Sarathy Korwar – Day to Day Interview

Cultural appropriation is at the forefront of Sarathy Korwar’s mind when we sit down to talk about his sublime debut LP Day to Day. There’s the cultural appropriation on the record itself – an exquisitely crafted mix of influences – and there’s the wider portrayal of his Indian homeland in western music and the impact that has on the perception of him, his countrymen, and the music made in his country.

There are good and bad sides to cultural appropriation. To say that the record itself is an example of the good is an understatement; it’s much better than that. Day to Day is a masterclass in creating organised chaos, where a huge range of disparate sounds and influences are brought together not for the sake of originality, but for the creation of something new and joyous. It takes the processes of jazz and moulds them around the influences of a boy growing up listening to mixtapes of 90s pop and his parents’ Indian classical singing; all over a base of sampling the music of the Siddis – a somewhat marginalised African-descended ethnic group in India and Pakistan. The record treats its influences with care and respect, and it’s one of the best, most diverse and original things you’ll hear this year.

It’s released through Ninja Tune – not the first place you’d look in search for an ethnically diverse jazz record – but the label does have form in releasing different, interesting music, and Day to Day sits quite snuggly alongside the likes of The Dragons’ excellent BFI in the ‘Ninja Tune? Really?’ section of their catalogue.

“I think they [Ninja Tune] are willing to take chances,” explains Korwar when we meet, “and jazz seems to be on the comeback very much. Look at Kamasi Washington and his success, Kendrick Lamar’s jazz, David Bowie’s jazz, and Brainfeeder with ThunderCat.”

The Steve Reid Foundation

It also helps that he has the support of the Steve Reid Foundation, the charity set up by Gilles Peterson in memory of the late jazz drummer that both supports musicians struggling with their health and new musicians emerging, offering them financial support and mentorship.

For Korwar that meant he could rely on the support of Peterson himself, alongside Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and Nick Woodmansey (Emanative), all of whom have had a hand in the record making its way to our ears: from Peterson’s radio show, to Emanative producing the record, to Hebden being largely responsible for it making it to the top of the hundreds of demos received at Ninja Tune on a daily basis.

“I sent the record to about two hundred people and Alex Stevenson who works for Ninja Tune got back and said that he really liked it. Kieran sent the record on to Alex around the same time that I sent it to him as well. So he was bombarded with it from different directions. Obviously I think that the fact that Four Tet sent it to him had more impact than the fact that I sent my own record – I bet he gets about a hundred records per day.”

It’s a closer circle than that, Stevenson used to be Peterson’s radio producer and has worked with him at his Brownswood label. But despite the profile of its supporters, Day to Day is all Sarathy Korwar. The record came fully wrapped to Ninja Tune, and was mostly done when the Steve Reid Foundation’s first bursaries were handed out (alongside Korwar, awardees were Moses Boyd, Wu-Lu, Hector Plimmer, and Lady Vendredi).

“About 80% of it was recorded last January 2015 in a studio in Pune, which is where I’m from in India. I went to the town and the village where these [Siddi] folk musicians were from and spent time with them sampling them. After I had spent some time with them I went into a studio with them and some people I wanted on the record and we spent five days in the studio just playing around these samples.

“My basic direction was that we needed to be inspired by the melodies that these guys made and that the music inspires. The direction would come from me in terms of arrangements, but essentially it is an entirely improvised record.”

Which seems remarkable when you’re listening to it. Day to Day sounds like an incredibly well-structure record. It sounds meticulous in its creation rather than a largely improvised piece of work. Organised chaos in an accurate description of how the record sounds, as its complementary parts come together seamlessly.

“It could have just been a lot of chaos. It was in my mind and everyone in the room was someone I trusted musically, and we were kind of coming off each other. I think we developed structures on our own. We were playing through each other’s strengths, and almost everyone who’s on the record has a little bit of background in classical music, which is just something I wanted.

“A lot of what I do comes from tradition so I didn’t want to have to explain that tradition to people as much as I wanted people who knew the tradition to be here with me.”

The Coldplay Problem

That brings us to the bad side of cultural appropriation. Utilising the imagery of “exotic” cultures has been a part of western music as long as music has had a visual element, but with the world becoming a smaller place, and a western music industry becoming part of an increasingly global one, it’s increasingly easy to call bullshit on it. Coldplay prancing around in the Hymn for the Weekend video, propagating a vision of India that doesn’t sit comfortably with artists who are now part of the same music industry, rather than half a world away.

“It is kind of offensive,” says Korwar in reference to the Coldplay video. “If you talk about each specific music video or reference it might not be in itself offensive, but go to India and you’ll see how much of the country actually has a palace or a woman in a saree or bindi or an elephant or a tiger.

