Sarathy Korwar likes to define himself as an “outsider”. Outside popular music, outside the British Asian experience, outside Indian culture. The percussionist and producer blends Indian classical orchestration with free-jazz improvisation and, now, hip-hop.
“I went from being in a position of privilege in India, growing up middle-class and upper-caste, to moving to London a decade ago and seeing myself as a minority for the first time,” he says in his recording studio in Kilburn – a soundproofed shed formerly owned by the folk guitarist Bert Jansch.
“In 2016, I put my first album out on Ninja Tune and suddenly there was all this interest from kids in India who follow labels here. We got to headline festivals in India that we had no right to be headlining,” he says, laughing. “We hadn’t paid our dues yet; it was purely because people still have this image of the west being superior.”
For his second album, in 2018, Korwar took explicit aim at these assumptions with a live reimagining of “spiritual jazz” classics, calling it My East Is Your West. Critical acclaim accompanied the headline slots and Korwar found he had become a spokesperson for cultural appropriation. “Spiritual jazz is a problematic term for me,” Korwar says. “I love people like Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders, but it was always unsettling listening to them because of their tokenistic nod to the ‘east’ or Africa – this idea that anywhere east of where you are is a repository of knowledge which you can learn half-heartedly and then apply to your playing. So much of Indo-jazz is about borrowing some out-of-tune sitar or badly played tabla – I had to change that.”
Korwar has often had his own work described as spiritual. “It’s always the subtle things that get to me here, which you get better at noticing as being racist,” he says. “I remember being called a ‘tabla beat poet’ on one gig poster, when the record I was playing only had one track of minimal tabla on it. These things make controlling my own narrative really important – I have to think more about what my music looks like, and how it’s talked about, than a white person does. It can be pretty exhausting.”
Korwar’s latest album, More Arriving, features hardly any sitar or tabla. It is instead a collaboration with hip-hop artists in Mumbai and the broader south Asian diaspora: a “modern brown record”, as he calls it. Recorded over three years in Mumbai and London, the album grew from a focus on the burgeoning gully rap scene of the Indian city’s slums. “You can be appropriative within your own culture and I was very conscious of that with this record,” he acknowledges. “What drew me to gully rap is that these deprived kids have totally made it their own and I didn’t want to come along with my privilege and poach it. I had to sit and play for them, show them that I needed their voices on the record as much as my own – even more, perhaps.”
The album ended up encompassing “multiple brown voices across different realities”, featuring the Jamaican-Indian rapper Delhi Sultanate, the London poet Zia Ahmed and the Abu Dhabi writer Deepak Unnikrishnan among others. “By virtue of them talking about what they’re going through, the listener will realise that there’s no singular brown voice,” he says. “It’s what Indian music sounds like to me right now and if anyone has a problem with that, they should be questioning their assumptions.”
This sound ultimately comprises Carnatic rhythms and lyrical dexterity on the opener, Mumbay, where MC Mawali puns in Hindi on the colonial resonance of “Bombay” compared to the rightwing nationalism of “Mumbai”. Sultanate uses Indian patois on Coolie, rapping about the indentured servitude of Indian labourers in Jamaica; the meditative solitude of the final number Pravasis features an Unnikrishnan poem from which the record takes its name.
“‘More arriving’ are the final words of the record and I use them to refer to the age of scaremongering over Brexit,” Korwar says. “The fact that people are increasingly panicked that there are more immigrants coming to our shores. Yet, there are, and hopefully always will be, more people coming and we’ll have to deal with it.”
In More Arriving, difference becomes just as important as commonality – the stylistic leaps from jazz to hip-hop to spoken word encompass the breadth of immigrant experiences. “This is a protest record,” Korwar says, “in the sense that just by having a brown person on stage is a protest, and celebration can be a form of protest – like this UK jazz scene which is made up of young, diverse players celebrating their identities.” Does he not feel part of this scene? “Scenes are all manufactured,” he says firmly. “It’s very important to see who the people driving these agendas are. While what’s happening is great, we need to ask who’s monopolising this, and who will still be around in two years’ time.”
After a decade in the UK, though, surely Korwar feels like less of an outsider here and that this is home? “I always ask myself that question,” he says, “and I don’t know whether I’ll ever be comfortable calling myself British. The current political climate means we can’t feel at ease; we’re constantly being told that we’re not from here and that home is somewhere else. But that’s the story of my life, so I’ve got used to it.”
• More Arriving is out on Friday
• This article was amended on 3 September 2019 because an earlier version misnamed Deepak Unnikrishnan’s poem Pravasis, as Prabasis. This has been corrected.