SHEILA CHANDRA's INTERVIEW
with JOHN SCHAEFER at WNYC 1993

 

 

John:

Time once again, for New Sounds. Our nightly, new music programme, here at WNYC. FM. I'm John Schaefer and on tonight's edition of the programme it's a pleasure for me to welcome to our studios, for the first time, singer and composer Sheila Chandra, who has had a very interesting career and has put out a remarkable new recording on Peter Gabriel's Real World record label, an album called "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices". And Sheila, it's first of all, good to have you here in the studio.

Sheila:

Nice to be here.

John:

There aren't too many people that we've had on this programme, who have retired and come out of retirement and are still in their twenties. So, I mean there's obviously a story there. Before we get to that though, the record that we're going to be focusing on tonight, "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices", actually weaves a lot of different voices, a lot of different traditions together. It would seem, on the surface, that things like the music of Ireland and England, on the one hand, and the music of India on the other, would be mutually incompatible. You've somehow found a way to bridge that though.

Sheila:

It's actually been very very easy and something that occurred to me through the voice, the experiments I was making with voice rather than any kind of clever, intellectual tie up. I'm sure you've noticed that many of the vocal ornaments, the trills and arpeggios remain the same through many, many traditions including, the American black soul and gospel traditions. Add to that the unaccompanied singing of Britain, that often incorporates the use of the drone or an implied drone, and you have very very close structures, which can actually be weaved without either of them losing their individual identity.

John:

Now on your various recordings through your career, you've combined the voice with other things, with instruments, both Indian and Western. The piece we're going to start with though, is just you, just the voice. And I guess, gives us the essence of this record in a nutshell, so to speak.

Sheila:

Yes, it pretty much does. The inspiration for this particular record was the fact that I'd - after eleven years of being a recording artist exclusively, decided I wanted to play live for the first time. The way I wanted to do it was within a very powerful context, as in giving the singer the ultimate power, because I go on stage, completely alone, without musicians.

I do have drone tapes that come up, but many of the pieces are completely unaccompanied and the drone tapes are fluid enough for me to be able to improvise and do pretty much whatever I want. So "Dhyana and Donalogue" is a nutshell because it crosses between a thousand year old Irish, traditional Irish song into Islamic vocal and back again without taking a breath. The challenge of going on stage, was really to produce the fusion in a single, vocal line, otherwise it wouldn't have worked.

John:

Well, let's hear how it worked out here, the song is called "Dhyana and Donalogue".

Sheila:

That's right.

John:

And it is from the most recent of Sheila Chandra's compact discs. This one called "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices", on this edition of New Sounds.

THE SONG IS PLAYED

That's a song called "Dhyana and Donalogue" and it's by Sheila Chandra, who's my guest here in the studio, on this edition of New Sounds, from the CD, "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices". You mentioned, it's kind of a fusion of Irish traditional singing and Muslim vocal embellishments and ornamentation and things like that. Are you Indian or Pakistani or - your family? I mean, obviously, you're born in England, right?

Sheila:

Yeah, my family is South Indian.

John:

South Indian.

Sheila:

But, unlike some Indian's who identify particularly with their specific region, I tend to see all of India as - started out as seeing all of India as the heritage that I took from musically and was very drawn to North Indian vocal, particularly the female vocalists, from North India initially. But, as you can hear on "Weaving", the things which I now feel are my heritage, have sort of, made me feel more like a world citizen, because of this cross over. I think I can no longer draw the line between the British Folk Tradition and the Indian Folk Tradition or the Islamic Tradition and American Soul. So, because things just get so similar and because my voice slips so easily between one another ...

John:

I guess, growing up, sort of, bi-cultural that way, it becomes natural to slip from one into the other or to somehow create something that's both or neither.

Sheila:

I think it is now. When I was growing up though, there was very, very little Asian culture available. I wasn't growing up particularly in a heavily populated Asian area, Indian area, so if I wanted to find Indian dance or music, I had to go looking for it. There was precious little in the media because the second generation hadn't grown up and started to enter the media at all sorts of levels.

