Before you confront her influences, philosophical constructs and musical theories, you have to
confront the voice. It’s an instrument that is seductive and serene, a voice of rapture
tempered by intellect. Singing a cappella, in multi-tracked harmonies and counterpoint, over sinuous
drones, it’s the voice of promise and mystery.
Sheila Chandra captured the Zeitgeist of modern vocal music with her 1992 album, WEAVING MY
ANCESTORS’ VOICES. She wrapped her extraordinary instrument around themes from Ireland and
India as well as mediaeval Gregorian chants. In the process, Chandra embodied a more archetypal
sound. WEAVING was the first in a trilogy of recordings with THE ZEN KISS and ABONECRONEDRONE.
If those were definitive statements, then the music heard here, recorded before and after the
trilogy, is of an artist on an odyssey of discovery, with ancient maps, tarnished signposts and
Although WEAVING MY ANCESTOR’S VOICES illuminated Sheila Chandra as a beacon of vocal
exploration, she had already spent a decade exploring many of the sounds that would become codified
on the trilogy.
In 1981, Sheila Chandra was an actress on British television’s Grange Hill series and
singing pop music when writer/producer Steve Coe tapped her to front his Asian-fusion group, Monsoon.
This was before there was a world music category and well before Asian fusion. In the popular
consciousness, Indian music was passé, a relic of the ‘60’s and raga rock.
Monsoon ignored the trends and had a Top Ten UK hit with Ever So Lonely, a haunting plea of acoustic
sitars and tables, produced like a techno-pop track and topped by the incandescent voice of Sheila
Chandra, all of sixteen years old.
As she became a sensation in England, Chandra had an epiphany. Although three quarters Indian,
she had ignored her cultural heritage and was more likely to listen to pop and gospel music than
an Indian raga. But after Monsoon, she began exploring her Asian heritage. She signed on with
Indipop, a label formed by Coe. You can hear the teenaged singer’s early experiments on
Om Shanti Om and Prema, Shanti, Dharma, Satya from her first and third solo albums, 1984’s
OUT ON MY OWN and 1995’s THE STRUGGLE. While most of the pop exotica confections written
by Steve Coe and co-writer/guitarist Martin Smith presented dance beats and sloganeering themes
of Chandra’s independence, the tracks heard here drew from mantras and ragas, tapping into
a more ancient sound, announcing the dawn of a new spirit.
Nowhere is that sunrise more evident than in the ecstatic hymns of QUIET. Recorded in 1984 in
between her two pop albums, Chandra abandoned conventional song structure and English lyrics and
adopted a wordless style heading more towards vocalese. Although Steve Coe and Martin Smith had
written all her previous material, for the first time, Chandra co-wrote many of the songs. The
results are hypnotic in their rhythmic structures and extravagant in their melodic flights, like
cascading arabesques of sound.