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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
Nitin's subversive sounds
Nitin Sawhney
Nitin Sawhney: "Music is the purest place I have ever been"
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

Eclectic, ground-breaking, cutting edge - these are just some of the words applied to British Asian composer Nitin Sawhney.

It may come as a surprise, then, to hear his name trumpeted as a highlight of something as traditional as the BBC's classical Proms.

Sawhney's specially commissioned work Urban Prophecies is the centrepiece to the Youth Prom on 18 July in London's Royal Albert Hall.


Rules constrict people and make them less confident to explore what is around them

Nitin Sawhney

It seems far removed from the world in which he tours with the likes of Sting and picks up awards for popular music.

But Sawhney is used to breaking the mould.

"I am always trying to break rules and blur barriers - I hate them. Rules constrict people and make them less confident to explore what is around them," he proclaims.

Identity

Sawhney, 35, won last year's South Bank Award for popular music largely on the strength of his acclaimed third album Beyond Skin.

Its fusion of Asian and Western classical and contemporary influences has earned Sawhney praise as one of the first British Asian music scene's crossover stars - along with Mercury prize-winner Talvin Singh.

Nitin Sawhney
Sawhney's philosophy is challenge any definable image

It has also served, in its confusion of cultures, to establish Sawhney as an artist who consistently and deliberately confronts categorisation.

"There are very few tracks that are the same so it is hard to say there is a Nitin Sawhney style apart from that I try to look at ideas to do with identity," Sawhney explains.

Beyond Skin is, he expands, about "recognising that his roots are actually in my own history as opposed to anywhere else that people might expect them to be".

But his first two albums - Migration and Displacing the Priest - set about "establishing his identity as a British Asian" and questioning the nature of religious authority.

In Urban Prophecies, Sawhney's train of thought has evolved again. It tackles thoughts of parallel universes, history repeating itself and the absurdity of our own sense of self-importance.

Nitin Sawhney
Sawhney has been credited with bringing Asian music into the mainstream

The piece comes as part of a concert performed by and aimed at young people entitled Scry - meaning to foretell the future through a crystal ball.

The project came at just the right time for him.

"It tied in with a lot of ideas I had been having about different mythologies around the world and how in the year 2000 we view world history," he says.

Subversion

On top of that, he says he was excited at the prospect of working with - and hopefully inspiring - a new generation of musicians.

"By commissioning someone like me, young people will perhaps see the Proms as much more open to multicultural issues than I did as a child.


Whenever anyone tries to classify music they reject the notion of it being a form of expression

Nitin Sawhney

"I remember watching the Proms and associating it with a jingoistic point of view with all its Union Jack waving.

"I didn't see any Asian or black faces in the audience or anything I could relate to. Doing this gave me the chance to subvert those issues I had back then."

Sawhney, who grew up in Rochester, Kent, took up music at the age of five as a classical pianist. Even then, he was already diversifying into jazz, flamenco and other styles.

Experience and time has therefore erased many of the divisions he once felt between his musical world and that of the Proms.

"I view music as a language so it's not important what form it takes. Whenever anyone tries to classify music they reject the notion of it being a form of expression," he explains.

"But music is the purest place I have ever been - it allows you to express yourself without fear of having barriers come up. It taught me how to view society and other people without prejudice," he adds.

Hollywood

Defying categorisation still further, Sawhney has also worked as a comedian, theatre actor, scriptwriter and journalist.

His best known alternative guise is as co-creator and star of the BBC Asian comedy Goodness Gracious Me.

Goodness Gracious Me
Sawhney created Goodness Gracios Me with Sanjeev Bhaskar

Sawhney says he went into comedy to give himself some light relief from the intensity of composing. But here too he found himself breaking new ground.

"Until Goodness Gracious Me, there had only been comedies like It Ain't 'Alf Hot Mum and Mind Your Language which always made Asians the butt of the joke," he says.

"So, it was exciting to be able to subvert those stereotypes from within the very heart of a British institution like the BBC."

It's been three years since Sawhney hung up his comedian's hat and, he says, he has now moved on to other things.

Besides the tour with Sting to promote Beyond Skin. Sawhney has collaborated with Sir Paul McCartney and Jeff Beck.

His next challenge, however, is to break into Hollywood film music and to really break down the walls between popular and classical culture.

"I am a great admirer of score writers like Ennio Morricone and John Williams - they can create such wonderful atmospheres.

"But really they are classical musicians working very well in the commercial world and I believe the great composers of this century will be seen as the classical composers who have written for film."

Scry can be heard on BBC Radio 3 from 1900 BST on Tuesday.

See also:

14 Jul 00 | Entertainment
Proms close the musical divide
27 Jan 00 | Entertainment
Sir Cliff's arts honour
08 Sep 99 | UK
UK Asians doing OK
09 Sep 99 | Entertainment
Newcomer wins top music prize
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