Interview: Sarathy Korwar – Dancing With Defiance (March 2023)

Sarathy Korwar’s album KALAK, released in November 2022 via The Leaf Label, is a cohesive collection of rhythm-driven soundscapes that set in motion travel towards a past-informed, as-yet unformed future. Cyclical beats and hypnotic melodies lay solid ground for transcendence by trance. Song titles tell us The Past is Not Only Behind Us, But Ahead of Us; and that Kal Means Yesterday and Tomorrow.

KALAK is Sarathy’s South Asian Futurist manifesto. The London-based drummer and music creator dug deep during covid lockdowns to clarify his vision and the conceptual symbol at its heart – so there’s plenty to mine in our conversation ahead of his KALAK festival coming up at the Roundhouse on Friday, 10th of March.

To ease in gently, we begin with memories of a happier time: recording the album at Real World studios.

A lot of the music I make comes from the idea of structured improvisation. With any improvisation it’s quite interesting, even if talking about free improv, to highlight the limitations that exist in a scenario.

At Real World, the five of us had met for the first time in six months, and it was the first time we were all in a room together playing music. It was August 2020 and the first time we were allowed out [following the first lockdown] so there was an air of positivity.

We felt really blessed to be sharing that space. I thought what would work in that situation would be to make ourselves aware of that very feeling. In that sense all the jams were structured around these feelings. Whatever I’d been telling people about kalak, the rhythmic symbols and how they work, the musical language around the album – that it’s based in hypnotic transcendental music, and folk music, and the idea of surrendering oneself to something larger.

I make sure I tell everyone all the stuff I’m going through at the time of recording because I think that structures the improvisation more than any sort of musical language I’m asking people to play. It’s the kind of ideals I’d like to see on display in the music.

Real World was incredible. It was my first time and, again, I can’t help but feel very blessed by it. To be in this interesting natural landscape – the architecture allows for a lot of movement between the inside and outside world. It was perfect for us to be in that space, understanding the legacy and history of people who had recorded there before.

I’m a huge fan of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn and Sheila Chandra recordings. So many amazing albums have been recorded there. So I felt like we were going to do something special. It did give us the confidence to play in a way.

Pre-pandemic, Sarathy produced More Arriving, a ‘pluralistic missive’ with multicultural voices front and centre. The album confronted divisive political rhetoric head-on with spoken word spitting a message of brown pride.

KALAK, conversely, focuses on rhythm to convey meaning. Why did Sarathy decide to use rhythmic soundscapes to tell his story this time?

More Arriving was a timely record – made right after the Brexit referendum, as a South Asian first-generation immigrant in London, and very much a statement ‘angry record’. When I had time to reflect I wondered, what comes after it? Do I make another angry record? What am I feeling now?

For me it was important to try to define a South Asian narrative by myself, to start talking about the things I wanted to talk about rather than being angry and accusatory about how others portray me. Making KALAK was empowering because I got to imagine a world that I would like to live in. The idea of futurism – Afrofuturist work and Italian futurism – has always been interesting to me. It resonated because it gave me the freedom to conceive ideas that don’t necessarily sound very “realistic” in an everyday scenario.

I was thinking, what do the ideas of the future mean through a South Asian lens? And also from my own lens, because I’m more than just South Asian. What struck a chord were these ideas of rhythm, found all over the world, that work in circularity. The way I envision rhythm has always been circular, but I’ve never seen it represented that way. I was thinking a lot about the idea of breaking linearity, whether that’s a drum sequence or the way we think about the past, present and future.

Many cultures talk about time, rhythms, music and values as circular ideas, where the past, present and future could be interacting with each other at one time. Whether ancestors and descendants, or music – its inter-generational legacy, and also how things loop: hypnotic rhythms, ideas of repetition.

I was welcoming these ideas, thinking ‘I just need to write these things down and figure out what it all means later’. Over the course of 2021 I put it all together by writing rhythms as circular rhythmic patterns. I realised over time that these rhythms actually tell me a lot about the kind of world I’d like to live in. The symbol stands for a lot more than just the obvious rhythmic structure that it’s driving. It became far more central to the album, as did the word ‘kalak’.

I think circles tell you a lot. You can read deeply into it. Shabaka Hutchings told me that hieroglyphics often tell you things that the spoken word can’t. Words can’t always articulate complex ideas in the way that symbols or art can. That stuck with me, and I thought possibly this symbol tells you a lot more than any written word can.

Following More Arriving, Sarathy expressed a desire to move away from talking purely about race and heritage. Yet on KALAK we find references to colonialism and a musical sense of defiance. Is the record political, or is the political simply something that will always feed organically into his work?

