Album of the Week – Extended Review \\ Sarathy Korwar’s ‘More Arriving’ is a bold, defiant triumph

26th July 2019
Sarathy Korwar’s new record, ‘More Arriving’, tells stories from across the Indian diaspora with wit and fury, and backs them up with stunning rhythmic explorations in Jazz, hip-hop and Indian classical music.

Words: Harry Stott

Sarathy Korwar’s new record, ‘More Arriving’, is a satirical take on Western fears over South Asian immigration and the way in which this baseless panic tars people emigrating from India and its neighbouring countries with one homogeneous brush. It’s also an attempt to ignite a discussion about the vast diversity of the Indian subcontinent and the “multiple brown voices” who make up the region as a whole: Mumbai, Bangladesh, the Punjab and New Delhi are all featured. It’s biting and acerbic, funny and furious, and it features some of its creator’s finest, most accessible compositions to date.

Korwar is an Indian percussionist and bandleader who has been based in London for the past decade or so. The UK capital and his South Asian roots have defined the crossover style of his previous solo records – you’re as likely to hear Indian classical as you are Jazz – and, while his music has been distinct on every new offering, Korwar ensures each one retains a thematic coherence: they all attempt to bring a new perspective on what it means to be Indian.

‘Day to Day’, the album from 2016, let us into the sonic world of the Sidis, using field recordings of this community from India’s west coast – who have a curious mix of East African and Sufi Islamic heritage – to explore a wonderfully niche musical side of the sub-continent. His second album, ‘My East is Your West’, took aim at the popular tradition of spiritual Jazz, locating the genre in an Indian context rather than a bastardised Western one, calling out artists who create the latter for only including veneers of Eastern harmony and fetishising the Oriental without getting to grips with the centuries of musical tradition that they claim to draw on.

Both ‘Day to Day’ and ‘My East is Your West’ were large scale, Indian classical-Jazz crossovers, captivating and musically rich but not particularly accessible to a non-Jazz audience. ‘More Arriving’, however, takes the ideas found in the first two albums – India as non-homogeneous, the diluting power of the West – and locates them within his experience as an Indian immigrant to the UK, using more danceable music to get the point across. Hip-hop and spoken word are given foot-stomping rather than chin-stroking backings, and the result is a rapturous, raucous festival of sound that tells Korwar’s own story alongside tales specific to the Indian diaspora.

Korwar’s new musical statement comes fully formed on the first track ‘Mumbay’, where rowdy, clattering drums open the doors to let a set of foreboding horns storm in. If you’ve heard his previous records, it’s not hard to pick up on the break in style, but Korwar’s willingness to utilise a wide range of percussion is consistent with his earlier work. You get this from ‘Mumbay’ – the depth of the bass drums sound like battle cries, the imminent arrival of something cataclysmic – but even more so from the comparatively subdued ‘Mango’. Korwar combines an endless stream of mostly unpitched percussion to create an incongruously melodic accompaniment, a delicate rhythmic investigation over which poet Zia Ahmed recites sardonic verse (more on that in a moment). The production on ‘Mango’ is sublime: it’s one of those tracks that deserves proper speakers so you can hear the precision and clarity with which every beat is placed, enveloping you in a 3D sound world which you feel as if you can reach out and grasp.

‘City of Words’ is equally expressive. Korwar’s drumming dictates the mood as well as the tempo as he caresses the skins and glides between cymbals, while the bass whips up a menacing groove. The threat of that bass adds dark hues to the harmony, as black drones guide us through the unfamiliar tonal landscape. Korwar toys with the mystery that, we in the West, have been conditioned to hear in Eastern harmony, creating with it a brooding atmosphere that shudders with anticipation, and thuds with an underlying ripple of dread. That kind of intent is omnipresent on the record; even the final track, ‘Pravasis’, provides scant relief, slithering to a close with a creeping melody and tabla line that double down on suspense rather than offering any cadential satisfaction.

