Born in England to migrant parents from the Punjab, Nitin Sawhney’s musicality was culturally fluid from childhood as he studied piano, tabla, sitar, flamenco and classical guitar. Starting his performing career with the James Taylor Quartet, the star-studded list of those he has worked with since includes Anoushka Shankar, Paul McCartney, Nelson Mandela (he sampled him in an interview at his home) and Brian Eno. His accomplished musicianship is just one facet of his artistic pursuits: he has co-written comedy shows, written film scores, is a university lecturer and sits on boards of culturally significant institutions in the UK. He won the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
Save for the first two songs, this show is a track-by-track recreation of Beyond Skin, released to popular acclaim in 1999. To those of us who lived and breathed the album at its first release, the emotional reconnection with the entire performance is overwhelming.
A deeply personal album for Sawhney, it was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and was part of the exciting rise of the Asian Underground in the UK – a fusion of club styles such as acid jazz, drum and bass and electronica with musical elements from the Indian subcontinent, such as Hindustani vocals, bhangra and tabla percussion. The perfect expression of liminal migrant culture, it often carried powerful political messages while being irresistibly danceable.
Twenty years on, Sawhney, playing keyboard and guitar, is quietly self-possessed on stage, telling stories about each of the songs as he shares the spotlight with his virtuosic fellow musicians — vocalists Nicki Wells and Eva Stone, violinist Anna Phoebe McElligott and tabla player Aref Durvesh. Opening with the irresistible Sunset from his 2001 album Prophesy, Wells’ fluid mastery of the art Hindustani singing is astonishing, flowing in heart-tugging harmony with Stone’s pure jazz vocals and McElligott’s soulful violin. Sawhney’s guitar and Durvesh’s tabla underpins the whole with beats and rhythms that make you want to get off your seat and dance.
There’s a strong flamenco influence in Sawhney’s music with adaptations of Paco Peña songs, recorded cajón percussion and Wells’ soaring vocals reflecting close ties between Hindustani singing and flamenco cante jondo. The term duende in flamenco roughly translates to “soulful longing” and Beyond Skin is loaded with it.
It is a profoundly human album, and as such, is also political. Beginning with an Indian government announcement about underground nuclear testing, it ends with Oppenheimer quoting from the Baghavad Ghita in condemnation of his creation, the atomic bomb: Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.
The final word should go to Sawhney: inside the original album cover notes, he writes: I believe in Hindu philosophy. I am not religious. I am a pacifist. I am a British Asian. My identity and my history are defined only by myself – beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion, and Beyond Skin.
Beyond Skin — Revisited was for one-night-only in Adelaide as part of Adelaide Festival Centre’s OzAsia Festival, which runs until October 31.