Live Music + Gig Reviews

Nitin Sawhney @ Ocean, London

25 May 2001

Nitin Sawhney

Nitin Sawhney

Ocean cost millions, is in Hackney, miles from the nearest tube station – and is huge. The number of staff inspecting tickets at the various doors also defied belief; the first told me that I should get a “proper” ticket, whatever that was, ripped the counterfoil from the perfectly proper ticket vended by Mean Fiddler and waved me on. The second then demanded to know where the counterfoil was. The three women in front of me suffered the same fate, so at least it wasn’t personal – but for a venue with such prestige, one might have thought a small amount of customer relations training wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Whatever, we were in. I arrived around an hour after the doors opened, but would be treated to seemingly endless DJ music for aeons afterwards. The budget seemingly didn’t stretch to cover support acts either. When, after all eternity, Nitin Sawhney appeared, he had a lot of warming up to do, even if he had innumerable guest vocalists, violinists, rhythm section members and verve with him.

It was then that we were reminded that Sawhney was not nominated for the 1999 Mercury Music Prize for nothing. He is without doubt one of the finest musicians alive today, slipping with virtuoso ease between jazz, drum’n’bass, Qawaali, pop, folk and soul, while flavouring his songs with a political intellect every bit as revolutionary as The Sex Pistols; at least with Sawhney, the music is worth hearing too. With synthesisers and other electric gizmos sitting alongside his Spanish guitar, his fingers flew across fretboard with as much skill and panache as keyboard.

On stage with him were a Portuguese bassist/vocalist, a tablaist/vocalist, a drummer, the aforementioned violinists (a quartet, no less) and an Asian male Qawaali singer with a beard and traditional costume, an black female soul singer dressed in African garb with a vocal range to die for (Janice Anderson), a British Asian male human beat box (JC-001 – stunning), a white female folk singer (just when you thought it couldn’t get more eclectic or genre-defying) and a white female pop star of the Patsy Kensit mould – Tina Grace. In their own ways, they were as special as he was, each of them bringing a unique contribution to the Sawhneyist ouevre.

A good mix of old and new songs were repackaged, debuted and evolved, including tracks from the phenomenally successful Beyond Skin and forthcoming album Prophesy. The title track of the latter starts with acoustic guitar, vocals, tabla meandering through a gentle, spiritual rhythm before getting faster and faster, exhausting those members of the audience foolhardy enough to try to dance along with it. From flamenco guitar playing by Sawhney, through Portuguese vocalisations, soul, jazz, dub… here really is a man who knows how to invent a music genre all on his own. He calls it ‘fusion’, but don’t be fooled – this is new.

Two encores later and it was finally time to leave, yet the audience were all saying similar things; coming all the way back to the wilds of Hackney tomorrow for the same set was all we wanted to do. This time, when he plays the Royal Albert Hall in December, try and stop me, you damned bouncers.

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