But the real jeopardy of ‘Pravasis’ comes from its chilling narration, delivered with disconcerting calm by author Deepak Unnikrishnan. He begins by unpacking the word ‘immigrant’, uncovering its sinister connotations through a series of stock characters – ‘teaboy’, ‘smuggler’, ‘hooker’. The final line reads, “Temporary people, illegal people, ephemeral people, gone people. Deported, left, more… arriving”. It’s a cliffhanger ending; an ellipsis rather than a full stop. The life of an Indian immigrant to the West is presented as a dilemma, defined by transience and uncertainty, but attractive enough that more will always continue to take the plunge and leave their homes for it. Unnikrishnan somehow frames this age old catch-22 as a dystopian issue, looking to an imagined future of ‘gone’ people, which you can’t help but read with the reality of hostile environment policies and a post-Brexit UK in mind. It ends the record on a threatening note, which, one suspects, is precisely Korwar’s intention.

Elsewhere, lyrics rely less on fear to get their point across. ‘Coolie’ has a similar kind of brassy bounce to ‘Mumbay’ – thanks to the always-incredible Tamar Osborn on baritone sax – the accompaniment to intelligent, wit-laced bars from a pair of Indian MCs. Working with rappers at the vanguard of the nascent, DIY hip-hop movement happening in places like Delhi and Mumbai was Korwar’s starting point for this record and, given the beguiling sound of their flow in English and their native tongues, you can see why he wanted to work with them. Prabh Deep and Delhi Sultanate mirror the corruption of India’s colonial and modern history on ‘Coolie’, describing how both Tata Steel and the East India Company cynically made their fortunes on the backs of workers and underhand dealings. These sorts of sophisticated ideas are littered throughout Korwar’s work, and the collabs on ‘More Arriving’ more than match up to his lofty ambitions.

The album’s most poignant moments, especially from a UK perspective, where our experience of the Indian diaspora is markedly different from that of the sub-continent itself, come from the spoken word poetry of Zia Ahmed, a UK-born child of Pakistani immigrants. On ‘Bol’, Zia mocks British preconceptions of South Asia, referring to himself as “Ali Baba”, “Snake Charmer” and “Karma Sutra”. He also takes a welcome dig at the British penchant for viewing India through the condescending lens of exoticism – Kipling and Forster’s mythical ancient land of Maharajah’s, tigers and ethereal caves – a place of spiritual awakening rather than the furiously modern superpower it really is: “I am your gap year, you said you were lost, I hope you found yourself”.

Much of what Ahmed says is obviously tongue-in-cheek – “I am auditioning for the role of terrorist one. Yeah, I can do that in an arabic accent” – but the point he and Korwar are trying to make is that this stuff isn’t funny. Prejudices people hold are always born from ignorance, tired clichés and a failure to engage with what a modern foreign country is like in reality. Ahmed asserts that these places are more than touristic Golden Triangles and Tikka masalas, sketching a visceral picture of South Asia that is so much more potent and varied than the monolithic bloc we are fed in popular culture. He talks of Jinnah and the five pillars, Gandhi and the Ganges, cinnamon, cardamon and evocations of a place where an eight headed God is as common as recitations of the Takbir. It’s bold and defiant, and it perfectly captures the sentiment of the entire album.

That being said, don’t get the impression that ‘More Arriving’ is some sort of gratuitous, bellicose attack on ‘the West’ as a construct. And neither should you come away thinking it simply plays on identity politics to muster a divisive sense of ‘us and them’. What it is, and what Ahmed’s mocking lyrics do so very well, is create a genuinely diverse picture of the Indian diaspora in all its enormity, while simultaneously honing in on the utter absurdity of prejudices that attempt to paint it in uniform colours.

Korwar says his main priority was to feature as many ‘brown voices’ and perspectives as he could on the record, and in achieving this he makes the vast diaspora of the Indian sub-continent feel criminally underrepresented in Western contemporary art and music. While the African diaspora now has a pretty defined place in popular culture – Jazz is the obvious one, and there are countless examples in film, art and literature – South Asian manifestations, particularly in music, are much more few and far between. With ‘More Arriving’, Korwar has set a standard for other South Asian artists to follow, and while we can hope that many more will follow his lead, you can be sure it is going to be a long wait before something comes along to better it.

Order ‘More Arriving’ by Sarathy Korwar on Bandcamp

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