While the gulf between East and West sometimes appears to be impossible to transverse in political terms, Nitin Sawhney, and his band of multicultural virtuosos have no difficulty crossing borders, and finding ways to reconcile apparently opposed cultures and traditions. Unlike politicians and religious fundamentalists, musicians have to listen to each other carefully, and respond sympathetically and creatively to the rhythms, and sounds of their collaborators.
Sawhney is a polymath, a master of several musical instruments, and more than comfortable in a variety of genres and creative mediums. His ‘unplugged’ set showcased highlights from his prodigious output as a songwriter. Seated on a stool, cradling his guitar, he directed his sublime band with supreme confidence. Every musician on stage shone, but vocalist Nicki Wells was, for me, the star of the show. Wells, a young blonde Englishwoman, is the master of several musical idioms, and effortlessly sings classical Indian music with passion and subtlety. The disparity between her appearance and her voice challenges the conventional verities concerning musical authenticity.
It’s too easy to pigeonhole Sawhney as the erudite poster boy for British multiculturalism. Of course his music is political in its daring fluidity, but it’s so much more. Most of his ‘unplugged’ set was originally recorded with electric instruments, and employed production techniques associated with electronica. His band did an amazing job of reproducing this material in an acoustic setting while mimicking the tones and rhythms of machines. This is no easy feat. I haven’t seen or heard musicians of this caliber in quite some time, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I think the refurbished Hamer Hall is a little cold, and remote if you’re seated towards the back of the venue. The sound was a little thin, and could’ve benefitted from a little more volume. I’ll make sure I’m front and centre next time.