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Review: Beyond Skin - Revisited at The Festival Theatre, Adelaide for the OzAsia Festival

By Lisa Lanzi

It was an honour to sit as an audience member in the Adelaide Festival Theatre and absorb the musical perfection that Nitin Sawhney produces alongside his distinguished collaborating musicians. For this premiere performance of the 2019 OzAsia Festival the sound quality was exceptional and the ambience, assisted by very beautiful lighting states, was compelling.

Nitin Sawhney is a prolific and talented English/Indian musician, composer, lecturer and producer who has collaborated with a veritable galaxy of stars, for example, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, Sting, Joss Stone, Anoushka Shankar and A R Rahman. He has released twenty albums, scored around sixty films and composed for television, theatre, dance and video games. Beyond Skin was released in 1999 and recorded in his home studio. It went on to win numerous awards and Sawhney himself has now accumulated scores of international awards, six honorary doctorates and a CBE.

This concert, most recently gracing the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall, is a 20th anniversary celebration of the original release of Beyond Skin. The accompanying band consisted of two female singers, an amplified violin, tabla drummer and Nitin Sawhney on piano, keyboard and guitar. Also in the mix were pre-recorded tracks, some of which were grabs from the original recording and included drum tracks, spoken word, snippets of historical speeches and environmental sounds.

Nicki Wells (aka TURYA) was one of the vocalists, a singer, songwriter and composer in her own right. She is a truly global artist possessing an astonishing gift for melody and amazing and varied virtuosity encompassing Western classical and pop music, folk, French trip-hop, gospel, jazz or choral traditions plus Indian classical music styles. Her voice was simply mesmerizing. The second vocalist was UK born Eva Stone, a young singer/songwriter who has backed some huge international musical names (including James Morrison) before even releasing an album of her own. Her voice is rich, smoky and expressive and the perfect counterpoint to Nicki Wells clear and cross-cultural, octave-bending sound.

A third woman, Anna Phoebe McElligott, added her dazzling, amplified violin sound which gave the band further depth and colour. She has played worldwide in regular orchestral settings and worked with the likes of Sean Coombs, Robin Gibb, Ronan Keating, George Michael and LeAnn Rimes. McElligott guest starred with Jethro Tull on their 2007 world tour and continued appearing with those musicians at various intervals. Aref Durvesh is a long-time collaborator with Nitin Sawhney playing tabla on all his albums and live tours. Durvesh is a celebrated and prolific performer who has also played for Sting, Jeff Beck and others. As well as being a virtuoso in traditional tabla techniques Durvesh has extended his artistry by fusing tabla sound with contemporary urban, jazz and hip hop genres.

Sawhney spoke about his inspirations and influences for the different tracks as the artists played through the entire Beyond Skin album, describing the original endeavour as emotionally and culturally cathartic. His conversation was humble and gently humorous and he easily established a warm rapport with the very appreciative audience. Sawhney switched seamlessly between acoustic and electric guitar, piano and keyboard while manipulating the electronic components and at one point adding his own Tukda vocals in a fast and furious duet with Durvesh.

Each distinct composition from the album exudes various moods and styles ranging from and sometimes uniting flamenco guitar, traditional Indian elements, jazz fusion, electronica, soul and spoken word. Two of the tracks feature the voices of Sawhney’s mother and deceased father - an emotional moment. Another, the voice of J R Oppenheimer allegedly quoting the Bhagavad Gita after the testing of the first atomic bomb: “now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Yet another featured the voice of the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee declaring India “a fully-fledged nuclear state” after the 1998 nuclear tests. As well as being artistically sound and politically astute when it was released, Beyond Skin is still remarkably relevant today.

A few of the stand out tracks for me were The Pilgrim, Homelands, Tides, Nadia and Anthem Without Nation. After a standing ovation we were treated to an encore of two newer tracks: Dead Man (Philtre album) with brilliant vocals and Prophesy (Prophesy album) a spare yet powerful offering with just guitar and tabla and alternating rhythms and tempos. Ending then with a second standing ovation, we all exited into the cold Adelaide night and I for one will count this concert experience as one of my artistic highlights for the year.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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