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From Sound to Silence: The Hapless Journey of Sheila Chandra

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From Sound to Silence: The Hapless Journey of Sheila Chandra
Sheila Chandra photograph credit: Jo Swann

Even if Sheila Chandra never sings another note again [and she probably never will], she has certainly achieved artistic supremacy, the like of which lesser mortals can only aspire to, in the vocal realm based solely on three recordings she made in the 1990s. The trilogy began with Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices [1992], The Zen Kiss [1994] and ABoneCroneDrone [1996] – all released on the REALWORLD imprint founded by Peter Gabriel. Miss Chandra is a once-in-a-generation [perhaps even in a lifetime] kind of vocalist.

Her reputation also rests on the fact that as an artist she used her instrument to challenge orthodoxy, singing holy grail traditional forms such bhajans. She has also channeled the diabolically difficult form known as konnakol – the spoken component of solkattu – a combination of the art of performing percussion syllables vocally in [South Indian] Carnatic music, syllables spoken while simultaneously counting the tala or meter with the hand. Konnakol is the equivalent of padhant or recitation of rhythmic syllables, known as bol in Hindustani classical music. Miss Chandra is proficient in both traditions.

British born and bred Sheila Chandra

But Miss Chandra [British-born and bred] is unique among artists of her generation – and subsequent generations – even among those living in India. She rose to eminence as a member of the ensemble Monsoon but achieved true greatness as an artist with her ‘Drone’ trilogy. Her rare and enduring artistic legacy will have to rest on those prodigious [and her other] recordings such as Breath of Life [2007], the one she did for Howard Shore on The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers soundtrack. Sadly, in 2009 Miss Chandra was diagnosed with Burning Mouth Syndrome [BMS], taking away her exceptional gift and condemning her to a life of virtual silence.  

This makes her extraordinary oeuvre so much more precious to have and to listen to time and again.

Underpinning so much of Miss Chandra’s approach to composition and vocalastics [she composes exclusively using her voice] – her use pf both glissandi and coloratura at once – is identifying the provenance and dramatic character of what Sir John Eliot Gardiner [that great interpreter of the music of Johan Sebastian Bach] called ‘mutant opera’ which, in Miss Chandra’s case are found in the panoply of a myriad of vocal traditions, as far as Indian is from Ireland and Scotland [and probably beyond]. These are not simply [and seemingly] enacted, but also depend on perceptive rhetorical judgement within the diaphanous fabric of rolling continuity.  

CD cover for Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices by Sheila Chandra

In Miss Chandra’s vocal works – especially in those of this trilogy – she pays homage to nameless and numberless forebears in scale, tone, and [especially drone] technique but each one, especially revealed in this vibrant and questing trilogy, presses for fresh meaning with all the virtuoso means that a vocalist could muster. This becomes an all the admirable aspect of her work as Miss Chandra – by her own admission and exemplified in the title [and music of] Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices – makes a poignant case for the timeless existence not only of the many traditions she excels in, but enduring nature of the music of this trilogy.

For Miss Chandra these ‘traditions’ – be they Indian or Irish, Scottish, etc. – her music [this music] represents an endlessly fascinating tapestry of discovery which will doubtless remain timeless – as the art of these recordings testify – yet continue to evolve as works by BC Manjunath and [especially Varijashree Venugopal are beginning to suggest. Even among this tribe that also boasts such members the great Asha Puthli, Miss Chandra stands head and shoulders above all and has set a bar so impossibly high because apart from seeming to inhabit several Indian and European traditions, she moves seamlessly between them like an almost supernatural musical shapeshifter.

CD cover for The Zen Kiss by Sheila Chandra

Underlying the content of the music of this trilogy of recordings are themes and gestures – that begin with the Indian drone, but fan out to other hypnotic musical gestures, from the disparate traditions that Miss Chandra weaves into her music – is her inimitable textural projection, clarity of line and rhythmic rigour and an overriding sense of expectancy and flair; it may be suggested never slipping into exaggerated gesture.

Everywhere she displays pinpoint delicacy, quicksilver contrast, and lightness as if illuminating an inward da camera dialoging between multiple droning voices, sometimes aided and abetted by the drones and vocals by Steve Coe. Through all the notes that fly off the page, through all the phrases and lines of sprung bravura and purpose – through the three recordings from Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, through The Zen Kiss and reaching a sort of apogee in ABoneCroneDrone – there are numerous periods of inimitable elongated and poignant restraint.

