Over a pendulous jazz rhythm, Mumbai-based MC Mawali (from the hip-hop crew Swadesi) snarls out, “Mumbai/Bombay/Mala kai farak nai (there’s no difference to me).” This is the first of many voices discussing identity and culture on London-based drummer, percussionist and producer Sarathy Korwar’s second studio album More Arriving.
Mumbay is the hypnotic, saxophone-driven opening track and lead single from Korwar, who lives in London, but is US-born with stints in Ahmedabad and Chennai. Korwar performed Mumbay with Mawali just last month, as part of a headline set at radio station Boxout.fm’s annual Weekender indoor festival in New Delhi. “It was a real vibe, man. It was amazing,” Korwar says of the show.
At the core of More Arriving – which takes its title from the closing line in Pravasis by Abu Dhabi-based author and poet Deepak Unnikrishnan – is the fear that comes with immigration and multiculturalism. It’s something that Korwar has seen as part of everyday life in London, as the UK still deliberates over Brexit.
It hits closer home as well in India. Korwar says he was reading a lot about Naxalism, conflicts in Kashmir and the European refugee crisis. He says about the Indian context. “Think about Rohingyas and Bangladeshis and territories.
I think the question is really, deep down, what do you think is your own and how much right do you have over a certain piece of land? Who has the right to kick people out? All these come from similar struggles all across the world.”
He has this music – with all its fearless, defiant voices – talking about what multiculturalism means to them, but Korwar feels that at an “inherently systemic level”, people must question what the idea of country is. “It needs Britain to acknowledge that maybe it isn’t the country it thinks it was a hundred years ago or so,” he says.
“Same as India: is it as secular as it wants to be? Just because it says it’s secular… it’s a great sound bite. But how secular is it really if every minority feels threatened all the time? Those are important questions.”
More Arriving took root in Korwar’s travels to India in 2016, when he was still promoting his acclaimed album Day to Day, which in turn shed light on the folk music of the Sidi community.
Clearly one with a penchant for collaboration, Korwar followed hip-hop artists such as Delhi Sultanate, Swadesi and SlumGods and gravitated towards the ones who narrated their stories openly. “It wasn’t your regular upper-middle class music scene in India,” Korwar says.
“It felt really refreshing that something was happening on the ground: these musicians are rapping in their own language, local producers, wearing their politics quite openly on their sleeve, and being quite proud regarding what they are talking about.”
The album then widened its scope to a global diasporic level, to tell “this diverse range of brown stories”, according to Korwar. In order to present a diverse record, he collaborated with not just Mumbai and New Delhi MCs like Mawali, Trap Poju, Delhi Sultanate and Prabh Deep, but also London-based poet Zia Ahmed, American-Indian classical vocalist Aditya Prakash, Deepak Unnikrishnan and Indian classical singer Mirande.
On the instrumental front, providing the delectable jazz fusion sound alongside Korwar is synth artist Danalogue (part of the psychedelic jazz/electronic act The Comet Is Coming), seasoned baritone saxophonist Tamar Osborn and a guest saxophone solo from Chris Williams on City of Words.
In something that is essential to a jazz record such as More Arriving, mixing engineer Nick Woodmansey is credited by Korwar for making it sound like everyone – rappers, poets, instrumentalists – was in the same room, feeding off the energy and almost knowing their cues.
Ideally, Korwar would have liked everyone in one studio, but the logistics took a while to figure out. “I was going back and forth recording with the MCs, coming back to London and recording more bits and going back again. I took quite a long time to record this whole album; it’s been two and a half years,” Korwar says.
In addition to defiance, More Arriving portrays pride as well, in one’s community and culture, from the smoky Coolie, featuring Delhi Sultanate and Prabh Deep, the harmonium-tinged Bol where we’re introduced Zia Ahmed’s grim but powerful poetry. Ahmed even performs one of his poems Mango over tribalistic jazz percussion, creating a sombre mood that’s carried on with City of Words.
The fog begins to lift with the lightheaded Good Ol’ Vilayati, but the openness remains. Korwar says the band was also reacting to the lyrics as it went through demos and vocal takes.
“It’s to portray all these different voices being defiant, but also vulnerable and proud. Not everyone has to be angry in a loud way, you can be angry in a soft-spoken poetic way. I would have never achieved that with just me on the record,” he adds.
With Mumbay and Pravasis already out and the album slated to release in July via UK’s The Leaf Label, Korwar is already plotting a tour in India in October or December this year and in the United Kingdom prior to that. He’s looking forward more to present the music in India, with all the Indian collaborators on stage. For the UK shows, he’s deciding on British-Asian MCs to join the live lineup.
“It’s a new thing for me, but it’s so great, because the energy at these gigs just goes up, from zero to 100,” Korwar says. “I think it (the album) is going to have a life on its own on stage.”
Anurag Tagat is a Bengaluru-based freelance music journalist and senior writer at Rolling Stone India
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