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The last time East Indian music was "hip," four white English lads were directly responsible. The Beatles popularized the sounds of the sitar and the tabla drum in songs such as "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Within You Without You." As a result an entire generation of middle-class suburbanites began buying Ravi Shankar albums. Eastern thought was "in": The mop-tops were studying under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and any hippie worth his incense was reading Kahlil Gibran and seeking enlightenment through Zen Buddhism.
It was a short-lived fad, but some 30 years later, East Indian music is once again the flavor of the month. Only now it's called "Asian music," and it sounds, well, different.
The compilation album Anokha, released last summer, showed that Britain's "Asian Underground" artists are more concerned with superfast dance beats than ethereal melodies. The traditional Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborated with the New-Age producer Michael Brook to produce two albums of decidedly modern, synthesizer-drenched music. Subsequently, on the recent compilation Star Rise, Asian mix-masters such as Earthtribe and Aki Nawaz chopped, looped, and distorted Khan's voice into wild, colorful dance tracks.
Today's Asian music is not exactly conducive to sitting in the lotus position, a point that Tjinder Singh, of the British band Cornershop, has been trying to make since he formed the group in 1992. Of all the young Asian artists making music today, Singh seems most intent on subverting the Western stereotype of the meek, mild Easterner.
"A lot of Asian music is termed as passive and meditational and relaxed," Singh says from a Comfort Inn in Cleveland, "and that's what they expect Asian people to be like."
Singh, who was born in the Punjab and came to England with his parents as a child, isn't exactly "meditational and relaxed"; he's more like totally out of it. Singh takes so long to answer questions that one suspects he's fallen asleep. His voice is low and groggy with an audible undercurrent of crankiness, as if he's been awakened from a nap.
In England Singh is famous for his outspokenness. He responded to Morrissey's songs "Asian Rut" and "Bengali in Platforms" by burning posters of the singer on stage. In America Singh is an unknown entity, but that may change as Cornershop continues its U.S. tour opening for none other than Oasis.
It's a peculiar combination: Oasis' straight-ahead, Beatlesesque pop juxtaposed with Cornershop's eclectic mix of sitar, sampler, scratching, dholki drums, and keyboards. "It's been going pretty phenomenally," Singh says of his five tour dates so far, adding that the fans have been "very receptive."
Cornershop received little more than puzzled looks when it first began playing gigs in the south of England. At that point the band was a loose collective centered on Singh and his brother Avtar, and the sound was rough and minimalist. "We were using a lot more feedback and juxtaposing that with Asian elements and were doing very different songs," Singh recalls. He struggles to explain himself, then gives up. "I don't know, I can't remember, actually," he groans. "There were some people that understood it in England, and then there were some people who wouldn't understand it for another couple of records, and some people who will never understand it. But it was that break, that divide of people, which intrigued journalists to know what we were on about."
The band's first releases (a spate of EPs in 1993 and one album, Hold On It Hurts, in 1995) were largely overlooked. But David Byrne's record label, Luaka Bop, took notice and released Cornershop's second album. Woman's Gotta Have It appeared late in 1995, and its quirky pastiche of pop, raga, and punk established Cornershop as a critical favorite. The band eventually boiled itself down to Singh (on vocals, scratching, and dholki) and his friend Ben Ayres (on keyboards, guitar, and tambourine). Late last year, Cornershop released its breakthrough album, When I Was Born for the 7th Time, which received rave reviews from Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and even USA Today.
It's worth noting that few, if any, critics who gush over Cornershop understand Singh's Punjabi lyrics or his Euro-Asian cultural reference points. The catchy "Brimful of Asha" is basically a list of Singh's favorite things, most of which are non-Western: Jacques Dutronc (the French pop-singer), Trojan Records (the label of dub artist Lee "Scratch" Perry), and Asha Bhosle (one of India's most popular female singers), to name just a few. Likewise "We're In Yr Corner" is sung almost wholly in Punjabi -- aside from the brief phrase "IBM and Coca-Cola motherfucker."
"I think another language is like another sample," Singh explains. "It's another layer. People can get feeling from that. You don't necessarily understand everything anyway." He claims that the potentially difficult language barrier never occurred to him. "In general we don't take that much of an analytical eye on what we do."
Yet When I Was Born is filled with attempts to reappropriate and reconstruct musical genres. Perhaps the most effective is "Good to Be on the Road Back Home," a unique country-and-western duet featuring Singh's sloppy vocals and the crystal-clear alto of Paula Frazer (of the band Tarnation). The two singers trade lonesome lines about traveling through Tokyo, Manhattan, India, and London.