First heard in 1983 as the exotic teenaged star of the offbeat British contrivance Monsoon — a chart-worthy hybrid that fed Indian raga sounds into organically homegrown danceable techno-pop — London-born actress/singer Sheila Chandra outlasted the gimmicky group to become an important fusion figure in world music.
Monsoon was a left-field pop concept, but one that worked marvelously. British producer/songwriter/instrumentalists Steve Coe and Martin Smith created (with some outside assistance, mostly on percussion) raga-rock along the lines of George Harrison’s Beatle excursions (“Within You, Without You,” especially), which Anglo-Indian actress Sheila Chandra delivered in a very lovely voice. The alternately languid and kinetic songs (English lyrics and pop structures, hybrid instrumentation) — “Wings of the Dawn (Prem Kavita)” and “Shakti (The Meaning of Within)” are two highlights — meld intriguing sounds to memorable melodies, making Third Eye a wondrous, if gimmicky, pop achievement.
In a creative and corporate partnership (in the Indipop label) with Coe, getting help from Martin Smith, Chandra became a solo artist in 1984, releasing four albums inside of two years. Out on My Own, the most ingratiatingly mainstream of them, tones down the ethnic component in favor of an accented Eurovision sound; sitars eddy and race, tablas batter along, but the songs — statements of love, strength and independence — are strictly from the ABBA school of peppy jingles. Quiet eschews obvious song structure for wordless contemplative sound paintings; Coe’s piano and various Indian instruments support Chandra’s multi-tracked vocal exercises, which range from rhythmic scat inventions to Laurie Anderson nabobbing to breathy sustains — not quite new age, but getting there.
The Struggle picks up from Out on My Own with a tougher, harder dance presence and more determined lyrics in English and Hindi. After the exotic appointments and vocal tactics Chandra tested on Quiet, the backbeat stubbornly redirects The Struggle westward. Nada Brahma, the fourth album of this prolific phase of Chandra’s career, tilts the balance back towards Indian music; the 27-minute “Nada Brahma (Sound Is God)” is a drummerless raga, an evocative if overextended piece (especially the a cappella segment) featuring Chandra, Coe and their regular sitar player, Dharambir Singh. Throughout the album, the organic blend of sitar, piano, tabla and voice is particularly handsome.
Chandra then took an extended powder, finally returning to action in 1990 with Roots and Wings. Moving well outside the realm of tarted-up pop music (relinquishing electronic keyboards once and for all), Chandra and Coe create weightless atmospheres; they delve into Indian music and extract elements of it for their own purposes, adding nothing but lyrics, a subtle and not altogether incongruous Celtic strain (in “Lament of McCrimmon/Song of the Banshee”) and the chromatic scale to the ancient drones and rhythms. If the seductive fruit of their labor winds up as foreign sonic wallpaper in somebody’s Soho waiting room, so be it.
Silk is a handy sampler of ten tracks from all of Chandra’s preceding albums except Nada Brahma — plenty for all but the most determined enthusiasts.
Chandra’s prodigious vocal facility and diversity makes Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices a most impressive showing. She does a credible scat imitation of a blazing tabla in “Speaking in Tongues I” and then trots out the gorgeous “Dhyana and Donalogue,” an Irish folk ballad she renders unaccompanied. The sophisticated album, released on the Real World label (highbrow home for many of the world’s leading folk musicians), contains rarefied remakes of two Monsoon songs (“Ever So Lonely” and “Eyes”), an English traditional song (“The Enchantment”) and North African chanting. A serious, irreverent work of intercultural musicology, and beautiful to boot.
Deepening the most surprising ventures of Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, The Zen Kiss moves Chandra into a fantastic new realm, one in which the elemental, nonsectarian purity of singing is all that matters. “La Sagesse (Women, I’m Calling You)” is a solo invocation that owes as much to American blues and gospel as to any Asian prayer tradition; “Love It Is a Killing Thing” is an equally unadorned Anglo-Saxon ballad; “En Mireal del Penal” extends the explicit universality of her music to Latin America. When Chandra brings sitar quietly into the picture (as in “A Sailor’s Life,” the larklike “Waiting” and the maternal/erotic recitation “Woman and Child”), the droning undercurrent could just as easily be bagpipe. There’s a valuable lesson in this disorienting and engrossing album.