Nitin Sawhney (Pic: Suki Dhanda)

Music, Reviews

Nitin Sawhney review (Hamer Hall, Melbourne)

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2019 marks the 20th anniversary of Nitin Sawhney’s seminal album Beyond Skin. The original album is a stunning mix of classical, drum’n’bass, jazz, hip-hop, and Indian music, effortlessly mixing flamenco guitars, tablas, Urdu verse and Brazilian rhythms.

Sawhney has had a rich and varied career since then, working across music, film, television, theatre and dance as a producer and composer. He is an Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells, has composed over 50 film and television scores as well as advising the British Government on national music education policy. He was the recipient of the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, as well as six honorary doctorates and a few university fellowships as well as the recent CBE. More is still to come from the musical polymath, as he has just signed his first major label deal.

But in Melbourne on Sunday night, the audience was swept away and captivated by nostalgia. The evening kicked off with the beautiful Sunset from album Prophesy, his 2001 follow up to Beyond Skin. We were transported from the cold Melbourne spring to sundrenched Ibiza. Moonrise followed, showcasing Nicky Wells’ stunning vocal talents and Sawhney’s flamenco guitar.

Breathing Light from Prophecy builds and falls and follows stories of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Nelson Mandela, and it swept the audience away in piano, violin and tablas.

Written and recorded in his bedroom, Beyond Skin is feted by fans and critics alike. It is an album that works on many levels.

With the crowd now warmed up and chilled out, it was on to the main course of the evening.

Written and recorded in his bedroom, Beyond Skin is feted by fans and critics alike. It is an album that works on many levels. Make no mistake, it is political and given the chaos and racist undertones of Brexit, Trump and others, as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. It is a plea against racism and war and a celebration of immigration, a topic as highly charged in Australia as it is in the UK.

With Broken Skin I was instantly transported back to Sunday afternoons in Manchester. Eva Stone’s vocal dexterity carries the song perfectly, injecting soul into the lush music. Next Sawhney told of how rapper on The Pilgrim Spek is now his publisher. The words took a backseat to the music and it soared far more than the original recording. The beautiful Homeland is, says Sawhney, one of his most personal songs and sent shivers down the collective spines of Hamer Hall’s very diverse audience. Anna Pheobe’s violin and Nicky Wells’ vocals combine to rouse the spirit.

This was followed by the sublime Tides which simply features Sawhney’s lyrical piano and Asif’s vocal talents as a drum machine to combine with his tablas.

The stunning, impossibly gorgeous voice of Swati Natekar was kept for the intro to Nadia, and then Nicky Wells took over as the drum ‘n’ bass drove the song along. It became clearer that she was the real star of the show in the crowd’s eyes.

Sawhney told stories and explained the history of each song. For the introduction to Immigrant, he spoke of his father’s hope, innocence and optimism of being a new immigrant to the UK, the hope of a new world that would be a better future. This is a beautiful song made more relevant given Brexit and Australia’s attitude to immigration.

Based on a nine-beat dance cycle, Serpents built into a writhing mass of sound as the serpent in the song coils around the world. We drifted away with Nicky Wells in Anthem Without Nation and Nostalgia before Sawhney launched into a description of the paradox that bookends Beyond Skin. He seemed to have got a bit excited for the end of the show as he had to be reminded that he had missed the amazing vocal dexterity of The Conference. Never has counting been so much fun.

And so on to the closing number Beyond Skin. It began with former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announcing that India had tested nuclear bombs at Pokhran and ended with Robert Oppenheimer’s famed quote from the Bhagvad Gita after witnessing the first nuclear explosion – “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. In between we were treated to sublime flamenco guitar and gorgeous swirling vocals.

Sawhney says reworking the album for live audiences has been a cathartic process, and this stripped-down version loses none of the richness of the full version presented at the Royal Albert Hall.

The band departed to a standing ovation. On their return, and with no more songs from the album left, a fun version of Dead Man from 2005’s Philtree had Wells and Stone in great form.

The final song was the stunning Prophecy, featuring just Sawhney and Asif – a true performance piece that Sawhney plays at 4:30 every morning on tour, to feel at one with the lands he visits. The song built to a stunning crescendo and the crowd rose one last time.

While the crowd had paid to see Sawhney, it was the women who truly stole the show. Violinist Anna Phoebe and the soulful Eva Stone both gave passionate and stunning performances, and singer Nicki Wells struck the biggest chord with the audience.

Sawhney says reworking the album for live audiences has been a cathartic process, and this stripped-down version loses none of the richness of the full version presented at the Royal Albert Hall. Beyond Skin is a sublime experience, and also because the issues of identity, nationality, race and religion that it addresses, seems more relevant today than ever.

Nitin Sawhney played Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on October 20.

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