John:

Your family didn't play - they had to have a Lata Mangeshkar records in the house and stuff like that?

Sheila:

Oh yeah, but I think there was also a feeling of it being largely irrelevant, because there was no place in the main stream where that kind of music was validated. And, I mean, quite the opposite. The Asian community was being portrayed in the media largely as a social problem and the idea that cultural riches were something that they brought with them that were of use to everybody, were certainly not an idea that was around then. And I didn't have a collection of Hindi film records but had friends who I found out later would, sort of, tuck them away under a sheet in a corner, if any of their English friends came round and bring out their Tina Turner albums or what have you. And so the feeling about the time that Monsoon actually had a top ten hit and made an extremely Indian record in terms of its, I mean it was pop vocal and it was built with a kind of a pop chorus structure in mind but it was written on a raga - it had a sitar solo in the middle and tabla solos and all sorts of things. For that to be accepted on the dance floor and to be thought of as main stream music before there was any kind of category, such as 'world music' in Britain, that was very much an evolutionary leap and a leap for me as a person because it meant that I could finally find a place to put all the bits of me that had heretofore, been missing.

John:

Now Monsoon, when you refer to Monsoon, that is, we're talking about what 1982, and that was the band?

Sheila:

That was the band, that I was asked to join as a lead singer.

John:

And you must have been all of 16 at the time. Well, that's gotta be, sort of, a heady thing for a teenager to handle. Suddenly having a, you know, a top 40 hit on your hands. And from there, came this series of your solo recordings and on the latest one, you've actually gone back to that first hit, which was called "Ever So Lonely".

Sheila:

That's right. On the Monsoon album we used the same scale on a track called "Eyes" and so the medley on "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices" is "Ever So Lonely", "Eyes" and then a new track called "Ocean", which is again written on the same scale and they're all written by Steve Coe, who founded Monsoon and produced for them. And so it seemed very apt to bring people, sort of full circle and to remind them that Monsoon wasn't just about a lush production and being able to make something sound Indian by sticking a sitar on it or a tabla on it but that if you strip the song down to its barest components, which was the melody line and the drone that it would still sound Indian and so that's what the track on "Weaving" illustrates.

John:

OK, so it's a medley of three tunes all built around the same raga scale.

Sheila:

That's right.

John:

All right, well let's hear it. Sheila Chandra, from the CD "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices" on tonight's edition of New Sounds.

THE SONG IS PLAYED

John:

We've just heard a medley of three tunes from "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices" - the latest CD by Sheila Chandra who is here with me in the studio, on this edition of New Sounds, and all three of these pieces written by Steve Coe who still produces your recordings?

Sheila:

Yes, and we arranged them together for this recording but ... yes.

John:

He's not as busy as a musician this time around, since there are, as you say, this is basically, a singer's record.

Sheila:

Yes.

John:

But a lot of the production that you've employed prior to this recording was very, you know, came very much out of the western, sort of, pop school, over dubbing and things like that, mixing different traditional instruments with western synthesisers and saxophones and things like that.

Sheila:

And also overlaying vocals of different traditions so that, for me, the juxtaposition started with - on different tracks and I've grown into the idea of being able to actually go from one to another, in a single line.

John:

Before we get to "Nana" which, even for you, is kind of a stretch. It's based on a Manuel De Falla tune, isn't it?

Sheila:

Well actually, Manuel De Falla had it, it was sung to him as a small child. It is a traditional Spanish lullaby that his nurse sang to him and that he adapted for piano and voice. And so, of course, nowadays it tends to get sung in that very kind of operatic plummy way and - (John laughs) it's still a very very beautiful piece and even sung in the operatic way but, I heard it on TV and just started singing it because a lot of things come to me that way, that my voice picks up on before I do intellectually and I had a drone playing one day and started to sing it over the top and it worked and I suddenly thought 'Ahh yes, this is like - it's probably Moorish influenced', and that's the reason ...