I’m not trying to make an apolitical record in any sense – I believe, like most people do, that all music is political. There are lots of nods on Kalak towards how I see politics unfurling and the kinds of things I’d like to call attention to. I’ve always found track titles to be a very useful tool for an instrumentalist like me to draw attention to particular themes and ideas. For example, Utopia is a Colonial Project; or Back in the Day, Things Were Not Always Simpler. They’re a reflection of how I feel, at this point.

But I didn’t want to fall into the trap of making an even angrier record, because I don’t know if that was helping myself or the conversation in any way.

KALAK became a response, in a way, to More Arriving. It also became about an idea of positivity as a sign of resistance. It was bleak times during the pandemic and with everything happening politically. I thought the way to be resistant is to try to be positive.

The whole world is trying to make you not defiant. Any dance music is defiant, because the whole point of the way the world works is that they’re trying to make you not dance!

Sarathy conceptualised the album during the lockdown periods of quiet and isolation. He considers how the time influenced his creative process and his relationship with his hometown.

This album has taken a lot more thought and introspection because I had the time to give it that. It felt like an important exercise for me to be doing at the time: to ask, what is it that you want to make, what are you feeling, what kind of thing do you want to put out into the world? I’m glad to have had that time to make this piece. I don’t think it would have happened if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

I also wouldn’t be making this kind of music if I didn’t live where I live. I’ve always felt like London is the home for me because of the people I know and the music I’ve been influenced by. I find London to be a comfort, despite everything.

I was once asked ‘Why did you choose to go to one of the hardest cities, where you didn’t know anyone doing the kind of thing you did?’ I couldn’t answer. I think it was  stubbornness, I obviously had a point to prove to myself or the people around me. I didn’t think of it actively as a challenge, but when it was brought to my attention I thought, perhaps so.

I think you have to be stubborn and deluded, at some level, to be an artist in London. Especially if you’re young and trying to make it. I’m not saying that’s not something to aspire to, but I think you have to have this air of defiant positivity to the point where it might be insane to think it’s actually going to work. The odds are so against you, it’s a miracle that anyone’s actually doing it.

Sarathy is gearing up for a run of London shows before heading off to play live further afield. He tells us what to expect and what he hopes the audience will take from the experience.

I was approached to curate a festival of South Asian futurism at the Roundhouse which is very exciting. It’s part of their festival season ‘Futures’, running through March and April.

On 10th March I’m doing an informal talk and some playing with a fantastic magazine Skin Deep, who write about race and culture. They’re good friends of mine and I’m very happy to talk to them in depth about KALAK. It’ll be a very special evening.

On Saturday, 11 March, we have Kapil Seshasayee and Petit Oiseau, incredible musicians from Glasgow, Birmingham and Coventry; and, on Sunday, 12 March, a spoken word night hosted by Zia Ahmed. The music and art featured are all South Asian futurism-inspired, it’s all really interesting.

Then I’m playing at Village Underground as part of Brick Lane Jazz Festival on 16 April. I’ve got a big band for it, it’s going to be a really fun live experience.

We’ll be touring KALAK in spring and onwards into summer. Because it comes from such an improvised space, it really becomes its own thing in a live context. The more we play it, the more real it becomes – the more it takes on an identity of its own.

I want the audience to feel like it’s a communal experience, like they’re part of the show. I want them to feel like we’re making something serious, without the air of it being ostentatious. There has to be some levity to it. I say ‘serious’ because what we’re doing is important – not in the sense of it being strict or that you can’t have fun.

More than that, I just want to have a good time with the band on stage. I think that always translates across into the audience. We don’t try to play the songs as they are on the album, we really try to make them their own thing. Let’s be honest, no one comes to gigs like mine to hear a particular song, it’s more about experiencing what the artist can do on the day with the band.

We also have some dates in Europe. Then I start work on the next thing!

It’s been recorded already as we got some funding to go to Real World again. I took three other drummers with me, so it’s two kit drummers, percussion and synthesisers triggered by drums. It comes from a very percussive, drum-heavy space. It’ll be an extension of KALAK in many ways: the same kind of ideas of rhythm, cyclicality and trance music. It’s still forming fully in my head!

Sarathy’s embedded in a thriving experimental post-jazz scene in London. Before he leaves we ask him to recommend some of his favourite recent listens, from friends or further afield.

I’m really looking forward to the new James Holden record. The new Seb Rochford record with Kit Downes (A Short Diary) is beautiful. There’s a new record (Thick as Thieves) by some friends of mine, Let Spin – a London-based post-jazz collective – which is very interesting. Nwando Ebizie’s record from last year is beautiful as well.

You can listen to and get your copy of KALAK on his Bandcamp

While, to attend Sarathy Korwar's upcoming show at the Roundhouse (Friday 10/03) you can purchase your ticket/s HERE
Finally, for a deeper understanding of Sarathy's artistry & background, you can check out his recent appearance on Tom Ravenscroft's Peel Acres on BBC Sounds


Photo ©: Fabrice Bourgelle