Music shouldn’t be afraid

The cover of Nitin Sawhney’s new album, London Undersound, shows a man emerging ghost-like from what looks like an underground tunnel.

This is Antony Gormley’s interpretation of the record’s strongest track, Days of Fire, a first-hand account by the singer Natty of witnessing the July 2005 bombings in London.

He was a few metres away from the number 30 bus when it exploded in Tavistock Square; a few weeks later, he was on the same tube train as Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent passenger, when he was shot dead by police.

Get Sawhney on this subject and he grows angry, the words flowing thick and fast. London has been his adopted home since he dropped out of a law course at Liverpool University. The album is about the capital, he says, ”and what I feel about London, in the wake of 7/7. It’s been a strange rollercoaster since 9/11, in terms of the atmosphere of fear and paranoia.

”Seeing the erosion of civil liberties, cameras on every street corner and what we’re willing to accept. Jean Charles de Menezes — a public execution, which no one was held accountable for.”

This anger comes through in London Undersound, Sawhney’s eighth album in a career that has taken him from 2000’s Mercury Music prize-nominated Beyond Skin to scores for more than 40 films and video games, as well as collaborations with Gormley and the choreographer Akram Khan (2005’s Zero Degrees), and the theatre company Complicite (A Disappearing Number ).

There’s a dub-flavoured track about feeling afraid to travel alone on the tube late at night, a powerful song asserting that ”we’re in this together” — recorded, Sawhney explains, according to ”a ritual” that took him and the singer Imogen Heap to each of the four corners of the city, from east London’s Billingsgate fish market to the western suburb of Southall.

Sawhney says he feels frustrated when he hears people say that music and politics should never mix: ”The bands I admired when I was growing up … challenged authority, whether it was Public Enemy, NWA, the South African jazz scene and John Lennon. Music shouldn’t be afraid.”

One of the people Sawhney approached as a potential collaborator on the album was Paul McCartney; the result is the saccharine ballad My Soul, the lyrics to which — ”I long to know all your secrets/ I want to walk through your fire” — eulogise, some newspapers have suggested, McCartney’s relationship with Heather Mills. Sawhney stops short of confirming this.

”Every day I was reading about Paul and the paparazzi,” he says. ”So I thought: ‘Why don’t I just phone him up and say: do you want to write about how you feel about what’s going on?’

”And he just said, ‘Yeah, that would be wicked.’ So he came over and just hung out at the house.”

Sawhney laughs, as if unable to believe his luck.

Sawhney’s last two albums, 2005’s Philtre and 2003’s Human, felt more personal than political, reflecting on his own family and upbringing. He was born in Rochester, Kent, in 1964; his father, a biochemist, and his mother, an Indian classical dancer, had come to England from the Punjab the year before and Sawhney grew up one of three brothers, the only Asian boys in their comprehensive school. The themes of identity and immigration, war and peace, are rarely far from his music’s heart.

Beyond Skin opens with the Indian prime minister talking about nuclear tests in 1998 and ends with Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the nuclear bomb, quoting from the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita: ”Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It’s Sawhney’s interest in what makes us human that makes him nervous around the labels ”fusion” and ”world music”, both of which he thinks frustrate rather than promote understanding.

”Everything that we are, that we think, that we feel — comes from one,” he says. ”So ‘fusion’ for me is a problem. It’s the idea that we are all separate, and I have always thought of looking for commonality. That’s what I get a kick out of.”

The next few months remain busy for Sawhney. He’s working on scores for four films, among them a Portuguese-language film about De Menezes and One Day on Earth, a documentary about climate change. There’s a mooted collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra; three hours of orchestration for another video game (Sawhney’s last, Heavenly Sword for Sony PlayStation 3, proved a hit); a DJing session for the Singapore Grand Prix; and, last but not least, a European concert tour.

No wonder that Sawhney’s work ethic has seen him described in his website biography as a ”latter-day Renaissance man”. Is this how he sees himself? Sawhney is uncharacteristically lost for words. ”Erm … I just see myself as trying to make music. I like working with lots of different art forms, as well as other musicians. But you know the Renaissance focused on humanism, and actually came from diversity, because of what happened in Florence, with the influx of people with new ideas. It was a re-awakening.

So if somebody thinks I’m part of that way of thinking, that’s a good thing”. —

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