John:

Yeah and it's also Celtic influence and Spain. So two of the things you've already mentioned, I guess are maybe somewhere in the background of the piece.

Sheila:

And then "The Dreaming" came out of that to exploit the same scale but to take it even further into the east, so that I was a bit gentle on "Nana". I didn't make it too radical, but the influences are obviously there and then "The Dreaming", sort of takes up the promise, it's as though the child has fallen asleep and they go straight into that realm.

John:

And is that your composition, "The Dreaming"?

Sheila:

Yes.

John:

OK, so it comes right out of "Nana". We're going to proceed that though with one of the two pieces on the CD, quite short, called "Speaking in Tongues". This is an example of, sort of, the vocal percussion of Indian tabla or mrdingam drummers where you learn by associating a syllable with each of the drum strokes.

Sheila:

That's right, yes. They're on onomatopoeic syllables. But the way they're used in India is largely as a teaching device. There are some people who regard it as an art form in itself, particularly in the south of India but they tend to keep very much to the beat and the whole skill is to be able to improvise and to come back on the sum which is the first beat of the bar and is the most important beat. Whereas what I was trying to do with the two "Speaking in Tongues" pieces was to exploit the emotional qualities of the sound, so that I don't keep to a time cycle. I deliberately throw the listener off and it becomes - I wanted to give it a kind of mad prophetic edge to remind people that Indian music and myself, particularly, are not just about very beautiful, polished, glossy vocal, melodic lines but also about - my work is about going as far into a sort of challenging area, either in terms of skill, or in terms of looking at the darker side of yourself and drawing out what inspiration there is to be found there too.

John:

So it's almost like a mad woman, who is literally speaking in tongues.

Sheila:

Yes.

John:

All right, well it's going to be a pretty odd segue from one to the other but let's hear them, from the CD, "Weaving My Ancestors Voices". We'll begin with "Speaking in Tongues I" and then the medley of "Nana" and "The Dreaming". This is music from Sheila Chandra.

THE SONGS ARE PLAYED.

We've just heard two tracks, from the CD "Weaving My Ancestors Voices" - Sheila Chandra is my guest on tonight's edition of New Sounds, here at WNYC.FM and that last medley of two works, "Nana", a Spanish lullaby, which you may know from Manuel De Falla, a very classical sounding arrangement from earlier in the century and then Sheila Chandra's own, "The Dreaming". We preceded that with "Speaking in Tongues I". We mentioned, sort of, the tabla bols as they're known, the syllables. You're actually - it sounded, to me, like you're actually throwing in some of your own. Is that right, or are you actually using just traditional syllables?

Sheila:

I occasionally throw in a sound of my own but I think the reason why some of those patterns are unfamiliar to you, is because their drawn from the South Indian dance tradition too. So if you haven't heard a lot of South Indian dance music then some of the syllables will be unfamiliar.

John:

Is that konakol or?

Sheila:

Konakol is from the drumming but the dancers have even weirder syllables sometimes.

John:

Uhuh, Oh OK. Sheila Chandra is my guest. I'm John Schaefer and you're listening to New Sounds.

BREAK

John:

New Sounds Programme No.959. We're sampling some of the music from Sheila Chandra's album, "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices". It is our monthly new releases edition of the programme, of course and we're sampling just a single new release this time around. The next tune is called "The Enchantment". Is this also a, sort of, looking at the music of the British Isles?

Sheila:

Yes, and it's much more, heavily influenced that way. The idea was to produce a kind of fusion of structure rather than of obvious sounds, because it took me a while without - because I've had no formal training to be able to go into a classical concert and realise that someone was improvising on the, four line verse of lyric and melody that is familiar to singers to exemplify that particular raga.

John:

You mean a classical Indian performance? Yeah.

