Some eleven years ago, I was asked to write a review of a newly released album on a local record label. The label folded in the end; financially, it was pretty much a disaster. But the record – ah, the record...! I liked it a lot. I like it even more now. It stayed on my player for months, and I always return to it with pleasure.
You can still find it in all the usual places. It's called Saurang Orchestra; it was written, arranged, orchestrated and produced by Midlands born and raised Surinder Sandhu. Sandhu now works all over the world, in as many genres as you can dream of. But this early album is, I think, one of the few successful east-west fusion albums. Alongside a huge battery of classical Indian instrumentation, Sandhu deployed saxophones, string bass, acoustic and electric guitars (from, among others, Steve Vai)... and the RLPO string section.
This year, I got to meet and talk with Surinder Sandhu; he was playing at Eastern Electronic Festival. I really wanted to talk to him about this album (but scroll down for details of his newest project) and the bridging of music worlds.
Here you are, a huge global name, with a contacts book that goes on forever... and you're hardly know in your home town. I don't get it.
"Somebody said to me, years ago, that you can't be a prophet in your own land! I'm from Wolverhampton, and I've always taken that as good advice. When I was working in Hollywood, working out there, coming back to Wolverhampton, nobody knew who I was. But I'd just been out doing some incredible stuff. It's never been important; the work is always the number one thing.
"I used to know this guy – sort of still do - he'd walk around Wolverhampton with his guitar, putting his hand up. People knew who he was, but he'd never really played outside of Wolverhampton! I'd be walking alongside him. Nobody knew who I was. I took a lot of pleasure in that. It's a nice thing. He loved the attention, and I loved the work.
"So the Birmingham thing... Birmingham's a great place. I love the music here, I love the musicians. It's such an underrated city. We've got some of the best musicians in the world, some of the best creatives around. What's interesting about Birmingham is that they are making it happen. Rather than wait for the windows of opportunity, they're making the opportunities. The musicians are doing this. They're going into the venues, setting up nights... I really like that.
"But coming back to your original question – I don't know. That's how it is."I guess you go where the work is.
Can we talk about the Saurang Orchestra album?For me, it's an east-west fusion that actually works. Most of them don't, quite: either it's a western groove with the eastern guys noodling round the edges, or it's the other way around. But not here! How did you pull that sound out of the RLPO string section?
"They were very co-operative! The guys in Liverpool are incredible. The whole of that collaboration spring from me being invited up there to give a lecture on Indian music. We had about 25, 30 musicians turn up. I gave this talk, and I played some Sarangi for them. They loved it. It was the musicians who said 'Will you write something for us? And let's put a concert together!'
"That, to me, means a lot, more than if it came from the management, so I instantly said OK. So we'd had this thing, and three years later when we came to record the album they were on it, they were happy. But it took a lot of trial and error.
"You have to understand and respect both sides. Classical musicians can be a bit snobby, they don't think they need to be told."Is this Western Classical you're talking about?
"No - across the board! Because you spend so much time practising and perfecting what you're doing, you can become a bit insular, a bit single minded with it. I lived in India for a bit, and spent a lot of time around classical musicians, great classical musicians... I'd play a bit of rock or some jazz to these guys. They'd listen to it and say 'Yeah...It's nothing special.. I could do that.' And they'd play something really fast.
"And I'd try to explain, as a nineteen year-old boy, that that wasn't the same thing! Very impressive of course, but... it's that BB King thing, or a George Benson lick or a Ben Webster lick: playing three notes a certain way is so hard to do. So, so, hard to do. Playing those three notes with passion, with flavour, with feeling – that can take a lifetime of practise.
"But you have to respect it. If you don't respect it, you'll never get that sound. One the Saurang Orchestra album, I was recording Steve Vai - a track called 'Sunday Morning in Calcutta'. Steve hadn't played much acoustic on anything. Some semi-acoustic on Zappa recordings.
