Introducing… Sarathy Korwar

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #121 (October 2016) p15. Download a pdf here.

Sarathy Korwar-©Fabrice Bourgelle-Free1Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to percussionist Sarathy Korwar about his debut that combines ethnographic recordings and jazz (Photo by Fabrice Bourgelle)

The movement of African music across the Atlantic is well documented. Without that migration the music of South America and the Caribbean would be starkly different, so would blues, rock or hip-hop for that matter. The journey of African music eastwards is much less familiar territory. However this concept is the root of the debut album from percussionist Sarathy Korwar, Day to Day. After spending time recording musicians from the African-descended Siddi community of India, Korwar fuses these folk sounds with electronics and jazz for an album that explores themes of migration and movement.

For Korwar, migration is familiar terrain; born in the US, he grew up in India, living in Ahmedabad, Chennai and Pune before settling in London seven years ago. He started learning tabla at the age of eight and drum kit by the age of 15, transferring the Indian rhythmic vocabulary to jazz and other non-Indian classical contexts. Using this idea of musical translation, Korwar has worked on numerous collaborative projects, but in late 2015 he left for India to record a troupe of Siddi musicians and start work on his first solo project.

He initially became interested in Siddi music after meeting ethnomusicologist Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy from UCLA. “I met her in Pune because she was staying at my parent’s house. She had been working with this particular Siddi community for a while. She told me about her work and I was really taken by their history, their sense of their background and how unique they are.”

Their history is a complicated one; Siddis are said to be descended from the Bantu community of East and South Africa, although “Siddi is a blanket term that is used for anybody now who has migrated from Africa to India over time,” Korwar explains. “They emigrated over the centuries as merchants, traders and sailors, and then with the colonies – the Dutch, British, Portuguese and French – as slaves.” Fascinated by their historical and musical links to Africa, Korwar spent time with the Sidi Troupe of Ratanpur, recording their distinctive music. “A lot of their drumming patterns are quite polyrhythmic. It’s a fairly unique thing in India, because a lot of music is played in unison. Polyrhythm is a very African concept.”

There were interesting links in the instrumentation as well. “They have a music bow called the malunga. It looks pretty much exactly like a berimbau.” This resemblance to the Afro-Brazilian instrument seemingly connects the black Atlantic to African music’s lesser-known migration east. “Nobody really talks about the music going East in the same way. So that was something I was excited about exploring,” he enthuses.

Using loose arrangements based on his field recordings, Korwar invited a host of UK-based musicians out to Pune to record for five days. “It was a very organic way of doing the album. I wanted to get the right musicians involved and then just have them express themselves. They are musicians who I know very well and I knew that whatever we do will be good.” These musicians include the saxophone whizz-kid Shabaka Hutchings and Al Macsween (keys), Giuliano Modarelli (guitar) and Domenico Angarano (bass) of the collective Kefaya.

The result is an album that subtly shape-shifts, with a trance-like abandonment that mimics the sacred Sufi nature of Siddi music. It is an effortless melding of folk, jazz and electronics that drifts as naturally through Korwar and his friends as the music has historically drifted out from Africa’s shores.

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