CD cover for ABoneCroneDrone by Sheila Chandra

There is no more compelling example of this than in the soft, controlled climate of the sequence Speaking in Tongues [I through IV] – spread across the albums Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices and The Zen Kiss. It should come as no surprise – even as it does – in her eloquent execution of the final series of six vocal works on ABoneCroneDrone, where we have Miss Chandra voicing the extraordinary mystery of vocal chords vibrating gently and meaningfully in the human throat. These are uttered with such sustained and ritualized other worldliness that the risk of disembodiment is only allayed by Miss Chandra’s captivating certainty of line as her soulful voice drifts heavenwards.

One of the most distinctive features of the repertoire in this trilogy is how attentive Miss Chandra is to the individuality of each of the songs on these discs – not only the sequence entitled Speaking in Tongues, which seems to act as a palimpsest for the rest of the repertoire spread over all three albums. While this is characteristic of musicians in the Indian tradition, it often escapes the attention of artists bred in the Western tradition.

Sheila Chandra photographed by Mark Bennett

A caveat here certainly arises from the fact that Miss Chandra is quite at home in the more ancient [Celtic, especially the Welsh, Irish and Scottish, and Spanish and Latin] traditions. Such songs as Dhyana and Donalogue and Nana [by Manuel De Falla] from Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, and En Mireal del Penal and Abbess Hildegard from The Zen Kiss are exquisite examples. Such shapeshifting versatility brings as ambitious a kaleidoscopic challenge to the listener in identifying renewed character and meaning to this music that Miss Chandra aspires to.

Miss Chandra the music that spans these three discs with such corporate and dynamic purpose that we encounter the tantalizing prospect that we are constantly in communion with the rarefied realm. One would be hard-pressed to remember when we enjoyed music so mesmerising and compelling. If the listener is left gasping, this is caused not only caused by vocal singularity of purpose, but also by the discreet and graphic responsiveness of voice to horizontal and vertical line. As you would imagine surprises abound throughout.

What else could a high-wire artist as Sheila Chandra if not landmark, high-stakes performances stretched over several years; recordings that will forever be remembered no matter what other music – including this borderless form – comes around in the future.

Deo gratis…

Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices – Music – 1: Speaking in Tongues I; 2: Dhyana and Donalogue; 3a: Nana; 3b: The Dreaming; 4: Ever So Lonely/Eyes/Ocean; 5: The Enchantment; 6: The Call; 7: Bhajan; 8: Speaking in Tongues II; 9: Sacred Stones; 10: Om Namaha Shiva.

Musicians – Sheila Chandra: vocals and drones; Steve Coe: drones and vocals [1 – 6, 8 – 10]; Stuart Bruce: guitars.

Released – 1992/2023
Label – REALWorld [CDRW24X]
Runtime – 43:24

The Zen Kiss – Music – 1: La Sagesse [Women, I’m Calling You]; 2: Speaking in Tongues III; 3: Waiting; 4: Shehnai Song; 5: Love it is a Killing Thing; 6: Speaking in Tongues IV; 7: Woman and Child; 8: En Mireal del Penal; 9: A Sailor’s Life; 10: Abbess Hildegard; 11: Kafi Noir.

Musicians – Sheila Chandra: vocals and drones; Steve Coe: drones and vocals.

Released – 1994/2023
Label – REALWorld [CDRW45X]
Runtime – 46:50

ABoneCroneDrone – Music – 1: ABoneCroneDrone I; 2: ABoneCroneDrone II; 3: ABoneCroneDrone III; 4: ABoneCroneDrone IV; 5: ABoneCroneDrone V; 6: ABoneCroneDrone VI.

Musicians – Sheila Chandra: vocals and drones; Steve Coe: drones and vocals [1 – 6, 8 – 10]; Stuart Bruce: guitar [6]; Jim Mills: wood and metal didgeridoo [2]; Paul James: bagpipe drones [3].

Released – 1996/2023
Label – REALWorld [CDRW56X]
Runtime – 45:02

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. jerry ogle

    Jan 9, 2024 at 4:15 pm

    This is a fantastic review of a fantastic artist. I truly believe that Miss Chandra’s work will be remembered and listened to for a very long time. She deserves all the praise she receives.

  2. Mike Scanlon

    Jan 9, 2024 at 11:24 am

    Thank you for this insightful, erudite and above all beautiful piece on my favourite female vocalist of all time. Sheila’s RealWorld work is, in my opinion, unequalled, but I would also add that her work leading up to this is also captivating and inspiring. Cheers!

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