Sunday, 7 May 2017

Surinder Sandhu and his funky Karma Machine

One of the most exciting albums I've heard in years. I don't say that very often these days.

I'm ancient. So I've heard a lot of stuff. I've seen the same ideas come round and round and round. And really, there's nothing wrong with that – pop music is always rewriting itself using what's been done before. For many people, including kids making music for the first time, that's a rush for them, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Nothing wrong with grabbing old ideas and giving them fresh interpretation either. Once in a while, the results are exceptional.

Step forward Surinder Sandhu. Surinder takes his time. His projects can take years. This one took at least five, but then he is a busy man. When I chatted with him, he was just heading off for a rehearsal at a local theatre, before finishing off a project for the CBSO, and setting up stuff for the next Mr Khan project.

There's a new album at last: Karma Machine. I see it as a hugely significant development in Birmingham's world of music.

What fascinates me is how this is all developing. Asian music coming out of Brum is just - different. We should be very very proud of what's going on.  It calls for a bit of  support and recognition.

I've know of Surinder for a while. His Saurang Orchestra album, which emerged in 2003/4, was a hugely ambitious and expensive project involving location recording, the Royal Liverpool  Philharmonic Orchestra, and guitar giants like Steve Vai, along with Surinder's super-expressive work on Sarangi.

Sarangi? It's an Asian stringed instrument, with generally four bowed strings and maybe 30 sympathetic drone strings, but proportions vary. Think of an eastern Theorbo, if you like.

The Saurang Orchestra album sported a host of other luminaries too, but I'm not sure it's recouped even now. The economics of modern-day recording are fascinating and terrifying. But the bonus for you is that it remains a fascinating album mixing Asian traditional instrumentation with full-on western ideas. You should check it out.

East-West fusions? Not new

Of course, east-west fusions have been going on for decades now, from Jazz work (John Mayer, John Coltrane, John MacLaughlin...) and latterly multiple strands of pop and dance emerging now and again into the mainstream. George Harrison deserves recognition for the work he was doing in the mid-sixties with the Beatles, as early as the Revolver album.

Birmingham has rich veins of talent and creativity in this field, with Layla Tutt, Mendi Singh and the Duggal brothers whose cluster of projects takes in Swami and Apache Indian. I know I've missed a few - please correct me if you have the inclination.

Having listened to Surinder's stuff  for a long time, I sought him out for a Radio To Go blog piece a few years ago. At the time, he was planning something new and ambitious, mixing 70s funk with some of his own ideas, under the working title of Funkawallahs. It's finally seen the light of day, and I'm enchanted; I'm astonished and impressed. When I hooked up with him to talk about the project, we talked music and music cultures for hours.
Surinder: For me the album is a look back at my youth growing up in the UK, and listening to James Brown, Earth Wind and Fire, Quincy Jones – later on, Prince... I could go on all day. 
RV: On Karma Machine you're using the Sarangi in a different way to how you did fourteen years ago on the Saurang Orchestra project...
Surinder: It's about serving the song. Playing the Sarangi in a soloist manner didn't serve the music on Karma Machine. I wanted to create something to do with texture, to do with the melody. If you look at Motown, or any of the bands that inspired Karma Machine, there's not a lot of solos in the music. 

So – a lotta lotta funk. Mixed with all kinds of other stuff. You have to listen to it to believe it. Karma Machine is loaded to the gunwales with some of Birmingham's finest, most able musos - Roger Innis, Glyn Phillips, Loz Rabone, Nige Mellor, to pick a few at random. I think they had a ball recording it.
Surinder: I've worked quite a lot with Loz (Rabone).  Loz  is a brilliant songwriter. And we're making music that's fun, that reconnects us with our childhood. That's what makes it so energising for us. The best way to create is to surround yourself with kind, calm, ego less talents. It was a blissful, creative process. 
And it works, by golly does it work. You can check it out on his website and keep your eyes peeled for free downloads in this digital marketing age.

Surinder Sandhu website
Karma Machine promo teaser

Listen to a two-part Surinder special with me on Brum Radio:
Part 1 goes out on Tuesday 9th May at 4pm.
Part 2 goes out on Tuesday 16th, same time.
Both will be also available on Listen-again.

Karma Machine is also the feature album this week on Brum Radio, with a track every two hours outside of live shows.

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