April 2001

Singing quietly almost silenced world music goddess Sheila Chandra

Story: Tad Hendrickson


Listening to Sheila Chandra’s gentle, harmonic drones, the first words that come to mind probably aren’t ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Even speaking the title of the song to this decorous English-born singer of Indian descent seems wrong. But that didn’t stop Prodigy from sampling her siren-like voice on an early version of the track.

"The Prodigy sent around a cassette that had ‘Change My Pitch’ written on it," Chandra recalls in a proper British accent, "and someone was yelling ‘change my pitch’ all over the track. I listened to it and thought, ‘This is very aggressive’, so I said no", she chuckles. "Then it turns out that the real name of the track… was ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. And I was really glad that I didn’t do it". Most artists would have jumped at the sampling royalties, but this isn’t the first time Chandra has made commercial gain a secondary consideration. As a teenager in the early ‘80’s, Chandra abandoned the Indian-influenced pop group Monsoon — after the group hit the UK’s top 10 — to record what would become a ground breaking fusion of Western pop and traditional Indian music for the small Indipop label. The uncompromising stance continued as her stardom in world-music circles was further established (especially Stateside) by her ‘90’s work for Peter Gabriel’s Real World imprint. Discs like ‘Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices’ focused on the ambience and tone of her vocals almost exclusively.

"It shows off every nuance of the voice’s spectrum and frequency, every nuance of emotion, because there is nothing clouding the acoustic space that the vocals inhabit", explains Chandra. During her mesmerising performances at WOMAD (the world-music Lollapalooza), she would sit alone onstage singing her hypnotic songs, exploring the notes between the notes and creating her own aural world. "The thing about performing solo is that you have to weave the spell with just your voice, by just your presence and what you put into the voice", she says. "It’s like running a marathon".

Soon after 1996’s ‘ABoneCroneDrone’, however, that magnificent voice gave out, withered by a chronic nasal infection. "It happens more often with singers who are trying to sing softly", Chandra explains. "Because in some ways we are holding back the sound, and that causes tension in the throat". It would be years before she would record again, and even then her voice was not up to her exacting standards. So when Chandra started work on what would become her new release, ‘This Sentence Is True (The Previous Sentence Is False) (Indipop-Shakti), she decided to trash her usual methods and go about recording more playfully."I started out with a vocal session of four or five hours of me making as many silly and weird noises as I possibly could", she explains, only half kidding. With her voice not functioning perfectly, necessity bred innovation. Beats and instrumentation are back, building a sound that recalls artists likely influenced by Chandra, like Transglobal Underground or Afro-Celt Sound System, but the album still showcases a dizzying variety of vocal Chandra-isms. The result is an uncompromising album that’s arguably the singer’s best, and certainly most varied, to date.

"The thing is, if you compromise your artistic vision, then it will impact your musical path for the rest of your life", she figures. "It affects the album you make next. It affects how you hear sounds. It affects your learning curve. It affects your psyche. If you play to the crowd once and you become hooked on it, then the dangers are too many, really".