Beyond Skin

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A struggle for equality of transcendental entitlement has been a basic struggle that pervaded the art and philosophies emerging from the past century's anti-colonial movements. The declaration of artistic independence with which Nitin Sawhney introduces his Beyond Skin album originate in this struggle.

Nitin Sawhney

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Thursday, November 16 2000, 4:32 PM

"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 and Beyond Skin." - Nitin Sawhney

Once I met a former teacher of mine, an Indian-born novelist, in an elevator. "I was just at a conference last week," I told her gleefully, knowing that she would enjoy the report, "and there was a paper --- one that I skipped --- on anti-Hegelian space in your novels. Tell me it's not true!"

She grabbed the sides of the elevator in mock horror. "They've outed me! They discovered that I'm an anti-Hegelian!" We doubled over in laughter. A couple weeks ago we recalled that moment to her husband, who shook his head in mock sadness and said "You sleep with a woman for so many years and then you find out that she is an anti-Hegelian. It makes a man lose faith in the world, I tell you."

In that spirit of lost faith and good humor over the loss, it's time to out Nitin Sawhney as one more anti-Hegelian. The poor fellow needs an explanation, so here goes a short version. And you thought you were reading a music review?

When Georg Hegel declared so famously that "Philosophy proper begins in the West", he claimed that concretization of abstracts is possible under Western socio-philosophical paradigms that value individuation, but that totalitarian and collectivist non-Western societies snuff out any such possibility. Hegel wrote in History of Philosophy that "The blessedness of the West is thus so determined that in it the subject as such endures and continues in the substantial; the individual mind grasps its Being as universal, but universality is just this relation to itself", For Hegel, the West was not only the sole possible site of true transcendence, but of the social progress towards individual autonomy that would enable its achievement for all of humanity.

Progressive politics in Europe and America, no less than other politics, have relied heavily on an Hegelian idea of progressive social change enabled through changes in the abstract realm. The philosophical 'discovery' of individuation and private conscience became a driving force in separating cultural histories, such that an Euro-American ideal of abstraction was established as the basic denominator of cultural narrative.

It was Hegel, admirable for so many other reasons as a prophet of liberty, who argued that religious and aesthetic hierarchicalizations elevate West over non-West, or white over colored. This hierarchy begins with a progression from material to abstract, for "Philosophy first commences when a race for the most part has left its concrete life...when a gulf has arisen between inward strivings and external reality, and the old forms of Religion...are no longer satisfying." The specific forms of Euro-American abstraction were thus designated not only the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, but an invisible gender and racial line that prohibited democratic participation in intellectual domains. Not only does an exclusive claim on abstraction provide empowerment, it provides sole social franchise to white men.

A struggle for equality of transcendental entitlement has been a basic struggle that pervaded the art and philosophies emerging from the past century's anti-colonial movements. The declaration of artistic independence with which Nitin Sawhney introduces his Beyond Skin album originate in this struggle. In its conceptual construct, this album illustrates the extent to which Eurocentric delineation of philosophy proper to its own traditions is an utterly blinkered and bankrupt enterprise. The Neoplatonists never forgot that musical abstraction is a form of philosophy, and neither has Nitin Sawhney. The musical counter-abstractions through which Sawhney argues are life-affirming and base themselves on an aesthetic of cultural integrationism, rather than separatism.

The album opens with a sampled invocation of Indian prime minister Vajpayee's announcement of the first Indian nuclear test and closes with Robert Oppenheimer's quotation of the Bhagavad Gitain response to the Trinity test in 1945: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Oppenheimer, a quintessential product of Western scientific rationalism, found best expression in Hindu philosophy. Scientific abstraction, translated into material existence, had become death incarnate. Or as Sawhney writes "The western creator of the bomb condemning it in the name of Hinduism, the Hindu prime minister testing it in the name of what? Progress? Should India be thanking the West for donating weapons of mass destruction?" Sawhney opposes the BJP's Hindu nationalism that pushed India into nuclear exhibitionism, creating an India-Pakistan nuclear binary that embraces the murderous potential of Trinity that Oppenheimer sought to repudiate.

Anti-nuclearism runs throughout the album. At first I had complete enthusiasm for the thoughtfulness dedicated to this project, but after repeated listenings the mixed quality of the music becomes more apparent. 'Tides', for instance, opens with a radio news announcement of another French nuclear test on Mururoa followed by ocean sounds overlaid with a jazz piano piece composed and performed by Sawhney. The scientism of modulated radio waves has an antithesis in uncontrolled ocean waves, and the music performs a meditative synthesis. While its ideas are clear, the music itself approaches uncomfortably close to piano lounge style.

Such moments aside, this is the best anti-nuclear music that I have heard, given that this line of music thematics is characterized more commonly by programmatic shtick and sappy Earth-love. A few bare sampled words and instrumentals accomplish sophisticated statements of anti-nuclear philosophy. Good-bye to Steven Stills, his wooden ships on the water, and all that. In 'Serpents', one of several excellent tracks on the album, flute accompaniment to Katchak vocalizations invoke the image of a serpent wrapping itself around the earth, around humanity. A mythic suggestiveness of a lethal and sinuous force of destruction emerges. 'Beyond Skin', the final and title track, makes this suggestiveness explicit in a haunting hymn.

Interwoven through the nuclear songs are allied themes of immigration and distance, these being themes that characterized Sawhney's previous work. If a destructive idea and technology immigrated to Asia in the form of nuclearism, a positive and contributory flow of immigrant humanity arrived in Britain. This confounding of separatist Hegelian geographies is integral to Sawhney's musical thinking. 'Nadia', with a compelling performance by singer Swati Natekar, is a beautiful song of separation across water. 'Pilgrim', performed by Asian Canadian rapper Dream Warrior-Spek, is far less compelling (compare it with the much more convincing but wordless improvisational rap of 'The Conference'). 'Immigrant' samples Sawhney's father recounting his recruitment as an immigrant worker and begins well, but does not succeed well in its attempt to combine a Bengali refrain with a very mundane R&B-inflected ballad. Sawhney has a disturbing attraction to bland, amorphous lyrics that reappears in this album, one that suggests too little resistance to over-simplification. It is too often a case of the music improving the lyrics.

'Anthem Without Nation', which integrates musical ideas on anti-nuclearism and immigration, is magnificent. Steve Shehan's percussion works tightly with Devinder Singh's lyrically melancholy singing (liner translation notes would have been helpful). Nuclearism and nationalism are conjoined ideologies and 'Anthem Without Nation' makes that conjunction explicit.

This is an album of ideas and passion. The words "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" have become "Now I am become music, the creator of worlds."

Beyond Skin is an Outcaste Records release 

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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