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Nitin Sawhney At The Union Chapel

Josh Learner catches up with a big star in a small venue

Written by . Published on November 7th 2011.


Nitin Sawhney At The Union Chapel

THE man needs no introduction. You could fill a book the size of War and Peace with the list of honours, accolades and achievements this British-born, Indian musician, composer and producer has to his CV. He has written nine albums, including the release of Last Days of Meaning in September, co-written BBC’s Goodness Gracious Me, composed the music for Channel 4’s Second Generation, created symphonies for films and, most recently, scored BBC’s Human Planet. And before I forget, he’s worked with Paul McCartney, Anish Kapoor and Akham Khan. He was even offered an OBE but turned it down.

The percussion reverberated around the holy confines of the chapel all night long providing a piercingly intense atmosphere. And all the while Sawhney sat on his seat clutching his Spanish guitar lovingly…

I find a relaxed Sawhney in his dressing before his two, sold out, back-to-back gigs at the magnificent Union Chapel in Islington. “I hope you don’t mind me filing my nails while we do this,” said Sawhney as I took a stall. “Not at all,” I joked back nervously, fully aware I was in the presence of one of my heroes.

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Since the announcement of the two dates earlier this year, his fans have been overwhelmed with anticipation at the prospect of Sawhney’s eclectic sound being showcased in such a small venue, with both gigs selling out swiftly. Rochester-born Sawhney is more accustomed to bigger venues, but one thing’s for sure, he’s excited about the prospect of playing at the Grade II listed Victorian church in north London.

“What’s nice is that we’re very lucky in that we always sell out in London and we could sell out big venues like the Royal Albert Hall,” he remarks modestly, “It’s actually really nice to come and play at smaller venues because it actually offers you an opportunity to really listen to how the vibe of the album is and new material in relation to an audience that’s right there in front of you that you can see and have eye contact with really easily. I think it’s really nice this venue, I’ve totally fallen in love with it, it’s beautiful. It’s got a really good sense of being an electric atmosphere for an acoustic show. With the Royal Albert Hall you want to do something epic, which we did towards the end, but here it seems we can get into something really quiet and intimately sonic.”

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Sawhney’s gig at the Royal Albert Hall last May was one of his biggest shows to date, which he described as being a retrospective of his work as well as a showcase of his new album, a record narrated by John Hurt (the voice of Human Planet) who depicts a fictional, intransigent and inward thinking old man, conveyed through a series of intermissions between tracks. The show also included a spectacular pipe organ commission, another addition to Sawhney’s already prolific instrumentalist make up.

Fast-forwarding myself from his dressing room to the centre back row of the balcony of the Union Chapel, I witnessed Sawhney and his entourage, including Tina Grace and Nicki Wells who contributed vocals to the Loss of Meaning record, take the captivated crowd on a journey through tracks from Prophecy, Beyond Skin and tracks from the new album. The feel was much more minimalist than some of his past shows and Sawhney added some interesting takes on some of his classic tracks, but this didn’t take anything away from the overwhelming fusion of musical influences that have saturated his work since his solo career began in 1993.

Flamenco flavours have been present in much of Sawhney’s career and this gig was no exception, the opening track reminded the crowd of this fact with a beautiful display of vocals from Nicki Wells, for me, the star of the show. Never before have I witnessed a British, female vocalist, perform an Indian-themed song so seamlessly on ‘Nadia’, filling in for Swati Natekar. It wasn’t long before we were introduced to the sitar, cementing Sawhney’s Asian musical backbone. The percussion reverberated around the holy confines of the chapel all night long providing a piercingly intense atmosphere. And all the while Sawhney sat on his seat clutching his Spanish guitar lovingly, as well as providing a narrative and introducing new performers to the stage.

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Back in Sawhney’s dressing room, I had to ask him what he looks back on with most pride from his glittering career. “I was really proud of the Human Planet series, doing the music for it because that was a really big challenge actually writing all the music and it’s a beautiful series, I’ve obviously been very proud of some of the albums that I’ve made, particularly Beyond Skin and Prophecy probably because I travelled round the world with Prophecy.

 Beyond Skin was a very cathartic album because there was lot of things that I was dealing with right from childhood and also my world view so it was a lot to do with ideas around that, but not only this the people that I’ve worked with, the diverse kinds of work I’ve done I suppose is the breadth of it and that’s what I feel most proud of.” It becomes evident that Sawhney himself finds it hard to pinpoint a particular project or album from his warehouse of works. “Going to work with orchestras to deejaying at Fabric to doing stuff with Anthony Gormley and Paul McCartney is something I treasure too as they are people I greatly admire,” he adds.

Sawhney, 48, is widely regarded as one of the UK’s brightest creative talents. There seems to be no let-up in his thirst for innovating and creating new projects. He is currently working on an orchestral score for Hitchcock’s The Lodger with many more ideas in the pipeline. I left the Union Chapel humbled, if only for the chance to meet and watch one of the most distinct and versatile musicians alive.

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