I ruled classical music out at the beginning of this process – and, to be clear, this isn’t classical music – but I also need to talk about the BBC Proms, and this album, which I haven’t listened to many times in the intervening years – allows me to do that.
I feel I had always been aware of the Proms; we certainly watched the Last Night every year when I was growing up, and it always seemed to me to mark the end of summer and the proper return to the drudgery of the school year. I knew other concerts were available – my dad would listen to them from time to time, especially if there was nothing on TV, but it wasn’t until I lived within commuting distance of London that I properly started to appreciate the scale and accessibility of the whole thing.
The idea that you could (and Covid seems to have changed this) simply walk up to the Albert Hall of an evening, queue for an hour or two depending on the popularity of that day’s offering, and for a pretty much negligible price, see some of the best orchestras and musicians from around the world was startling, and I started to avail myself of the opportunity some time in the mid-1990s.
I suspect it was after we moved to Watford – Tring was a fair trek in to London from a station some miles from the town (they thought it would be better to build the station near the railway line), but once we lived in a place where you could (with a change of train here and there, or a drive up to Watford Junction) be in central London in 30 minutes or so, it became a thing we – usually just me, in truth – were able to do several times a summer.
I saw some spectacular things in those years, and the experience forever changed the kind of music I listened to, and also the way I thought about concert-going. The barely-organised chaos I remembered from my younger days watching overloud bands in converted cinemas had gradually evolved into a kind of slick, vastly overpriced, corporate ‘event’ where you might or might not be able to see the band from the only seats you could afford and the front rows seemed to be populated by people who had no particular involvement with the music, but whose suppliers or clients wanted to entertain.
And then I was exposed to concerts by household names (well, in my household, anyway) featuring some of the greatest music ever written in an iconic venue for less than I used to pay to stand in a freezing cowshed out by Edinburgh airport to see the biggest bands of 20 years before. It was civilised (although not completely comfortable – it was usually too hot, and you do have to stand up all evening, sometimes packed into a huge crowd), and it was all audible, you could see the sweat dripping off the brow of the percussionists, and appreciate every nuance of the wildly famous conductor.
I loved my Prom-going, and it remains one of the things I miss most about the British summer.
However, not every Prom was an orchestra playing a symphony. Scattered around the fringes of the festival were other things – 20th century musicals, for example, or film scores; a children’s Prom each season, and the occasional and eclectic Late Night Prom, which – like the one I’m about to describe – were often jazz-related.
These weren’t terribly Late Night in truth, they would start around 9:30 as I recall, and be scheduled for about an hour. Having said that, I just dug out the programme for the one from Friday, August 3 2001, and it started at 10pm.
I don’t recall the whole story of that Friday night, but I know, because I have both programmes here, that I attended both Proms. The way that worked was that you queued up dutifully for the first Prom, eating your M&S sandwich on the pavement in Prince Consort Street, and were accosted by the queue wranglers who dished out raffle tickets to anyone who said they wanted to attend both concerts. On exiting the Hall after the first one, you took your place allotted by the raffle ticket in the second queue, and went through the process again, each time paying the astonishing price of £3 for the privilege.
The first concert was a mix of Joshua Bell playing Bernstein and Ravel’s Bolero; the second was jazz-flavoured, and was billed as the ‘Later…’ Prom, featuring Jools Holland, who has been presenting the ‘Later…’ programme since the early 1990s (I just checked; it’s still going strong.)
Jools Holland and his Orchestra was the main attraction for me that night; the other artists were Julian Joseph playing some jazz standards with an acoustic trio, and Nitin Sawhney doing I knew not what.
Julian Joseph I knew – I was at the time a Radio 3 listener, and he had a jazz programme on there I would occasionally catch snippets of; Nitin Sawhney I didn’t know at all.
If you can remember back that far, I already confessed to buying a great many albums by artists I was going to see live, regardless of quality – I just wanted to be at least passingly familiar with the music before hearing it live, and the same thing applied here. Two of the three acts would be performing songs I knew, or was at least passingly familiar with; the third was an unknown quantity, and rather than discover it all as it was played to me, I decided to revisit my youth and hear some of it beforehand.
