McDowell (composer, keyboardist, percussionist) fuses diverse rhythms and haunting melodies with languages and cultures of the world. His work often involves a global journey, mixing instruments and musicians from far and wide. For Born Into Brothels he joined forces with music producer Daniel Baruch and sound editor Tom Paul, conjuring up an aural landscape created out the predominantly acoustic playing of musicians from many cultures, often working with them in a collaborative process. Bass whisperings of Krishna Das and soaring melodic ragas of Steve Gorn’s bamboo flute were skillfully combined with Indian strings, renaissance serpent, an Armenian duduk as well as a full range of world percussion instruments.
On January 24. 2004, the film was honored with the Audience Award for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. In the live television broadcast on the Sundance channel, the film’s directors, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, accepted the award and thanked “the incredible composer, John McDowell”. HBO/CINEMAX Documentary Films aired the film repeatedly and in 2005 Born Into Brothels won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Writing about Born Into Brothels, the Hollywood Reporter said: “Anyone who has ever thought that documentaries lack the emotional impact, drama or sheer movie-going pleasure of fiction films will likely change their mind after seeing Born Into Brothels. . . Music by John McDowell, featuring both Hindi chanting and Western sounds, ideally complements the action. Born Into Brothels is a triumph of the spirit for all involved.” Former Vice-President Al Gore agreed. Sitting next to McDowell at the premiere screening, Gore enthusiastically congratulated the composer on his “beautiful music.”