Sheila:

A classical Indian performance, that's right. So they would actually, sing that right at the end and I would suddenly twig that that's, in a way, what they'd been singing all along but may be very very slowly or in a very embellished fashion or taking off from the line and so on. So I wanted to do that with a four line lyric, in the British Folk Tradition and I've kept to the ornaments of a British Folk Tradition but just stretched it, stretched the lines out and repeated them in different fashions and improvised with them but using the lyric as an inspiration point.

John:

Mmm, when Ravi Shankar and other Indian musicians have been here, they've talked about, you know, the raga is based on a ghat, a song and, you know, I sort of get the impression that, you know, there are lots of heads being scratched out there in radio land when he says that. This sounds like it would be, you know, sort of a very transparent structure that an English person could follow.

Sheila:

Well, they are painted a bit more clearly, maybe. When you listen to a, sort of, a British Folk song that has its four line verse, and the melody gets repeated with different lyrics, in essence that's what you're talking about with a ghat. But in order to make it easier to exploit the intervals, rather than simply learning the scale of a raga, you're given this little chorus, if you like. And if you ever forget the rules of the raga you can always go back to that chorus and it will remind you of the rules. So, that's - it's a similarity between the two structures that I was really trying to exploit there.

John:

All right, let's hear it. This is also a solo piece with a little bit of drone in the background?

Sheila:

It's a little bit of vocal drone underneath.

John:

Uhuh, Oh OK. Sheila Chandra is my guest. I'm John Schaefer and you're listening to New Sounds.

BREAK

We've just heard "The Enchantment", that's from Sheila Chandra on the recent CD, "Weaving My Ancestors Voices" and, once again, kind of structurally, showing us how both a traditional British Folk Song singer might approach a song and the way a Classical Indian singer might perform a raga.

Sheila:

I think a very good British Folk singer would. I got fed up of hearing recordings that were not quite so good, where the singer had felt that the lyric was so important, that they would just keep going through it, verse by verse, and you would know exactly what to expect periodically and that's why I wanted to bring some of that playfulness from the Indian side into the structure.

John:

Are there still British Folk singers who do sing it the old way, where it's never exactly the same way twice, where notes are inflected differently? You know things are, sort of, off the scale slightly in terms of being sharper flat.

Sheila:

Umm... Yeah, again the good ones, the good ones do. I mean there are a lot of Folk Clubs which are a lot more informal where people do stick to the, sort of, the melody and it's more predictable, yeah.

John:

Yeah. Sheila Chandra has been my guest here in the studio and we've been listening to "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices", which is, what your 6th, 7th record, as a soloist?

Sheila:

Sixth solo album, yeah.

John:

OK. Was this recorded in Real World studios in Box?

Sheila:

No, because I own the recording, and that's just my way of keeping control over it. I recorded it in Bristol in this very little studio, that has a great engineer. We used a, stereo miking technique from the thirties and he really got into it, and then we mixed it at the Real World studios in Box and so that's where all the great reverbs and delays come from. We had a wonderful time. Have you ever seen a picture of the studio at Real World?

John:

I have, infact yeah, it's like three storeys tall, or something like that?

Sheila:

It's huge, it looks like a bunker from the outside, but on the inside it's really nice.

John:

Yeah, well it's an old mill, isn't it?

Sheila:

It is yeah, and the studio is actually a bit that's added on so that it's acoustically perfect. The big studio anyway. But it's a lovely place to work.

John:

Yeah, but this sounds like it was done the real old fashioned way. Just voice, stereo, mike, little old studio in England. It sounds great, it really is - it's a wonderful recording.

Sheila:

Thank you. I'm working on the next one, I'm writing for the next one.

John:

Already? Yeah, and will it also be just you or are you going to bring some musicians back in...

Sheila:

Well, because of the live stuff, I've been developing beyond the festival situation into 80 minute performances. So I've been aware of needing more material of a certain type that the audience needs to hear, something like this here and so on and so it's out of that kind of deep anchoring that playing live for the first time has given me, that I've developed a lot of the new material. So I've also been able to play it in live, which I've never done with any of my other material.

John:

Yeah, well the other stuff, when you did those records, they were on a label called Indipop, which sort of gave a clue to what the sort of sound was. It was a very pop inflected, kind of dance oriented sound.