"So I said 'look, I want you to play acoustic'. And he was like 'I'm ready So when we recorded the track. I'd flown in from Calcutta to Los Angeles. I had tapes of the Sarod player. Steve was there, started playing his acoustic, and it was very impressive stuff.
"I kept stopping him. I must have stopped him about five plus times.We are talking about Steve - guitar god – Vai, right?
"Yeah. And I kept stopping him and saying 'play less!'
And we'd start recording again...
'Stop. Play even less'
"But there's a reason why certain musicians are who they are, and it is because they have this brilliance, this genuine desire to create something special. He's one of those rare breeds, because there's never any ego. He wanted it to be special for me and for me to produce him. If you listen to the recording, I wanted the space between the notes – like we do in Indian music. He played so well on that!I'm curious about how you got started. How did you gravitate to the Sarangi?
"When you're in the 60s and 70s, growing up in the UK, the links we had back to India were temples, Bollywood movies, and family events. I don't watch Bollywood movies now, really, but in those days, we sat as a family, and watched on VHS. And I heard the Saurang; as soon as I heard it, I loved the sound. It wasn't until later that I discovered more. There's a fantastic organisation in Wolverhampton called Surdhwani, who do Indian classical music concerts. The people who ran it, Mr and Mrs Sarcar, I think, did it purely out of passion for Indian classical music.
"We had, in Wolverhampton, the best classical musicians in the world coming: Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussein, Amjad Ali Khan: all the best, the crème de la crème, came to Wolverhampton, because of these guys who loved Indian Classical music. I started going to concerts, I spent a lot of time in the library... taking out books, records, cassettes. That's how I ended up with the Sarangi, and finally moving to Delhi, to study with a master."But you're not the only one to do this. Mendi Singh swapped pop banghra for classical Tabla studies. And you like to collaborate, clearly, which is a very Birmingham / Wolverhampton thing.
"I think it's that British thing when, you're from a family of immigrants in a new country. There's two sides of culture, isn't there? There's a fantastic choreographer I work with called Shane Shambhu – he studied Bharatanatyam Indian dancing. He's from a South Asian background. We have similarities in the way we work. What's interesting is the creative parallels: we have this cultural heritage. But then there's the fantastic array of music that we're exposed to in the UK. With respect – because in India it's there, but it's kind of almost a novelty."Is it filtered in some way?
"It is, even with the internet. But here, we really tend to get stuck in. I was born and raised on great pop music. I grew up on 70s pop music, which was probably the best we've ever had."You always identify with the stuff you grew up on as a teenager. Can I ask you a question? We've seen things evolve in Birmingham and elsewhere, to the point where we have a fabulously diverse and very cool music scene. But I'm surprised to see so little progression into the mainstream from young Asian artists. Why do you think that is?
"You know, I always say it's about a diet. A dietary process of what you're listening to. If Asian audiences don't have good role models, then you're screwed. I used to have this conversation with the BBC Asian Network about the music they're playing, and why they need to play better stuff. Creative new Asian musicians are not being pushed."Plus ca change... that radio blockage is no different in spirit from those at US radio in the 50s, and UK radio in the 60s. They played safe and obvious, and held back the new kids until they couldn't stop them. But now we live in an age where radio is not the only way to spread the word.
And yet, and yet... That glorious process, where music seeps from one culture to another, sometimes over decades, is now happening. The town is bursting with home grown musicians, of undisputed brilliance and adventure. We've hardly scratched the surface. There are treasures to discover, everywhere you look. It's something to shout about, and it's one of the new aspects to this city and this region that gives me a lot of hope.
Surinder Sandhi is part of that glorious process. And he has a new crossover project in the pipeline: Funkawallahs
"I'm just prepping the Funkawallahs album for mastering at Abbey Road over the next two weeks, after which there will be a month long series of clips appearing online sales. We plan to press a limited edition vinyl batch too We're not announcing live dates yet but will do after September."
Surinder's web pages, with more details of Funkawallahs.
An earlier interview with Surinder around thw Eastern Electronic Festival