Sarathy Korwar talks race, cultural appropriation and Night Dreamer (Feature Interview)
Over the past few years, Indian-raised, UK-based drummer, percussionist and composer Sarathy Korwar has planted himself as one of the most distinctive voices within the UK jazz scene. Fusing traditional folk and classical Indian sounds with jazz and spoken word, Sarathy has used his musical voice to relay themes on immigration, the experience of being South Asian within Britain and cultural appropriation in music. Ally got the chance to sit down with Sarathy and talk about these touchpoints alongside his exciting new Night Dreamer Records project.
Sarathy Korwar has well and truly planted himself as one of the most distinctive voices within the contemporary UK jazz scene. Despite being based in London for the past 11 years, Sarathy grew up in Chennai, Ahmedabad and then studied Pune in India. Having travelled and grown up in different space, these experiences have stuck with Sararthy, “regional influences and regional differences in India have kind of shaped the way I am as a person”, he tells me, “I've taken a lot from different sort of parts of my life”.
The percussionist was naturally drawn to the tabla from a young age, his first instrument, but gravitated towards the Western drum kit in his teens whilst delving into music and jazz. Discovering jazz greats from John Coltrane to Grover Washington Jr, Sarathy remembers this period of his life fondly, “I think a lot of the musical discoveries [that] were made during that period, were free of judgement. Because I didn't know who any of these people were. And I kind of had to make up my mind by myself really, whether I like something or not, you know. And so, I would listen to as much music as I could…I didn't have the weight of knowledge around me, I wasn't weighed down by it. I could just listen to everything”.
This fluid and absorptive attitude feed into Sarathy’s music-making. Sarathy has become known for his openness about talking about and addressing cultural appropriation within Western music. This topic, which is of course not just exclusive to music-making, seems to be gaining traction, but there are still many examples of it, particularly within “mainstream” music. “I'd hope I'd like to say [attitudes] have changed,” Sarathy says pensively, “It's one of those things, we live in such an age of like cancel culture as well. I think everyone's more aware of what they're doing. But does that necessarily make them change their behaviour? I'm not. I'm a bit suspicious of it, you know, like, I think people might be, and maybe still, that's half the battle. One that people are just a bit more aware and sensitive to it... But then, I don't see that many people calling out tokenism as you'd hope, you know, especially in like mainstream music, but also like, in the kind of larger sphere of jazz”.
Figures like Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders are revered within the “spiritual” jazz realm, but their attitude to borrowing from other cultures is questionable. Sarathy acknowledges his own internal troubles with figures like Alice Coltrane, as he loves her music and appreciates her influence within the jazz world, but he also recognises the problematic tokenistic elements within her music, revealing that “the only reason why I'm often calling this stuff out is because I feel like it needs to be called out and acknowledged”.
Contemplating on this theme, Sarathy believes that the way to pay tribute or borrow ideas from other cultures should be done “with respect, it's quite simple.” He outlines that, “if you want to borrow from a certain culture, like go in and understand all the implications of what you're doing, you know, go in and understand the tradition of music, understand what it means to play that music for yourself. And there are thousands of good examples of people doing it the right way”. Pointing towards his own group, the Upaj Collective, Sarathy admits that part of the motivation of those musicians amassing was because “I didn't only want to have like, equal representation of brown people or South Asians playing classical music on stage, but also of jazz musicians who would spend the time to learn Indian music. These people who are friends of mine who've kind of gone and spent countless winters in India, learning the music, the tradition and finding a way to develop a language that's their own, you know? And so, I just feel like, when you are doing that kind of act, it's just important to acknowledge the influences that you're taking from, and also to make sure that it's not offensive to anyone, you know…I think it's about acknowledging your privilege as a Western musician, who has access to a wider market of people who will obviously listen to your music and draw conclusions about the music that you're playing, especially if there's other cultures being showcased in your music or featured…you have a certain responsibility to showcase the music you know in a certain way.”
Although jazz music has a rich history of openness, spoken word and fighting for social justice, many still don’t feel comfortable to express these views. Yet, figures like Sarathy aren’t afraid of expressing such views. “I think just by existing, I'm creating a certain space for myself, to say that ‘Look, guys like me can like put the kind of messaging and the kind of way I look, make the kind of music I'm making’… I think people take responsibility in different ways. I think, I kind of came to the realisation that all music is political at some level. And all music is more than just political, everything is social, economic and whatever. So, I kind of embrace that”.
Despite being so open and honest in his views, there’s a cost to being such a forthright figure within the arts, “you often get pigeonholed into, like, just talking about those things and never end up talking about the music” Sarathy tells me. For example, “you never end up talking about, I don't know, any other interests of yours, you become the kind of spokesperson for this thing that you never sort of meant to be. And that's a dangerous trap to fall into as well.”
Anyone aware of Sarathy’s previous projects, Day to Day (2016), My East Is Your West (2018) and More Arriving (2019) would be aware of the themes of immigration, “otherness”, and orientalism within his music. Despite being a purely instrumental release, the song behind Sarathy’s recently released Night Dreamer record trace along with these themes. Having studied Ethnomusicology - the study of music in its social and cultural contexts – figures like Edward Said and Ashis Nandy have become pivotal in Sarathy’s outlook, with him tipping his hat to the academics with the songs ‘So said Said’ and ‘Intimate Enemy’.
