Interview: Sarathy Korwar – A “Modern English-Indian” Artist (December 2019)

Albums like More Arriving are windows into the present. Their perspective on the here and now is so spot on and accurate that they sound like the best portrayal of the days we currently live in. After having listened to them, you feel the compulsion to delve further into their authors’ inspiration and their ways of thinking, writing, playing and listening to music. So much so that, you end up picking up the phone to reach those musicians.

More Arriving was indeed our pretext to get in touch with Sarathy Korwar, a gifted and broad-minded US-born, Indian-raised and London-based singer/songwriter, composer, drummer and percussionist, who has arguably grown into one of the most clear-headed music narrators of our present days.

Despite the fact that Sarathy started writing it back in 2017, More Arriving turned out to be a cross-section of 2019, setting the year in music and putting, in a nutshell, some of its most critical issues, like immigration, multiculturalism and acceptance.

In our interview, we wanted to retrace Sarathy Korwar’s relationship with music and understand the inception of his latest album.

I started playing tabla when I was 8 and went on playing it until I was 16 or 17, without really thinking about it as a serious hobby. Like, it was just one of those things you do as a child. I used to play tennis, I used to play tabla and I used to do other things. It wasn’t something I was serious about. However, by the time I was 17, I could already play to a certain level. I was very lucky that I had continued to play throughout my childhood, because that meant that, as soon as it became obvious to me that I had an interest in music, it was really useful that I could already play an instrument.

Tabla might have been his first “music” love, but suddenly Sarathy’s time and dedication became divided…

Then, when I was about 15, I started playing the drum kit. That’s what I really wanted to do at that time. I didn’t really want to be a tabla player. I wasn’t interested in classical music or Indian music. Although I had listened to a lot of Indian classical music at home, because both my parents sing and they’re very interested in it, I wanted to stay away from it, because that was my parents’ music, and I wanted to do something else. So, at that time, I was listening to a lot of the 60’s rock ‘n’ roll, like The Doors and The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. From there on, my interest in jazz started too. I started getting really interested in a lot of those drummers, people like John Densmore of The Doors or Mitch Mitchell in the Hendrix Experience. I realised that they had a lot of jazz training, and I really liked their sort of punk attitude, before punk was punk. So, I started listening to a lot of jazz around the age of 15 or 16, and I got really excited by what I was hearing. From then, all I wanted to do was to learn how to play jazz.

Until then, Sarathy was basically an autodidact. His listenings helped him to forge his sound, but everything changed when he moved to Pune. He started taking instrument lessons, and his perspective on music shifted.

At that time, I wasn’t really playing in any bands. I was just playing by myself. I didn’t really have a teacher until I was 18. So, I was sort of trying to figure out sounds on the drum kit, not really knowing what I was doing.

Then, when I was 18, I moved to Pune. I had been in Chennai all this time. There I met my first drum teacher, and I started taking lessons. I also met a very significant tabla teacher. He really inspired me to play the tabla seriously. From then on, I started playing both instruments, but still never really thought about combining them or about combining the genres of music. I was just wanting to play the drum kit and tabla separately.

Up until the age of about, I would say, 22 or 23, I wanted to be the best drummer I could possibly be and also the best tabla player I could be, but separate, almost like two different identities. I didn’t want to be that guy who plays a bit of tabla and a bit of drum kit. I wanted to be a really good drummer, and it was fine if people didn’t know I played tabla. And equally, the same on the other side. I didn’t want to be known as… Oh, he’s an okay tabla player, but that’s because he plays the drum kit as well. I wanted to be known for both things, like I wanted to be good at both things.  

By that age, I had kind of spent a good few years studying both different genres of music and also playing in a lot of bands. It felt just very natural to start combining whatever I’d learned with whatever I was feeling, and since then, it’s been about just finding ways to combine all those influences and kind of creating my own sound.

His move to London did the rest. The British capital, which is also Sarathy Korwar’s current address, offered him a music playground where he was able to define himself as the artist he is today.

Basically, London was the place where I grew up. I spent all my 20s in London. So, going to gigs, getting to know more people from all over the world, spending time learning different things, from the cajon with some flamenco masters to Latin percussion, and from Afro-Brazilian to Afro-Cuban music… I did so much, because I was in London. That formed the way I play, and yes, I wouldn’t be making the kind of music I’m making if I wasn’t living in London.

London has rapidly turned into his chosen residency. Today, Sarathy is intrinsically part of the stimulating jazz scene (re)born in the city, while still preserving his Indian background. So much so that, he has collaborated with dozens of distant projects, from alt-jazz favourites like Shabaka Hutchings and Moses Boyd to more eclectic musicians like Kefaya and Danalogue.

