“Philtre means ‘healing’ or ‘magic’ potion and that’s how I feel music,” says multi-instrumentalist, DJ, producer, Mercury-nominated composer, film scorer, playwright, Goodness Gracious Me scriptwriter and sometime Newsnight talking head Nitin Sawhney, whose seventh studio album goes by this name.
A man much admired for his intelligent fusion of differing musical concepts and politically charged lyrical themes, Sawhney’s latest opus finds him on a calm plane, developing what he wants to say with familiar and new collaborators and sounding entirely confident with his unique soundscape that here takes in Flamenco, Bengali folk music, drum’n’bass, classical piano, soul and trip hop.
For all his musical skills, Sawhney doesn’t sing. Amongst his rotation of guest vocalists this time is a mix of the familiar and the new. Tina Grace provides her sensuous, woozy vocals that conjure thoughts of waking up and stretching rather than dancing. In Jacob Golden, last heard on 2003’s Human, Sawhney has discovered Grace’s male counterpart. A more chilled vocal performance than Golden’s on Philtre’s opener Everything is tough to find, but from a different place altogether is Sawhney’s mother, a poet and singer who reads from her own work on Rag Doll.
New to the microphone is Reena Bhardwaj, the Bollywood soundtrack star who guests on no less than five of Philtre’s tracks. The quite beautiful Koyal (Songbird) finds her duetting with sonorous flute and distorted, squelchy drums. On Mausam she duets instead with Murtaza Khan, and on The Search begins an echo-laden trance with sitar and flute which then unexpectedly veers off into a wild raga.
Flamenco collective Ojos de Brujo head up Noches En Vela over Sawhney’s intense drum’n’bass electronics, with Marina Abad giving her all in soulful, longing Spanish vocals in Part 1 but matching the passion of The Gipsy Kings‘ singer Nicolas Reyes too in Part 2. Castanets, or at least a Latin ability to click fingers, is a prerequisite for listening to this track. More in this vein arrives later with Footprints.
Wild beats of a different sort are evidenced on Brainwaves, with Satyajit Talwalkar and human beatbox Jason Singh battling to fill the aural space. It’s a short track and is reminiscent of Sawhney’s earlier work with JC-001. Elsewhere, Dead Man marries quasi-beatnik lyrics to Indian rhythm guitar to produce a track not a million miles away from Ben Harper, albeit with especially slick production.
Philtre is a multifaceted but assuredly uplifting record, equally split between feel-good vibes and chilled-out zen music. The opening phrases of The Search are just one of several relaxing, peaceful moments that really do bear out the name “philtre” with all its healing powers – all that’s missing is a massage.
“It seemed to me that music is a universal way of getting us through all the daily crap,” says Sawhney. If Philtre is a soundtrack, it is one for an injured world in need of due care, love and attention.