I went out and bought the CD of Prophesy a couple of weeks before, and played it until I was familiar with the songs. It was – and is – quite unlike anything else I was listening to, and came from a place I was unfamiliar with, but I put it straight on this list as I was drawing it up, and I have no doubts it deserves to be here, even if I haven’t heard it in many years now – I no longer have the CD, which puts me at a slight disadvantage, as I don’t know who any of the musicians and singers are, beyond Sawhney himself, and I will be guessing at some of this, I’m afraid. It’s a good exercise in pushing my boundaries, though, and I’m looking forward to rediscovering it.
That Late Night Prom over-ran that evening; I remember slipping out at around the time of the encores to race back to South Kensington station, so I wouldn’t miss my last train back to Watford, but I do remember it fondly; Late Night Proms were special, and had a relaxed atmosphere all their own. I wonder if they still do?
The album isn’t on Spotify, so I’m recreating it thanks to a YouTube playlist, giving me visuals as well as audio. I’ll try not to be distracted by them, and just listen.
The album starts in a space I recognised from the likes of Massive Attack or Soul II Soul, radio staples of the previous ten years. It’s a chilled dance beat with a delightful female voice, who I can’t identify, and all purrs along in a fairly predictable way until the appearance of a rapped section in a language which some digging suggests is Bengali – it’s entrancing and engaging, and I’m immediately reminded why I liked this album so much.
Nothing has a lo-fi feel over it’s tricky beat, with a soothing vocal probably by the song’s writer, Tina Grace. It does sound of its time, reminding me of the spaced-out songs I’d sometimes hear on the radio in the evenings, but it doesn’t grab me the way the previous track did; it’s soothing deapite its somewhat nihilistic lyric, but no more than that.
I do remember Acquired Dreams, however. It’s much harder to pin down, featuring electronic beats and traditional Indian instruments in a mainly instrumental soundscape which dances from speaker to speaker, bringing in lush string sections here, and a repeated vocal line which may or may not mean something; it certainly sounds at once modern and rooted in an ancient tradition. It’s really hard to pick apart the influences and traditions these sounds are coming from, which I suspect is part of the point; it’s intentionally a mashup of whatever sounds good together, without particular emphasis being given to any one part of it – there are clear jazz elements, but just as many rooted in traditions I have no experience with at all. Comfortably my favourite of the first three tracks, it’s uplifting and inspiring.
It fades out with flute sounds drifting into a reprise / early draft of Nothing, called Nothing More, which revisits the earlier track with just voice and sparse acoustic guitar over a background of waves crashing on a beach. It acts as a coda and – perhaps – a bit of a recontextualization of the earlier version, sounding more hopeful and relaxed.
Moonrise is sung in a mixture of Portuguese (I assume Brazilian Portuguese) and Rai, the Algerian folk music sung in Arabic. The mix is startlingly effective, and the musical underpinnings – save for the spectacular classical guitar - are simple, designed to direct attention to the words. It makes absolutely no difference that I don’t understand any of them; it’s a powerful statement of fusion and unity; actual World Music in a time when that was a label used to shift more units.
The next track, Street Guru (Part 1), starts with a field recording (echoes of the last post here) of what I’m led to believe is a Chicago taxi driver, of which the key line is ‘technology has made us slaves of the time’. The same technology which makes music like this possible is also enslaving us. This is more than 20 years ago; I’m still waiting for the promised ‘backlash against technology’.
The Preacher appears to be the heart of the album; it talks about ‘the Seal of Prophecy’, and features a vocal from Terry Callier, full of blues and the heartfelt soulful folk music he made his own. Again, the arrangement is sparse, eventually fading out altogether to let Callier’s words sink in. It’s a simple song of joy and hope.
