Interview: Sarathy Korwar

sarathy korwar by fabrice bourgelle

Percussionist and producer Sarathy Korwar is the one of the first musicians to emerge blinking into the sunlight after an immersive PRS for Music Foundation and Steve Reid Foundation mentorship programme.

As one of the inaugural alumni from the charities’ InNOVAtion Award scheme, he’s benefited from close-up contact with its mentors Four Tet, Emanative, Floating Points, Koreless and Gilles Peterson.

Sarathy’s earthy sound pricked the ears of all the mentors, who were intrigued by the blending of his Hindustani heritage with the templates of US jazz masters and post-millennial electronic London.

Before embarking on the scheme, the lure of India and America’s roots had already set Sarathy on a path of discovery from the US, to Chennai, India, and finally London, where he fell in with likeminded sonic wayfarers Arun Ghosh and Shabaka Hutchings.

But the grounding he received via the mentorship programme has accelerated his creativity and helped him cement his own flavourful fusion of jazz, electronic and Indian harmonics – which are best experienced in full flight on his debut album Day to Day (out 8 July).

We catch up with Sarathy to learn more about his unique musical flavours and his experiences on the mentorship programme…

What sort of music did you grow up listening to?
I grew up with a lot of Hindustani classical music in the house, as both my parents are trained classical singers. By age 12 I’d been playing tabla for four years but I was also listening to The Doors, The Beatles, Janis Joplin. And then I began listening to jazz when I was about 15.

Sarathy Korwar

What led you into music creation?
I started playing the tabla when I was 8 and continued taking lessons through my teens. Somehow I was always drawn to the drums, probably because of the music I was listening to. I was also visually always drawn to watching the drummer whenever I watched a band perform. I started playing drum-kit at the age of 15 and have been playing both instruments (drum-kit & tabla) ever since.

Who have you been most inspired by musically?
It’s difficult to pinpoint specific musicians, but definitely everything starts with my tabla gurus (Rajeev Devasthali and Sanju Sahai) who have inspired me throughout my career and still continue to do so. I would say Indian classical music has inspired me and also jazz musicians like Charles Lloyd, Don Cherry, Jaimeo Brown to name a few. The London jazz scene is also very inspiring.

How have your roots in Indian folk music influenced your sound?
My roots aren’t really in Indian folk music but of the past couple of years my interest in understanding the values that underpin a lot of folk music has contributed to developing my sound. I think context, belief and spontaneity are very important and folk music embodies these three elements beautifully.

What are the base elements of Indian classical rhythms and how do they permeate the music you’re making now?
The way ‘time’ functions in Indian classical music is that it’s cyclical and not linear. Musical phrases can be broken down to their smallest rhythmic blocks and then reorganised to create complex syncopation. I use these techniques and concepts frequently while composing tunes or building improvisatory frameworks.

How did you first get into jazz?
I had a teacher in school who was a big jazz-head. He used to talk to me about Ahmad Jamal, Coltrane and Miles with such enthusiasm that it got me excited to want to check these guys out. Once I started listening to a few records he’d suggested I was well on my way.

What was it like to join the Steve Reid Foundation’s mentorship programme?
I was really excited to have been chosen to be on the programme. I felt that learning from the mentors was a great chance for me to spend time with some amazing artists that I really respected. Also learning from them first hand about the industry and getting their feedback about my music was very helpful.

Has the support helped your creative process and career?
It definitely has, mostly by giving me the self-belief to realise that my music can be any good! It has made me trust in my own creative process and intuition a lot more. It has also opened up a lot of different opportunities in my career. The mentors have put me in touch with a lot of people in the music industry, which has been a great opportunity for me to share my music with a lot of people. I feel like all the support has been very helpful in building a strong foundation for the future.

What insight did you get from Four Tet, Sam Shepherd, Gilles Peterson and the other mentors?
Kieran (Four Tet) said he really liked what he was hearing and told me to trust my instincts when making crucial decisions about the music. Gilles, Simon Goffe and Emily Moxon really helped me understand how to get the record out and promote it in the best way possible and Nick Emanative was instrumental in producing as well as mixing the record, and is someone to whom I owe a lot of gratitude.

How has it shaped your debut album Day to Day?
The album is a product of the entire mentoring process that the Steve Reid Foundation provided. The album is the culmination of two years of work and is testament to the fact that involving very creative and generous people in music making is the only way forward.

How do you feel now the record is nearly out in the world?
Anxious! It’s my debut record so I’m really hoping it’s well received. I’m very happy that it is coming out on such a great label (Ninja Tune), and I’m also really pleased that I got the opportunity to work with some supremely gifted musicians like Shabaka Hutchings, Giuliano Modarelli, Al Macsween and Domenico Angarano. So regardless of how the record does, it has been a great experience for me personally.

What’s the last great record you listened to?
Came across Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music last week through Paul Bradshaw playing it at Brilliant Corners in Dalston. Went home and listened to it again and it’s still on loop!

Sarathy’s album Day to Day is released on 8 July through Ninja Tune/Steve Reid Foundation. The launch party is at Total Refreshment Centre, London, on 14 July.

Learn more about the foundation’s work at prsformusicfoundation.com.

Top image: Fabrice Bourgelle