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Nitin Sawhney - Human: A track by track guide


Preview: Jack Foley

"THIS album flows more than anything I've done - yet it's the most diverse," says Nitin Sawhney. "It's also the most personal."

Human is the sixth album by cultural pioneer and cutting edge musician Nitin Sawhney. Drawing on influences ranging from urban R&B to Indian classical music and the Velvet Underground, this record is his most autobiographical.

Daring and emotionally direct, each track encapsulates a certain space in time - from the joy and pain of birth in 'Eastern Eyes', to being the only Asian kid in a school dominated by the National Front ('Say Hello'), to the headlong teenage rush of the single, 'Falling', to the sense of integrating two cultures on the ecstatic song 'Fragile Wind'.

Here, we take a look at each of the tracks on the album, and Sawhney offers his thoughts on them...

Track 1: The River
With its slinky R&B backbeat and a dreamy Alani (currently touring with Blur) on vocals, this track signifies pre-birth, "like the River Ganges. There you have the cycle of life and death - people have funeral pyres there and baptise children there. This is about where you come from before you're born."

Track 2: Eastern Eyes
From a low-key start this track builds and builds, until Natacha Atlas' sublime vocal glides over a fiery Brazilian club beat. "I was born in 1964 in Dulwich Hospital, by Caesarian section. My mother was going through a lot of racism at the time. It's about how quite an aggessive act results in celebration, the beginning of life.'

Track 3: Say Hello
Fragments of speeches by Enoch Powell on Race & Immigration at the 1968 Conservative Party conference and Martin Luther King's 'State of Union' Address are merged with Tina Grace's slightly deranged, beautifully down-tempo style, and Bengali vocalist Jayanta Bose's sound of spiritual yearning. "My first days at school I wandered around not knowing who to talk to, and other kids ignored me because I wasn't white. I found it a weird environment. The child psychologist Piaget wrote that the more diversity and different ideas a child is exposed to, the more rapid their development. It's not healthy being in a singular culture."

Track 4: Falling Angels
A wistful ambient dance track with Jacob Golden and Reena Bhardwaj on vocals that encapsulates the summer Nitin was eight years old. "It was 1972, with Nixon and Watergate. I was becoming aware of political things, and a gradual disintegration of trust. I went to India and realised what racism was when I came back. I gave a talk about India, how I rode on a horse at a wedding. I got laughed at, the teachers were laughing too. I felt let down. They talked about Christianity and the importance of being respectful to other people...I had dreams about angels falling."

Track 5: Falling
The first single is an anthemic track featuring Matt Hayles' edgy, declarative vocals and shimmering orchestration - a cross between Indian raag and The Who. Sailing in towards the end is Ronu Majumdar's ecstatic flute and Reena's uplifting Hindi refrain: 'we've arrived'. "This is adolescence, halfway between falling and flying. It's hopeful but sad at the same time. I was getting beaten up a lot - the NF would leaflet our school, and I was banned from the music rooms because I played Indian raags and didn't use sheet music. I found out later the teacher was a member of the NF. I loved music and expressing myself and this made me more determined to pursue my own style."

Track 6: Heer
Propelled by the pulse-like beat of Indian percussion, 'Heer' has a tragic feel. It is an ancient raag, an epic Indian poem in the style of Romeo & Juliet, symbolic of separation. "At the age of 16 I felt disconnected. I went to India and realised I had a very idealised view, not one based on reality. History at school had been taught from a Eurocentric perspective, focusing on colonisation or slavery in Africa. This track is about coming to terms with being Indian."

Track 7: Fragile Wind
Over grainy trip-hop two voices are woven together - one reflective (Tina Grace), the other filled with a sense of release (Jayanta Bose). "This is about the transition from young person to adulthood. I always thought there was something weird about me until I went to University and realised what was weird was the place where I grew up. There's the sense of two cultures coming together, the two sides of self."

Track 8: Promise
Sparks off with excerpt from Margaret Thatcher's 'the creation of wealth is the fundament of all social services' speech before ploughing into a piece of visceral electronica. "This is an anti-materialistic song looking at the irony of that 1980s yuppie mentality. I've written for classical orchestra and it was nice doing that for my own song."

Track 9: Conscious Life (Chetan Jeevan)
Reena and Davinder Singh croon with a laid-back summery feel over a hip hop loop and a loping beat. "This is about the fading away of the innocence of childhood. How you imagine everything as very simple, but behind it all is something quite complex. That's life."

Track 10: Rainfall
Taio's rich, defiant tones resonate with flamenco guitar. Stevie Wonder meets contemporary R&B soul. "I moved to London in 1988 and had various jobs, including work on the Asian music circuit. I was in my mid-twenties and getting more cynical. It amazed me how we prioritise the news, and so much of it is lying. I started to question what I was reading."

Track 11: Waiting (O Mistress Mine)
Sounding like a ghostly English folk song over crunchy hip hop, this song incorporates words from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and features Zubin Varla (from the stage version of 'Midnight's Children') on vocals. "This is about saying goodbye to youth, the fragility of that. As Shakespeare wrote: 'Youth's a stuff will not endure'. It's coming up to the present time, the last ten years, and has a sense of the ghosts of childhood."

Track 12: Raag
Ronu plays pure Indian classical flute over a housey club track. "This is the present day and looking ahead. It's optimistic. You can gain a lot of spiritual energy from yourself. It has the feel of Ibiza, the feel of water and summer, perhaps returning to your roots.”

Track 13: The Boatman
Jayanta's fluid vocals resonate with the poignant sound of an instrument called the swalin, played by Rajinder Singh. "It's the only one of its type in the world, it's a cross between a violin and an Indian instrument called a sarangee.
"It's a mix of Eastern and Western traditions. There's a sense of the two sides being seamless. I've stopped thinking in cultural terms now, it's more about being human, about growing up and learning to trust oneself rather than the external world."

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