The introduction to Breathing Light is a war report from the frontline of the Bosnian conflict in Sarajevo, followed by a glorious piano line, a stuttering drumbeat, more flute, and the words of Nelson Mandela, proclaiming us ‘free to be free’. The juxtaposition of the two spoken word parts is – as so often on this beguiling album – startling and provocative. It is, of course, very much of its time; the reference points are from the tumultuous and – I think – hopeful post nineties point of view; this album was released before the September of 2001 changed so much about the world, it retains an optimism and general sense of hope which I don’t think we see too often in the following few years.
It fades directly into Developed, which runs the risk of me getting into a lengthy political rant. It’s a spoken word piece from an Australian aboriginal, and let me just say this – from the perspective of a white person who has come to live on traditional lands of people who were here for tens of thousands of years before I showed up – he’s dead right.
It moves directly into an acapella children’s choir singing in one of the South African languages – my research suggests it is Zulu, but I’m prepared to be corrected on that. It’s a magnificent transition, away from the beats and synthesised sounds of the rest of the album, to the simple power and beauty of the human voice. It’s called Footsteps, and it ties us in to the next track, Walkaway, which develops the theme of the footsteps in what begins in the Western idiom, but which reaches out to all the sounds of the world as it takes us on its journey – none of them are more than hints and illustrations, but they underline the point of this album, folding Martin Luther King and Malcolm X into the mix under some Indian strings. It’s quite the journey, this album, and while I don’t feel remotely qualified to deconstruct it, I certainly know how to react to it.
Street Guru (Part 2) picks up the conversation from the first part, initially with a snippet of song which could be coming from the taxi’s radio, which finds its previous beat again, until the question ‘What’s going on; we can’t use our brains?’ shuts it down instantly.
I’ve looked up and discovered that the playlist doesn’t include a track called Cold and Intimate – all I have are the lyrics. Once I’m through the rest of this, I’ll go digging for it; it’ll appear out of sequence, if it appears at all.
That short interruption is probably what I needed to prepare me for Ripping Out Tears, which is an angry, guitar-driven rap. It references Columbine, but is otherwise ripped from today’s headlines. Has nothing changed in the 21 years since this was recorded? It’s a long way from Mandela’s hopeful words, and the clear, joyous sound of the Zulu choir. I don’t know who the rapper is, but she’s rightfully angry. I’m not a hip-hop kind of person (you probably noticed), but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and understand exactly what’s going on here.
Seriously, 21 years?
We move from the rapped Prophecy to the final statement of – well, what exactly? We’ve heard from all kinds of people all around the world and their views on what the future holds; this is the closing statement of Nitin Sawhney, and it is stepped in all the traditions we’ve been visiting along this spectacular journey – there are traditional Indian instruments, Western-sounding vocal harmonies, and Arabic-sounding melodies, all set over a beat which accelerates constantly until we’re all hanging on for dear life as it swoops and soars to a spectacular end where everything drops out, leaving us with only the voices, seemingly still seeking answers, only fitting for this most eclectic and thought-provoking album.
I don’t know why it fell out of favour in my collection to the point where I don’t own a physical copy any more. I’m also more than a little disappointed that it’s not available anywhere to stream, but I shall go and seek out a new copy, because I need to spend a lot more time with this music.
Like I said, I’m not exactly equipped to comment on it on more than a basic level of noting its impact on me, but I can report that it’s quite the impact – it’s a tremendous album, and I wish I’d spent more time with it, and exploring Sawhney’s work all these years. There’s still time, though.
Postscript – I did track down a video for Cold and Intimate,it’s back in that ‘Massive Attack’ soundscape from the beginning of the album. Again, I don’t know who the singer is, but it fits right in here, providing a bridge which makes the transition toRipping Out Tears seem a little less jarring.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
A great many, I should think. I’ll let you know when I dig some out.
Compilations to consider?
I don’t see any, but perhaps this might be the appropriate place to try out one of those Spotify ‘This Is..’ playlists. That’s what I’ll be doing.
There’s an album called Live at Ronnie Scott’s, which I’ll be checking out, too.
Film soundtracks. I’ve seen the ‘live action’ Mowgli, and therefore I have heard his soundtrack for that. Again, I’ll be revisiting that – after all, I’ll have some space in my schedule in a few weeks.