More brown voices arriving behind the jazz renaissance

Wednesday 21st August 2019 12:42 EDT

Entering the UK's mainstream music industry as an 'outsider' can be difficult. It requires knocking down pre-conceived notions around South Asian music. The journey includes struggling to be commissioned by mainstream producers and playing to an audience which is receptive of a “defiant” IndoJazz style of music.

“The idea of a brown person making music in this country is a political act in itself. To be able to compose and play my music to predominantly white audiences, is an act of protest and a celebration of diversity,” said Sarathy Korwar, a London based percussionist and producer.

Born in America and raised in India, Korwar's multi-cultural identity is reflected in the confluence of his western jazz, hip-hop, and Hindustani classical tunes. Underpinning his unorthodox music is his socio-political message around immigration. His recent album 'More Arriving' is a “reflection” of his everyday experiences in the Brexit-riddled UK politics. The album echoes the diverse South Asian stories through collaborations with MCs across India, dispelling the myth around the existence of a “homogenous” South Asian Voice. Racial divisions, class-based discrimination and an insight into an immigrant’s life in post-Brexit Britain form the core of this album.

Collaborating with working-class artists and immigrants

“I was keen to work with these young producers and rappers who are primarily from working-class neighbourhoods across Mumbai, Delhi, Abu Dhabi, and London in an attempt to showcase diverse brown realities.

“This album is overtly political and it is a tongue-in-cheek play on immigration. Through my music, I am driving this message that more people are arriving and you just have to deal with it,” he says.

Speaking about the absence of South Asian role models in the contemporary music industry, Korwar speaks about fighting the prejudice against the perception that South Asians can not be jazz musicians. This has also often manifested in the struggle of being commissioned wherein record producers and labels are hesitant in venturing into a non-conservative form of music. But besides Korawar, is Arun Ghosh, a British Asian clarinetist, composer, and music educator with his cultural heritage from Kolkata exploring IndoJazz.

“IndoJazz in my view is taking inspiration from the raags and taals of the folk music and drawing emotional rhythms from South Asian music and align it with western instrumentation,” says Ghosh a natural-born improviser, as described by the late Pandit Ravi Shankar.

In his music, Ghosh improvises across the scales of traditional jazz whilst taking the form of South Asian music where he tunes back and forth between the melodies. Ghosh has released four albums: Northern Namaste, Primal Odyssey, A South Asian Suite which draws influences from Rabindra Sangeet among other folk ragas. In his latest album, But Where are you really from? Ghosh's clarinet fuses his geographical, cultural and emotional journey into the UK.

“There have been Jazz promoters such as Jazz re:freshed among others who supported me in my initial years by giving me gigs when I was just beginning. Some promoters told me that they were more likely to invest in traditional music implying that my music was not right,” he explains.

Playing music to a multi-cultural audience

Over the years, Ghosh has collaborated with artists across the world in countries such as Kenya, China, Uzbekistan, Middle-East among others. His compositions stem from the intent of combining musical forces across borders and drawing inspiration from ancient cultures. Ghosh leads his band, touring nationally and internationally and in China, he was a Musician In Residence of Wuhan in 2014. Gathering resources required to tour the album has been challenging in recent times with funding cuts and government austerity. More fundamentally, there has been a common perception among the conservative members of the South Asian diaspora who believe that a profession in the performing arts and culture industry results in an “unstable” career. However, Ghosh advises young aspiring artists to follow their passion.

“As a musician of South Asian heritage, I feel that there is less support from within the mainstream South Asian audience. My goal that I feel compelled to work towards is to establish myself in India first before I expect British Asian diaspora to wake up to my work,” he says.

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