Within four songs, Sarathy Korwar’s new album More Arriving skips and hops from Mumbai hip-hop to reggae to Punjabi hip-hop to Hindustani classical, via a cheeky reference to James Brown. In one track, a Dharavi hip-hopper grooves to the soul legend’s 1970 album Sex Machine and is heard fawning: “He was no normal man. He was a jallaad.”
These diverse musical influences, resting on a bedrock of jazz, reflect Korwar’s peripatetic life. Born in the United States, Korwar moved to India at age two, lived in Ahmedabad, Chennai and Pune, before shifting to London a decade ago. Like his roots, it is hard to pin down the genre of the July 26 release More Arriving, over which the themes of migration loom large.
“Migration has an influence on artistic exploration,” the 31-year-old said. “It prevents you from being closed off to new sounds. Like I am a percussionist, but because I am also from India, I tapped into our hip-hop scene for this album. I feel the music I make is because of the places I spent time in, without which my music would’ve been something else.”
The personal is political, and the political musical for Korwar. While he was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Korwar became fascinated by the musical traditions of India’s Siddis, the community that descended from the African Bantus who were brought in as slaves between the 17th and 19th century. His debut album Day to Day (2016) amalgamated modal jazz with field recordings of the Siddis of Gujarat’s Ratanpur playing their music that combined Sufi, Rastafarian and Hindustani styles.
But while Day to Day was largely instrumental and sonically meditative, More Arriving is energetic. A host of South Asian voices appear on the album, each delivering Korwar’s bold lyrics. “Between the two albums, I became more comfortable talking of my politics,” Korwar said. “With the first album, I was a bit hesitant about my political voice, but this time, I wanted my thoughts to be naked to examination.”
His thoughts on migration can be heard on many tracks, including Coolie, the third song in More Arriving. Featuring Taru Dalmia aka Delhi Sultanate and rapper Prabh Deep, Coolie recounts how the British transported thousands of Indians to Jamaica for labour, after the black locals could not be legally enslaved.
The song connects the introduction of marijuana in Jamaica by Indian labourers (“Babylon tek coolie man and trap them in a black ships... They carry packets of sensi seeds to keep their spirits uplift”) and “how drug trade formed the basis of Western democracy,” Korwar said. Oppression returns in cycles, as does the hook’s key line: “And them still pressure the farmer man.”
Delhi Sultanate explained the contemporary relevance of the lyrics: “There’s a convenient and hypocritical short-term memory loss and long-term amnesia when it comes to how Europe looks at migration. For centuries, European colonial powers engaged in social engineering and landscaping, transporting or annihilating entire peoples and subjugating them.”
Korwar continued, “We need to look at migration as something that has always been a way of life. For Europe to think it’s a new phenomenon is crazy. I named my album More Arriving, taking a dig at the phrase’s negative connotations associated with fears that immigrants will take our homes and steal our jobs. The title means to say that, yes, more people will be come in, and [you] have to deal with it.”
The experience of the immigrant in Europe is central to the lyrics and video of Bol, featuring poet Zia Ahmed and singer Aditya Prakash. Ahmed’s poem recalls the stereotypes South Asians have to contend with: “I’m auditioning for the role of terrorist one / Yeah I can do that in an Arabic accent.” His deadpan recitation is in sharp contrast to the rousing chorus, featuring Prakash, who sings from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Bol Ke Lab Azad Tere.
The nine-and-a-half minute song builds up to a high-voltage crescendo, where the saxophones and the drumming, in Korwar’s words, “completely lose it”. If you could headbang to jazz, this would be it.
“I wanted a song where the chorus is opposite to the verses musically,” Korwar said. “So the verses are ideas put on you. But if I let the verses be, the song would be about playing the victim. Therefore, the chorus is about freedom of speech and reclaiming your identity.”
The video by David Higgs follows Zia Ahmed walking around London in a suit and a bowler hat, with a teacup in hand. He wants to fit in, but is unable to escape stereotypes. The video ends with a hectic montage wherein Zia feels persecuted by everyone for his otherness.
Tension and release form the fulcrum of jazz, Korwar explained, and that’s how More Arriving is structured. The album’s first half features heavy percussion busy with ferocity, but the second half evokes the sombreness of Day to Day. The track City of Words, for instance, has expansive but light-on-the-ears percussion. Its beginning has a four-and-a-half minute saxophone section by Chris Williams. The sax strains resemble indecipherable words, “like, say, how the sitar replicates the gayaki of the accompanying singer,” Korwar said. Mirande Shah’s alaap similarly reproduces the tunes played by Williams.
Then there’s Good Ol’ Vilayati, featuring tabla sounds laid over a drone of synths performed by Danalogue the Conquerer of the band The Comet Is Coming. Against the beautiful vocals of Mirande Shah, the heavy synths provide an ominous undercurrent.
The track Mumbay is a great example of the “tension and release” that Korwar talks about. Rapped by MC Mawali of the multi-lingual hip-hop crew Swadesi, the song features frenetic polyrhythmic drumming by Korwar and the multi-instrumentalist Magnus Mehta. The song begins lightly, reaches a violent climax, and then drops to a low-key coda with only Mawali’s rap over percussion.
“It’s a way to return to the song’s original form – just vocals and drumming, the most primal form of music,” Korwar said. “The song began as an idea to interlock two different drumming patterns, over which an emcee could rap.”
Korwar’s critically well-received first album, a collaborative live album that was awarded Contemporary Album of the Month by The Guardian, and now a more accessible second album, makes him an artist to look out for. But how does one keep their sound constantly fresh in an extremely busy jazz fusion scene that has no shortage of talent?
“You need to not think of yourself as a jazz fusion musician specifically,” Korwar said. “Labels are a trap. I get written about as a leading figure in world music, but if I start thinking I have to make something called world music, that will be terrible. I simply make music that I like or based on what I like, which is some form of improvisation.”