Nitin Sawhney often finds himself uncomfortably placed into this non-descript pigeonhole, a fact that does little justice to the richly diverse music that brought him to the fore in 1999 with the Mercury-nominated Beyond Skin. Returning to the fray with his seventh studio album, Philtre, Sawhney continues to ignore pre-conceived boundaries and accepted musical formulae.
Tonight’s performance showcases new material along with regular nods to the past and is as varied and gloriously hard to categorise as his multifarious career. The unquestionable respect he commands in every area of his work, coupled with his unbelievably prolific output (six film scores in the past twelve months for starters), may leave you wondering if he is an obsessive megalomaniac, but one look at the stage dispels any such notion. Sitting quietly stage left behind a keyboard, he makes his contribution to each track but is happy to sit back and allow his collaborators to shine away.
And shine they do. Soulful vocals from Sharon Duncan combine with some gentle beat-boxing from Taio on new track Flipside before he lends his smooth tones to Sawhney’s adept Hammond organ playing. Asian influences are never far from the surface and these are crystallised wonderfully by the contrasting voices of Davinda Singh and Bollywood star Reena Bhardwaj as they create a sweetly melancholic lullaby over piano and flute.
At times the approach is one of simplicity and minimalism, one song is constructed purely of a male vocal and a single, brooding chord, and at others rich and overflowing with ideas, with four vocalists, Singh, Bhardwaj, and Duncan along with Tina Grace, taking to the stage together at one point as Sawhney swaps keyboard for guitar. Styles and genres merge and combine effortlessly: tense, downtempo jazz is hypnotically interlaced with live, syncopated breakbeats; soul, chillout and traditional Indian music come together on the beautiful Immigrant; Flamenco guitar and Spanish lyrics are juxtaposed with tabla drums and bass guitar funk while the audience are encouraged by Duncan to add their own voices to Homelands. Yet in spite of such diversity, every song forms part of a wide, coherent whole.
This is not an entirely live experience, however, with samples replacing elements such as harmonica or strings but drawing from such a broad musical palette there are not many stages that could accommodate the amount of bodies needed to create such a sound, especially the intimate surroundings of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
The highlight of the night comes when Davinda Singh and Taio return to the stage for the vocal jousting of The Conference accompanied by the interjections and frantic tabla-playing of Aref Durvesh. This is a breathless display of vocal dexterity and rhythm, the movement, energy and all-round technical brilliance of which makes the audience go wild. Following new offering, Eastern Eyes, Sawhney calls all of the performers back to the stage to take a bow and they receive rapturous applause that carries on until he, Singh and Durvesh return to the stage to perform Prophesy. Taking centre stage for the only time of the night, Sawhney’s acoustic guitar playing, Durvesh’s gentle drums and Singh’s Indian skat build into an amazing, frantic crescendo.
Tonight clarifies further that placing Nitin Sawhney’s music in a convenient box is virtually impossible, not to mention detrimental to the many-stranded tapestries of sound he and his talented companions create. Pigeonhole him at your peril…