diasporic South Asians, there is strength in numbers and collective action is important, whether it’s in music or politics, for any kind of social change.
Shabaka Hutchings appeared on Day To Day, and you’ve recorded with him since. Danalogue, his bandmate in The Comet is Coming, is on More Arriving. So, can you describe your connection to London’s contemporary jazz scene?
What’s happening in London is a lot of young musicians not feeling shackled by the idea of what jazz is—or what jazz should sound like. Getting all these influences from grime, London breakbeat, jungle, drum-and-bass, Afrobeat, all these various influences that London has because of its diverse and multicultural nature. Making music that’s club friendly with a young audience base.
It’s become cool again; everyone is talking about it. People go to clubs; they go listen to jazz bands. But it’s jazz that makes you move. It’s no longer this idea of cocktail jazz, late-night quiet listening—which is great, ’cause this is the way I always understood jazz growing up, listening to Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. It was never about relaxing music. It was always about music that questioned things, music that was exciting.
In the past, you’ve mentioned Charles Lloyd as an inspiration, but in what way?
When you talk about problems in representing other cultures, one should look at Charles Lloyd as a good example of someone who’s done it right. The way he involves musicians from other traditions in his ensembles, he’s very egalitarian and respectful, and the resulting music is so unique. Another thing I really admire about him is that at this stage of his career, he’s still making amazing music, like Wayne Shorter. He’s constantly pushing his own boundaries and reinventing himself. His 2015 album, Wild Man Dance, is one of my favorite [contemporary] jazz albums.
He’s appeared with all the greats, but remains curious about music. I also love his playing; he can go from a straightahead jazz player to being so free with his playing and techniques as a multi-instrumentalist. But I think I admire him most as a music director, his collaborations and his way of putting bands together. It’s his vision that speaks to me.
How do you transfer this to work with your group, UPAJ Collective?
For me, it’s about collaborating with people and making sure that everyone is invested, everyone is being creatively inspired. I remember this quote [saying,] that musicians seek to create utopias or worlds they’d like to see within their own band. I’m trying to build this idea that human beings can interact on a very equal level within a band. It’s almost an anarchic sensibility of no pre-existing power structures; questioning all the power structures, like lead soloist/accompanist.
This is why I love playing in circles. Not a lot has been written about how you play on stage, the power dynamics, but it’s so important, the way we are positioned. Playing in a circle brings you back to the idea of communal music making, collaborative music making, facing other musicians while you are playing.
These are the things I value in music. DB
To read the interview on the DownBeat site, and hear some other Korwar tracks, please go here.