“I didn’t grow up along the banks of a river and I didn’t learn to levitate when I was five years old. It would be nice to get recognition for my reality or the reality of anyone in India. It just comes down to the fact that everyone’s reality is very complex and whether you’re bothered enough to put in the time to understand and actually care about where someone is from and who they are rather than just do a video like that.”

It comes across as a struggle between the old and the new. Misappropriating culture and butchering it into something that misrepresents what they’re clumsily trying to celebrate isn’t a new thing in pop music, but as our cultures and worlds get ever closer, popstars should probably be a bit less lazy in how they’re representing people to the wider world.

“I think it’s damaging for people like me if you’re trying to put out records that are pretty jazzy, classical folk inspired. I don’t know how someone is supposed to see a Coldplay video and then listen to my record and make sense of it all.

“If they know that I am an Indian who makes music, they need to know that there are all kinds of music, and that every Indian isn’t making Bollywood music. Not all Indians grow up listening to Bollywood – you do as much as anyone grows up here listens to Eurovision or something like that – that’s not the only reality you know.”

That’s the challenge for Korwar – an Indian making music who doesn’t want to be defined as an Indian musician to be pigeonholed, but yet shows clear pride in his homeland and wants to help bring music created by Indians to a larger audience. Day to Day is Indian music in the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is American music or Rhianna’s Anti- is Barbadian music. It’s absurd to define music by the nationality of its creator. People need to see that great music is coming out of India, but it doesn’t need to be defined and pigeonholed.

Day to Day

If you must put it in a box, you should put Day to Day on the wave of innovative, interesting music that’s seemingly unrelenting at the moment. Korwar isn’t Kendrick Lamar or Kamasi Washington, he is undeniably his own person, and Day to Day is an extremely individual record. It is created by a man based around his own particular interest in heritage and lesser-heard music.

The Siddis came from Africa to India from the seventh century and throughout history as slaves or sailors or merchants. Now it is a blanket term for anyone whose ancestors immigrated from Africa over the centuries.

“It’s a very interesting and complicated history that I don’t fully understand myself and I think it’s something that needs to be researched. It’s not as if the Siddis are from any particular place in Africa, they’re basically a congregation of people whose heritage and ancestry traces back to Africa from Ethiopia down to South Africa.

“The whole thing about the slave trade from Africa to the West has been well documented. People know a lot about it – about its history around Brazilian music, about jazz blues. It’s something that’s well established in the public understanding of what happened.

“The Eastern slave trade is not really talked about and I didn’t really know about it. It makes perfect sense for slaves to go to all the colonies just like they did in the West Indies and they went from East Africa to India. ‘Siddi’ now is just the term that is specific to India and Pakistan but there are African descendants around the World in Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore and Bangladesh and they all go by different terms.”

That interest in the Siddi was one of the catalysts for the record. After a childhood of playing Tabla, Korwar started playing drums at 16, and moved to London at 22. A couple of disappointing years at music school were followed by a masters degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Studying Indian classical music, whilst adapting the vocabulary of the tabla to other percussion instruments allowed him to start developing his own sound.

“I’ve always been fascinated by and had a keen eye for drummers who are more than just drummers. Drummers as band leaders was something I was always drawn to, people like Art Blakey and Chris Dave. Then I chanced upon a record by Jaimeo Brown called Transcendence from 2013 and it blew me away. It was a great record that was basically based on the community of gospel singers in Alabama. It was samples of that and this free jazz record underneath and I was like ‘this is it man, this is amazing’ and ‘if he can do this I can do my own record.’

“He did that and I was blown away by it. I thought I must do something with Indian music because that’s what I know. I’m close to Indian folk music and I want to try and make a record around it. That was the first lightbulb moment where I thought it was possible.

“I was playing with a lot of people in London but also I wasn’t really in a project that I was passionate about. I just wanted to be able to do my own thing and so I just went for it. It all happened in about three or four months.

“And then I heard about the Siddis and thought ‘these guys are amazing.’ I put two and two together and decided I need to go meet these guys.”

Which was where Day to Day came from. It is the product of one man’s drive to do something new, different, and interesting. It seems to be the start of a journey for Korwar rather than the result of one. He has a passion to delve deeper into the Siddi’s music and culture. In his own words, he wants to find out, “what so called ‘Indian music’ is.”

“I want to dig deeper. I want to find out more and think about it in a more anthropological sense because that gives me inspiration.”

And if Day to Day is the result of one lightbulb moment of inspiration, we need to sit up and take notice of the next one as well.

Day to Day by Sarathy Korwar is out through Ninja Tune on 8 July.

He plays Total Refreshment Centre in London on 14 July. Buy tickets here

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