Ithink that I’m a mythical creature,” muses Zia Ahmed in a leisurely drawl, “that working class black, working class brown/ we don’t seem to have/ any worth in your towns.” The song in question is Mango from More Arriving, the soon-to-be-launched record by Sarathy Korwar, a jazz and Indian classical percussionist and composer. It’s a cheeky song, driven by dawdling, playful percussions and Ahmed’s sardonic reflections on being of South Asian descent in the UK. At the other end of the rage-o-meter lies Coolie, featuring Delhi Sultanate (aka Taru Dalmia, also of the Ska Vengers) singing in patois about indentured Indian labourers working on British plantations in Jamaica, and trading verses with the explosive Punjabi rapper Prabh Deep. The system is corrupt, Prabh Deep reminds us, with venom dripping from his trademark sinister delivery.
More Arriving, really, is a point of assembly of varied South Asian voices curated—and directed—by Korwar, who has composed most of the songs, and even performed and arranged them. He has gone through the rigorous process of identifying unique voices, and then working with them to create a record that magnifies and celebrates the “brown” experience. “Basically, all the voices are different and diverse, but are also strong and proud in their own way. We have to recognize the differences that exist among us, but at the same time think of it as a community of people, and add some solidarity,” says Korwar over the phone. “The idea is to use this brown pride and collectivize it.”
Korwar was born in the US and grew up in Ahmedabad and Chennai before moving to Pune to attend college. For the past nine years, he has been living in the UK. The artist picked up tabla at a very young age and moved on to Western percussion after discovering jazz in his teens. His music explores the intersection between jazz and India’s musical heritage.
The new record, out on 26 July, is the first time Korwar has worked with hip hop, poetry and spoken verse. It attempts to, to use an overwrought cliché, blur the lines between the personal and the political. A range of artists, both local and from the diaspora, present snapshots of diverse experiences, which tie in with his own life as a privileged individual in India, and the cultural shift he has witnessed upon moving to London. “Brown people are viewed as one. There are so many complexities that exist. How do you tackle this racism? For me, it’s through stories. We are not some homogeneous mass of people,” he says. The title is a play on the panic in the West about immigration, and the tone of discourse around Brexit in the UK.
The themes pinning the record began taking shape in Korwar’s head over time. Soon after the release of his debut album, Day To Day, in July 2016, he set down some ideas in the studio. Around the time, he also discovered what was then still a nascent movement of underground hip hop brewing in India, and how much of it stemmed from working-class neighbourhoods, with a strong emphasis on DIY. “It was disenfranchised young people singing in their own languages, with local producers, local samples, local b-boys, all of it. It felt like a very genuine ‘Indian’ expression.”
It grew from there, as he began searching for strong voices, discussing ideas and themes with them, recording the songs. Instead of micromanaging the process, Korwar allowed artists the space to say what they felt, as long as it aligned with his own general world view. He made sure to use the voices as another instrument, instead of turning this into a novelty hip hop record with jazz backing the words. The first single, Mumbay, featuring MC Mawali—where he riffs on the duality of the city, exploring the cultural and political baggage of “Bombay” and “Mumbai”—came out on 2 May. While this idea of identity and community informs all his musical explorations, up next is something more futuristic, inspired by the South Asian sci-fi literature he has been reading of late.