Sheila:

Except for "Quiet" and "Nada Brahma".

John:

"Nada Brahma", right was an obvious exception but, any of that going to start coming into the live performances, do you think?

Sheila:

Umm, at the moment, I don't think so because it's - I really wanted a vehicle to show off the very subtle huances in voice, which you often don't get to hear. At Womad, for instance, I was listening to Mouth Music and I heard them play their sets several times and then there was words of one of the songs in Gaelic that I wanted to check out with one of the singers and she was singing it to me on the bus and I just - it was amazing. She was twice as good as she could, you know, she sounded on stage because, simply because there were instruments in the way, and because this music is written, really to explore the finest parts of these techniques, then in the immediate future, I don't see that happening. The other reason why I've tended to go more towards solo voice is because the business structures and the amounts of money involved. When you start getting into really big lush productions - I mean, I had the luxury of that with Monsoon because we were on a major label, but that resulted in Monsoon being pushed to be more commercial and that was the kind of pressure that I didn't want as a solo artist. Which is why I've not released any singles throughout my solo career and been very stubborn about the business. I've never been managed - I negotiate my own contracts and so on. So there is a - I think people don't necessarily realise that there is often, you know, a business element to the reasons why an artist will go in a certain direction, particularly if they wish to be uncompromising.

John:

Yeah, and hence the little hiatus that you took a couple of years back?

Sheila:

Yeah, between when I was retired, when I was 20, as you was saying until I was 24 or so. Yeah, that was also partly to do with the fact that I'd been, because I'd been working on a children's drama serial from the age of 13 to 16 that essentially, from the age of 13 to 20 I'd been in the adult world. In a way, representing my community because there was so other, few other people, accessible Asians to do that and I really felt I needed a time to sort out all the reflections that had been pushed back at me and making sure that my own path and identity was going to come through all that.

John:

Well obviously there's been a lot going on in the last couple of years.

I guess the piece we're going to round out with is probably, at least to me, the most Indian sounding on the CD and that's "Bhajan" which is - that's like a devotional song right?

Sheila:

Yup, infact it's amalgam of devotional pieces. I suppose it's a let up on the album in the sense that it's not quite as challenging as "Speaking" or "Dhyana and Donalogue" and I think sometimes you need to be able to sink into a nice vocal.

John:

Yeah sure, I mean a little bit of, a little bit of lyricism goes a long way, when you're being experimental.

Sheila:

Yes.

John:

Well, let's hear it. Ahh, before we do, Sheila, it's been a real pleasure meeting you and having you here in the studio. Thanks very much for dropping by.

Sheila:

Thank you, my pleasure.

John:

Good luck with the Womad tour. Let's hear it, "Bhajan" from the album, "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices", music by Sheila Chandra on this edition of New Sounds.

THE SONG IS PLAYED

"Bhajan" is the name of that song, from Sheila Chandra and her CD, "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices". Just voice and drone and as Sheila told us, a mixture of several different Bhajans or devotional songs from India. Fascinating recording and my thanks to Sheila Chandra for stopping by for this evening's edition of New Sounds.

It's our nightly programme of lots of different types of new and unusual music, and if you'd like a copy of the play list, obviously it'll only have the one CD on it this time around but, as always the play list will tell you what we've heard and where you can find the recording. This edition of New Sounds, is Programme No.959. Make sure you mention the programme number so we know which play list you want. Our address is New Sounds, C/o WNYC, 1 Center Street, NY, NY, 10007.

I'm John Schaefer, thanks for being with us for tonight's edition of New Sounds. It's been our monthly new releases edition of the programme and obviously we've focused on a single new release, this time around. I hope you'll join us again tomorrow for another edition of New Sounds.

A SONG IS PLAYED

Sheila Chandra and a song called "Sacred Stones", rounding out this edition of New Sounds. This is WNYC.FM 93.9, New York, public radio.

For further information see www.wnyc.org