Nitin Sawhney: Beyond Skin Revisited at Hamer Hall, Melbourne, Sunday October 20, 2019.
Wild cheers and applause announce Nitin Sawhney’s arrival on stage, before he instructs, “Please welcome the band,” as tabla player Aref Durvesh, vocalists Nicki Wells and YVA (Eva Stone) plus violinist Anna Phoebe McElligott take their positions. While Sawhney sports a black leather jacket and relatively casual attire, Wells, Stone and McElligott wear elegant, monochrome formal outfits. Sunset opens proceedings as we gently sway in our seats. We’re captivated by Sawhney’s nimble fingers while he plucks his selection of guitars, which are on constant rotation throughout the night. As for Durvesh, he constructs such incredibly complex beats on tabla that we suspect hypermobility in all of his fingers.
Moonrise follows and Sawhney tells us this song was recorded in four countries: Spain, Brazil, London and Paris. The interplay between Wells and McElligott, who face one another to synchronise their vocal and string rhythms, is playful perfection – it’s definitely a Mutual Admiration Society up there on that stage.
Having met the late Mandawuy Yunupingu in Arnhem Land, Sawhney says the former Yothu Yindi singer was “gracious, dignified and just an amazing presence to around”, which are qualities he also attributes to the late Nelson Mandela (who Sawhney was also fortunate enough to meet). After Sawhney moves to piano, we’re blessed with Breathing Light.
Now it’s time for Beyond Skin in full, and Sawhney tells us he came up with this album title first, creating the tracks (“almost like diary entries”) in his bedroom over a two-year period. For this record, Sawhney interviewed his parents about their experiences as migrants, which makes for “very personal, very cathartic” material for him to revisit. Album opener Broken Skin commences with a recording of Indian former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee proudly announcing that nuclear bombs had been tested in the Pokhran range. Through her glorious pipes, Stone immediately drops us directly into a place of emotional vulnerability.
We’re told that Hussain Yoosuf (AKA Spek from Canadian hip-hop duo Dream Warriors) actually performed his Pilgrim rap live at the Royal Albert Hall edition of Beyond Skin Revisited, but that’s not to be tonight, as his recorded part kicks in. During this song’s intro, Sawhney reveals Yoosuf is now his publisher (and Wells’ as well).
Homelands, Sawhney explains, explores the idea that your homeland isn’t just where you were born, geographically, but also your internal homeland: “the homeland of your mind and heart.” An extended intro showcasing McElligott’s exquisitely melancholy violin playing (her efforts are rewarded by our loud, mid-song applause) helps us tap into the song’s themes of deep longing and isolation. And it is largely thanks to Wells – an astonishingly talented multilingual vocalist who sings in English, Kabali and Portuguese, to name a few – that many of these tracks are executed so adroitly this evening; her expressive hand and arm gestures seem to help unlock these intricate, nuanced vocal performances. With Sawhney on piano and Durvesh on tabla, Tides is aptly titled as it gently washes over the audience. Sawhney keeps the original vocalist Swati Natekar’s intro for Nadia, before Wells takes over on live vocals (in the Brij dialect of Hindi).
After Sawhney points out how weird he thinks it is that we hear so many stories demonising people who just want a better life for themselves and their children, he admits that he hearing the recorded voice of his father – who passed away in 2013 – within his track Immigrant moves him. It’s the hope and optimism in his father’s voice – plus “the innocent belief and trust in a world that would be better” – that Sawhney says he finds powerful. Stone absolutely embodies hopeful optimism and her soaring melisma causes the audience to erupt at song’s close. Even Sawhney looks impressed.
Sawhney then recalls going to an Indian cultural centre in West Kensington, London, many years ago, and we’re told he was captivated by the rhythms of Kathak dancers. Serpents pays tribute to this cultural recollection as Sawhney ably takes the speaking parts in this song. While introducing Nostalgia, Sawhney speaks of a “sense of transferred nostalgia for the version of India that [his parents] talked about,” which was almost mythological in its beauty. Sawhney’s insights into these songs throughout the evening plunge us deeper into his work. After he mistakenly introduces Beyond Skin‘s title song, McElligott whispers a reminder about the album’s penultimate track, The Conference (which is the opposite of forgettable). Performed by Sawhney and Durvesh, this rhythmic chant in unison soon morphs into a virtuoso tabla-playing demonstration.
To conclude his set of songs exploring identity, race and nationality, Sawhney offsets the disturbing opening Vajpayee boast with a recording of the nuclear bomb inventor, Robert Oppenheimer, condemning his own creation by quoting from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Sawhney and co. score two rapturous standing ovations: one before and one after the encore, which comprises the sauntering, catchy Dead Man, and Prophecy (which Sawhney explains he used to play on guitar every day at 4.30am – a “personal ritual” while travelling).
Beyond Skin Revisited is not only an unmitigated success, but also a reminder of the power of music. While revisiting Sawhney’s stories through song – with their recurring themes of displacement and uncertainty – we’re struck by their continuing relevance. Beyond Skin hits home just as much now – maybe even more so – than when it was originally released 20 years ago.