On the list of the worst conversation starters, “Where are you from?” would be right up there. Reducing the person to a Lonely Planet cardboard cut-out is one thing, but when the question is prompted by your accent, complexion or general foreignness, it becomes a euphemism for, “You stick out a mile, mate”.
Sarathy Korwar’s new album More Arriving (out on Leaf Label) is the answer to the question, and it’s well thought out at that. Intricacies of cultural identity are acutely portrayed in ‘Bol’ by Cricklewood playwright Zia Ahmed’s biting, self-deprecating monologue (“I am Eng-er-land, I am England shirt made in Bangladesh / I am so damn lost”) and Aditya Prakash’s avuncular chorus sang in Hindi (“Speak, for your words are free”). In an austere finale, ‘Pravasis’, Karim Sultan’s heavy-hearted oud and Korwar’s tabla are in tight unison with Deepak Unnikrishnan’s satirical lyrics straight out of the ‘Immigrants by Occupation’ tab on OECD’s quarterly statistics.
The uniqueness of Korwar’s sound is conducive to his ability to strike the right balance between the contemporary and the traditional – the Gujarati singer Mirande Shah and the flautist Gandhaar Amin, both highly skilled in the Carnatic tradition, and the MCs of the conscious gully scene, Prabh Deep, Mawali, Delhi Sultanate and Trap Poju.
As a protest record, surprisingly enough, More Arriving falls short of its high standards due to bland generalisations, such as “Which racist do you want on your bank note?” And not least because the English painter J.M.W. Turner – the new face of the 20 pound note – campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Needless to say, this takes nothing away from the album’s riveting personal accounts of the multicultural Britain, that resonate politically as well.
Last week, the Nigerian’s Oscar submission Lionheart was disqualified, because speaking English was not Nigerian enough. Three months prior, Dean Baquet – Afro-American executive editor of New York Times – got grilled for refusing to use the word ‘racist’ to describe Donald Trump. It is fair to say, we still have work to do before we can see people as more than just a single adjective. More Arriving takes us one step closer to that.