In 1895, the impresario Robert Newman called his new series of ‘promenade’ classical music concerts a chance to “train the public” in easy stages. While this idea still remains imbedded in the Proms’ ethos today, the public that Newman looked to reach out to has changed beyond all recognition in the previous 113 years.
A quick look at the BBC’s coverage of the Last Night Of The Proms every year confirms a worrying sense of nothing having moved forward – the music remains the same, and so does the audience; predominately white and middle-class, waving union jacks as if their lives depended on it.
The BBC’s Electric Proms initiative, basically a way of drawing diverse acts to Camden for a five day televised jamboree, attempts to readdress that balance with “new moments in music”, although the line-up still leans towards the predilections of the white middle classes.
Alongside the opening night’s Africa Express – essentially Live Aid with proper Africans – tonight’s headliner Nitin Sawhney is the most diverse celebration of musical talent the festival will see this year, unless of course Liam Gallagher decides to mix-up Oasis‘s slot on Sunday with a little Iraqi death metal. Hailing from Kent, but with influences that span jazz, drum n’ bass, classical Indian music and the odd bit of hip hop, Sawhney’s audience is reassuringly varied – a seething mass of black, white and Asian faces all facing expectantly towards the Roundhouse’s impressively decked-out stage.
Sawhney’s records have suffered, both critically and commercially, since his MOBO-winning Prophesy in 2001. New album London Undersound, one of the first in the UK to deal directly with the July 7 bombings, has been hailed by many as a return to greatness, and of the four songs he plays from the record it seems that there may be life in the musical polymath yet.
Lead single Days Of Fire is a particular highlight, with Sawhney inviting reggae singer Natty onstage to deliver a moving lament on the bombings. With the backing of a full string orchestra, Natty’s subdued “Then it all went slow motion, everything slow motion/ First the flash of light then the rise of emotion” takes on an almost unbearable poignancy, a very personal view of an event ingrained in the minds of everyone in the hall. The irony that the Roundhouse is a former train shed is not lost on the performers – huge screens behind the orchestra show pictures of faceless people moving about station platforms.
Sawhney himself is an ingratiating, but extraordinarily humble presence. Perched on a stool in the corner of the stage, his actions are largely based around playing classical guitar and welcoming guest vocalists to the stage – of which there are many. World music superstar Natacha Atlas arrives onstage, despite suffering fromglandular fever, to deliver a haunting Moonrise, and Sawhney graciously turned the stage over to Ravi Shankar‘s daughter Anoushka Shankar for a couple of protracted sitar work outs – she squatting lotus position-like on a giant Persian rug. There’s no sign of recent album collaborator Paul McCartney though.
It is a mark of Sawhney’s talent that the real highlights of this concert – certainly for his fans – were the ones that he dispensed with guest vocalists and went it alone. The Conference is a stuttering, pounding song built around handclaps and muttered conversations which sends the audience into raptures, while at the other end of the scale, encore Prophesy sees a remarkable face-off between Sawhney’s classical guitar and a tabla player.
The performance, like its audience, is a wonderful affirmation of the breadth of British culture. At one point, in front of where we’re sitting, a vast Indian family are pogoing gently to the bluesy Deadman. In the middle, a lean, balding figure slaps his hands in time to the music – it is artist Anthony Gormley, the man responsible for London Undersound’s artwork.
If tonight has proved anything, it is that the Proms may still have a future at the heart of British culture, even if the future may be electric. Tonight, the audience is waving lighters, not Union Jacks. And that is something to be proud of.