I feel more and more integrated now; part of the scene. When I first came, I was just an observer; I was a student. Whereas now, I feel more and more comfortable, not just with the scene, but with the city itself. I mean, socially as well, I feel more comfortable with who I am, where I am and who I am in the scene. For me personally, it’s just getting better and better. I’m feeling like I’m more confident in my own experience and with my own voice. In my view, the scene is getting more exciting, because I’m more involved with it.

I feel like this whole UK jazz explosion has been really good for me and good for the scene, because it’s made a lot of young kids from predominantly minority backgrounds play music to people who look like them. There are all those young people who are seeing people who look like them on stage, and they feel represented on stage. While, when I first moved to London, it wasn’t such a big thing. Now, I feel like, in a way, it’s a lot more democratised. You can go to clubs and spend less money to see gigs. You spend between five to twelve pounds, and you can enjoy a good gig in London every week. So, yeah, I feel it’s a good place to be. Obviously, it can be better. But you know… in how many cities in the world can you go out and see really, really good stuff for five pounds?

As mentioned, collaboration has become key for Sarathy’s artistry. His experiences have molded his songwriting and, at the same time, we are pretty sure that he has also directly influenced many of the people he worked with.

I don’t know if I can think of anyone in particular who had a massive influence on me, but I think all of these guys gave something to me. Definitely, the Kefaya guys. When I found them, when I first got to know them, that was because of their interest in Indian music. I thought, I’ve finally found somebody who has the same love for Indian music, but also trying to do different stuff with it, and we would just hang out and play together and jam and practice together, and we should do that. It was really good. It’s always really good to find like-minded people.

But also, people like Tamar Osborn and all the people coming from the jazz scene; people who are really warm and amazing to talk with. Then, Nick Woodmansey has been another big influence on me. He started off as my mentor for the first album that I made in 2016. He mixed the album and helped me to produce it, and then, to this day, is still a really good person; someone I can call at any time to ask his opinion. He’s always been there for me, so that’s been amazing.

Recently, I’ve also met people like Zia Ahmed as well, who’s a spoken-word poet and participated in my last album. I think the longer I stay here in London and the longer I write and play music, the more people I’ll meet. I’m really excited about the people who I’m collaborating with, but I always like to meet new people at the same time.

Talking about inspiration, another important source for Sarathy has always been his music listening. This is still true today, but next to sounds, he has also added to the list reading and screening. That’s how his next project, a visionary Indo-Futurist album, is taking shape.

Right now, on my Spotify, the album in heavy rotation is Sampa The Great’s one. I love it; I think it’s really, really good. I’ve been listening to that, but I tend to listen to a lot of new music. I’m used to checking the “Discover Weekly” section on Spotify, because I compile monthly mixes for lots of radio stations, so of course I listen to a lot of new music, but then I equally need to remind myself to go back to listening to albums that I like, because often it just becomes a job to listen to new music.

So, Sampa the Great’s album is something that I went back to listening to more than once, just to listen to all the songs on it, all the grooves. Then, her voice, which is amazing. I mean, everything about it, visually as well. I think it’s one of my favourite albums this year.

While thinking about the future, I’m looking forward to exploring a bit more science fiction. I’m thinking about doing an album, well I’m going to do an album based in a different reality, like a Futurist album in an Indian kind of way. I don’t know any musicians who have done that before. There are a lot of works in the visual arts and other creative and performing arts. There’s also some things in literature, like some short stories, but I don’t think there’s that much in music. So, anyway, it’s something that I’ve been excited to kind of explore next, and I think my next album will be based on something like that. Even if I’m going to take something from people like Sun Ra, it will be based in the future and will be totally different. Right now, I’m in research mode. I’m listening, reading and gathering information.

Leaving past and future aside for a moment, the present of Sarathy Korwar is even more exciting. More Arriving, his second album, was released just three months ago and has already become an essential album of 2019.

I’m really happy about the album. I think it touched people. I got a lot of messages from people I don’t know saying that they’re really grateful to have somebody saying those things. They felt some solidarity because of the shared experience. That’s what More Arriving is about, really. I go to my gigs, and there are a lot more South Asian people attending them, and I feel really happy about that. All in all, it’s been very positive, but for me it’s always about, how do I make this better?  

At the moment, I’m more focused on how to deliver a good live show, because we’re touring the album, and it’s a lot harder to deliver it live. I mean, how do we take the message of the album and deliver it in a live environment? So, if people come to the show and don’t know who I am or haven’t listened to the album, how do we make sure that they understand what the album is about and what I’m trying to say? It’s interesting. I mean, I love playing live. My favourite thing to do is playing this album live, and it’s much more fun than recording it in the studio. It took a long time to put it out, two and a half years, so now suddenly playing it with a five-piece band makes it sound different, but good different. At the moment, we’re trying to figure out how to perform it gig by gig, seeing what works and what doesn’t work out, and I always want to make it better.

