Sheila Chandra - Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices


cover{.pixframesmall width="65” height="65”}This album (along with another titled 'The Zen Kiss') was one of my many impulse purchases made solely on the basis that it was recorded on Pete Gabriel's Real World label--Peter and I evidently share a particular taste in music, and I've never been disappointed yet by one of these impulse buys. Sheila Chandra is a superb British-Asian singer, who cleverly mixes together different vocal traditions (now you see where the title comes from). Both of the albums I've mentioned are unusual because they have very little in the way of instrumental backing. On most of the tracks, Sheila sings totally unaccompanied, and in a few she just has a string drone playing in the background. It's an incredibly brave thing to do, but her voice is so interesting and strong, and her seamless slipping between vocal styles is so compelling that the albums never become repetitive.

She has quite a low-pitched voice--something I like in both male and female singers. I come from a line of alto singers (at a very amateur level), and we tend to slightly look down at the prima donna sopranos, with their excessive vibrato and ornamentation--who do they think they are? Sorry, I think I was channelling my late Grandmother there.

The songs include those from the Indian tradition, as well as traditional British and Irish folk songs, Spanish/Moorish and Middle Eastern tunes. What she does so well is to point out the similarities between these different styles, by adding Indian ornamentation to a British folk song, or by picking out the Arabic influence in a Spanish song. The human voice is the same the world over, and traditional music--while superficially different between regions--is actually subject to a kind of convergent evolution.

The album also includes some tracks titled 'Speaking In Tongues', which are continued on 'The Zen Kiss'. In these, Sheila explores a vocal style practiced by Indian tabla players called bol, where the rhythm of the tabla piece is sung with a kind of phonetic notation. It's extraordinary to listen to--very fast and intricate. Her work is really worth a listen if you want to hear something a bit different, and enjoy listening to someone with total mastery over their voice.