Saturday, June 26, 2010
"Koyal (Songbird)" by Nitin Sawhney (2005)
When it comes to the topic of 'world fusion', I think there's good reason to be afraid, be very afraid... at its worst, the very noble idea of integrating music from different global traditions (or, if 'tradition' is a bit of a misnomer for the frequently modern styles at work, let's say 'styles') is fraught with problems: first and foremost is a kind of dilettantism that frequently seeks to 'spice up' otherwise bland music by infusing it with a touch of 'exotica'. With no disrespect to Martin Denny, it's that very word that got world music, and world fusion, started as a viable commercial enterprise - on arguably the wrong foot. There's frequently a 'look at the natives' feel to a lot of these cultural mash-ups that not only turn vivid musical traditions into museum pieces but also discourage true collaboration: sing how you would have anyway, and I'll put some beats underneath. The different strands of DNA all too infrequently recombine to form new, viable hybrids: most of the time, they merely exist in the same sonic space at the same time: musical oil floating on musical water.
So I have little to say about Nitin Sawhney. The English will see him as Indian, Indians will see him as English. Like a good many English musicians of South Asian heritage, those little bits of music that have floated around him perhaps since childhood somehow manage to make their way back into whatever music he's making as an adult. He's all over the map, stylistically, ranging from jazz to hip-hop to classical. While South Asian music is never that far away, it's hardly strictly a Bhrangra-esque take on Indian-music-plus-Western-beats. What Nitin Sawhney is doing, largely, is creating music regardless of genre: assembling sounds without consideration of which kinds of sounds have until now co-existed. It's not genre-mixing so much as music that makes the concept of genre irrelevant.
I can't find anything songwriting credits more elaborate than 'written by Nitin Sawhney', so it's entirely possible that the gorgeous melody and Hindi-language lyrics (about a songbird) were really composed just a few years back. But they certainly sound like they've been around, floating on the air, since time immemorial. The song gest started with a looped piano, some pretty standard 'downtempo' drums, and an Indian flute. So far, so new-age, really. It's gorgeous, but nowhere we haven't been before. For me, what makes this song so special is how little it gives in to the trappings of Buddha Bar 'fusion': well before its brief three minutes finish (no solos, no instrumental segments), you've forgotten just how 'European' and 'modern' its instrumentation is. The record scratches never go away, but they become merely a part of the atmosphere. Somehow the oil and water mix perfectly here.
But it also manages to avoid that 'look at the natives' feel either. As foreign as it all clearly is (the singer sounds like every female singer you've heard in every Bollywood movie you've caught on TV), it doesn't quite feel foreign, and I think that's because the melody pulls emotional strings that are universal and recognise no genre.
Which, I guess, is ultimately the 'lesson' of world music, by which I mean the Western fascination with, and appropriation of, music from other countries: however exotic something might appear, it still appeals to emotions that are, of course, universal. The lyrics don't seem to mean much, but the two voices in combination mean a million things I can't quite put my finger on. I've seen this song described in a few places as 'haunting', but I don't get that at all. It's nothing spectral, unsettling or anything like that. It's something... purer. I'll embarrass myself further if I keep trying to describe it, but that's what it is. Something very simple, but very heartfelt.
And God is is gorgeous.