It goes without saying, that a pivotal player in the release of the album was the label. Sarathy has just started working with the Leaf Label, but hearing his words about the synergy created between them, that was meant to be.

As soon as we, the manager Henry and I, approached the label about the record, they were really keen to do it. At the time, when we first contacted them, the record was only about the songs. There was no artwork. It was about the message. Still, they were really excited to do it. They even wanted to meet some of the rappers I collaborated with in India. They did it on their own, because they were interested in the scene. I was like, look, I’ve found a label who are so excited by something and want to invest in me, and that felt great. They also gave me a lot of creative freedom. They let me choose the person who would make the artwork and the person who would write the press release. That’s because it was important to me to work with the right person who would understand what this album is and project it for the rest of the world.

They were amazing in that sense. I think, for them, it’s easier if the artist has a vision. It’s like, he knows what he wants, and we just need to let him do it. Because often, in my experience, labels try to impose their opinion on the way they think that the album will sell best.

I always loved Leaf Label, because they put out so many weird and random things. I like everything about their catalogue, but you wouldn’t necessarily think that those albums should be on the same label. On the contrary, that’s the strength that they have. They listen to the music; they think it’s unique, and they put it out. I was a fan of the label even before I started working with them, because they put out some really good stuff. For example, I was already listening to Polar Bear, Comet Is Coming, Efterklang.

“Selling” More Arriving to the Leaf Label was pretty straightforward for Sarathy. But that’s because the strong points of the album are unmistakable and momentous.

When I approached them, I said that this is an album that showcases multiple South Asian voices. It’s very much about me being who I am living in UK. It’s about voices from India, but also voices from London, voices from beyond and all the South Asian “brown voices”. In one line, the album is about different experiences of being South Asian. That was the main thing. I was trying to say to them that the point of this album is to show the world, show people that there is no one way to be South Asian, and I think that’s what is missing in the narrative in the UK right now. We’re all grouped into the same category; you know, we are all South Asian. But no, there’s a big difference between being a first-generation immigrant like me to being maybe a fourth-generation immigrant who grew up in Bradford. We’re very, very different people, and maybe we’ve got very little in common. While, to many people, it’s all about being South Asian. We’re all South Asian for them, so we must listen to the same music, for example. It’s about that thing, that prejudice that I wanted to fight.

Then, everything else kind of followed, everything else about migration and the theme about “more arriving”. They’re all linked, they’re all connected, they all kind of came together.

Despite being written through South Asian lenses and reflecting the multi-faceted meaning of being South Asian, More Arriving gives life to a shared experience among its listeners, portraying themes like immigration, acceptance and re-settling in a new country.

The point about this album is to tell a story. Like any good book and good film, if you tell a good story, people from other backgrounds will connect to it. They can empathise with it, even though it’s not exactly their story. There’s enough shared common ground. So, yes, the point about this album is to show one story. I think if I had made an album that said, this is what it’s like to be all kind of immigrants, that would have been wrong. You can’t do that. To send a message, you need to be specific to reach people. It has to be specific to me, and if I can tell my own story well, then people will connect to it. Maybe East European immigrants to the UK or North Africans, anybody can see that basically it’s the same experience that they went through. So, there’s a shared solidarity, like a shared common ground between a lot of minorities. This is what a lot of us experienced.

As evidence of its quality, More Arriving has been well received and appreciated in India too. Playing it live there is the next challenge for Sarathy…

The album is doing well in India as well. We have the music video for “Bol” on TV channels like MTV, and it’s doing really well. Right now, I’m really excited, because we’re going to tour in India in a few days’ time, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how people receive the live show as well. Until now, we’ve had some really good press, like all the major publications are getting serious about the album, so now I’m really looking forward to playing it live there.

The difference between India and the UK would be like, here in the UK, the Indian hip-hop stuff with its very slickly-produced beats is interesting for people, while in India, the UK jazz element is interesting, because they already know Indian hip-hop. So, I’m really thrilled to take my London-based friends in the band there to show the audience how British and London jazz can sound. That punk-jazz attitude with loud sounds. I don’t think a lot of people know how hip-hop could sound with a live band, because that’s coming from a more jazz-related perspective. So, yes it will be interesting.

That’s my next project for the future. Then, I’m going to put out an EP maybe early next year with some tunes from More Arriving that didn’t make the album. But nothing’s been confirmed to be honest. And hopefully, in 2021, my new Futurist project.

With so much already on our plate, it was time to bring our conversation with Sarathy to a close, giving him chance to introduce all the flavours of his music in a few words.

My music is about jazz with Indian influences, but it’s all really loud and punk and could be played in clubs with standing-up audiences. For me, it’s very modern English-Indian music in some ways.

Photo ©: Rishabah Sood