Nitin Sawhney has packed more into his career than most people have. A true multi-instrumentalist, he’s been part of The James Taylor Quartet and Talvin Singh‘s side-project the Tihai Trio, as well as curating countless festivals and soundtracking an extraordinary number of films and TV shows. He even found time to help to create the comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me with Sanjeev Bhaskar. If there really was a prize for hardest working man in showbusiness, Sawhney would be odds-on favourite.
Immigrants is Sawhney’s 11th studio album and arrives a full six years after his last, Dystopian Dream. What will pique the interest of many is the fact that it’s billed as the “official sequel” to Beyond Skin, his groundbreaking and Mercury nominated album from 1998.
Anyone who loved that record will immediately fall for Immigrants. It’s structured as a proper ‘concept’ album, designed to celebrate immigrants across the world. The songs are threaded together by several ‘interludes’ where we hear snatches of spoken words, whether it be old news clips about the Windrush arrivals, or more dishearteningly, the chants of Trump supporters insisting that he “build that wall”.
Between these little interludes are a number of songs that show Sawhney collaborating with a number of artists who identify as immigrants. So the sumptuous Exile showcases the vocals of former Transglobal Underground singer Natacha Atlas backed by the Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai, while the infectiously catchy Lifeline features a blistering rap from Canadian hip-hop musician Hussain Yoosuf, better known as the former Dream Warrior member Spek.
There are a number of instrumentals scattered through the album, which demonstrate just what a master Sawhney is of his craft. One listen to the glitchy, frenetic beats of Tokyo could almost transport you into that city’s surreal, day-glo nightlife while Movement is featured in two separate ‘variations’, one featuring the impressive violinist playing of Anna Phoebe, and the other showcases the cellist and singer Ayanna Witter-Johnson.
Replay is another highlight, featuring the German-born, London-based vocalist Aruba Red, spitting out lines about the “blotting paper of an island we all call home”. It’s an example of one of many tracks on Immigrants that are, at first listen, downtempo and relaxing but bustling with a furious energy underneath. Sometimes, the mid-’90s trip-hop era is brought to mind (as on the opening Down The Road which nods to the likes of Zero 7) but this is more a continuation and evolution of the sound that Beyond Skin established rather than a straight copy of it.
The closing Dream aptly sums up the album up, a collection of quotes from immigrants and their children, reflecting on their experiences over a stirring instrumental section. It’s a stirring, poignant end to a record which celebrates the immigrant experience without ever becoming po-faced or maudlin. It’s a worthy successor to Beyond Skin, and could even bag the Mercury Award which its predecessor somehow missed out on.