Reflecting on how he became interested in orientalism and ethnicity within society, Sarathy admits that his interest in the subject “came from a very selfish point-of-view, better articulating that and understanding systemically where the failings are. How much do you blame people? How much do you blame systems that are in place? It’s unavoidable, and that’s the burden of being a minority. You have to tackle race at some point and that’s because it’s affecting you. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to spend time focussing on it basically, because that’s the only way out. If you ignore it, that’s not helping you either.”
With brilliant releases from Emma-Jean Thackray, Gary and Maisha, Etuk Ubong and other fantastic musicians, the Haarlem-based Night Dreamer Records are capturing the richness of the contemporary scene through vintage analogue equipment, recorded direct-to-disc – a truly authentic musical experience. After playing a gig in Amsterdam, the Night Dreamer team jumped on the chance to record Sarathy Korwar and the Upaj collective. Relishing in this rare opportunity, Sarathy decided that to best use this scenario, “the music had to be completely improvised and spontaneous. That is the only true way to record within the limitations of one take. No regrets, no mistakes, no fear and no judgement”.
“I think the Upaj collective is very true to its name, like Upaj means to improvise in Hindi” Sarathy muses. Building on this idea, he tells me that “the first record [My East Is Your West] was a live gig, that was the first time we'd ever played together…And this one was, again, just a day in the studio and direct to disc. So, they gave us the master vinyl at the end of the day. And so, it's kind of been effortless in many ways with the Upaj collective, and my own stuff takes years and years to make…It's good to have something that has like instant results…I have been thinking a lot about like giving up control in music, you know, and I think this was a perfect opportunity for us to all in the band just give up control and just go with what was happening.”
Time and time again, flexibility, spontaneity and receptiveness seem to lie at the heart of Sarathy’s state of mind and music. During the process of recording his latest record, he bares that “I said to everyone that I'd like to hear their voices through the music, more than anything else, there was important that I heard them responding to things and if somebody went on a journey, then everyone else has to follow them…there was no musical direction. We all come from heavily improvised musical backgrounds. Whether that’s Indian classical music or jazz. I think we’re all used to knowing one melody in the tune, then just finding our way through the tune. I like keeping it fluid because I find those situations really exciting when there’s no real safety net. People are on their A-game because they have to be listening, they don’t know what’s coming next.”
2020 has been a disruptive but revealing year for many, but particularly for musicians, who have had their performance commitments dashed, so aren’t tied up with continual touring or rushing from one commitment to the next. Outside of economic pressures, it’s led to many musicians having the time and space to reflect on their creative pursuits. “I think for me, it's just a lot of introspection is to understanding how my version of something can sound and look and think sort of differently, you know, to what already exists, because I think I come at it from a very different perspective,” Sarathy tells me. “I've kind of been asking myself fundamental questions about like, what is it that I want music to look like in the future in this kind of future dreamland that I'm trying to envisage? What purpose does music serve in this new society?... And, what are the things that I love about music? And what are the things that I don't love about the music industry as such, you know, all the stuff that surrounds the actual act of music-making.”
Talking to Sarathy, you can’t help but appreciate his optimism and radiant positivity towards the future, “I'm thinking about how we can stay hopeful how we can dream of, you know, futures that are better than the ones we live in right now. And I've been slowly working on a new album of mine, which is sort of going to be set into a future utopia. So, it's kind of this speculative fiction, I hesitate to call it futurist. Because, you know, there's a lot of connotations that come with that, but it's sort of exploring what like a South Asian futurism might look like.”
Stepping back and looking back over his musical output so far, Sarathy lays out that “A lot of my work, so far, with my first album Day to Day and My East is Your West, everything has been looking back a bit. And then also, focussing on contemporary stories. [Recetnly], I’ve been really gripped by this idea, that we, as a society, are incapable of envisioning a future which is drastically different from the one we’re going to inherit. That’s something which is very dangerous. As somebody who isn’t a massive sci-fi nerd, I find the idea of futures and utopias interesting, just in the fact of dreaming as one is, in itself, a success. Forget even trying to realise that. My creative efforts, right now, are all towards envisioning and imagining this creative utopia. Possibly in a world where we don’t even use words like diaspora, or migrant, or things like that at all anymore. Where multiculturalism can be the norm. Maybe we don’t live I this hyper-capitalist world. Even if it sounds unrealistic, that kind of not the point. The point is one is even capable of imagining these worlds. Because what capitalist does, at large, for you, is that it blunts your imagination. It makes you think this is all what we’ve got, let’s make the most of it. That doesn’t let any real change happen.”
Laying down a final thought-provoking message, Sarathy urges us to “think about utopias rather than dystopias at these times – it’s too easy. We’ve just lost the ability to think about other possibilities really. Who gets to decide these things? Who gets to envision a future and doesn’t? Who gets to build these utopias?”
Recorded direct-to-disc at Artone Studio, Haarlem, The Netherlands on Saturday 6th July 2019.
Performed & Produced: Sarathy Korwar & Upaj Collective
Sarathy Korwar - Drums
Tamar Osborn - Saxophone
Achuthan Sripathamanathan - Violin
Giuliano Modarelli – Guitar
Alistair MacSween – Keys
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