With Beatles worshipers Oasis debuting at No. 2 on the pop charts and a bevy of young British bands vying to follow in their fab footsteps, it comes as no surprise to hear up-and-coming London band Cornershop close their new CD with a note-perfect cover of the Beatles’ ra-ga-pop masterpiece ”Norwegian Wood.” Until the vocals come in, that is: This otherwise faithful rendition is sung entirely in the Indian language Punjabi. ”The Beatles’ version was half Eastern, half Western,” explains frontman Tjinder Singh. ”We wanted to make it a bit more Eastern.”
They’re not the only ones. More than 30 years after the Beatles introduced the Western world to the sitar, several English musicians of Indian descent are reclaiming, updating, and expanding the Beatles’ fusion of East and West. Cornershop, whose third album, When I Was Born for the 7th Time, is out this week, have garnered raves for their eclectic sound. The album’s first single, ”Brimful of Asha,” has a Velvet Underground-meet-Ravi Shankar vibe catchy enough that it has found its way onto MTV. Bally Sagoo, another provocative mix master, is inspired by lush Indian film music, blending Indian vocal melodies into lightweight dance grooves. And Talvin Singh, a classically trained tabla player, is spearheading a group of Asian-influenced drum-and-bass artists revolving around the London club Anokha, which recently lent its name to a Singh-produced compilation subtitled, ”Soundz of the Asian Underground.” He’s currently recording his own album, a truly global project, in Bombay, London, and L.A.
The most visible — and best — of these innovators, Cornershop, play striking music that integrates exotic instruments like dholki, tamboura, and sitar into a distinctive blend of alternative rock, hip-hop, and just about anything else you can think of. ”I’m interested in any good music, whether it’s African, gospel, ’70s reggae, or ’30s Charleston,” says Tjinder Singh. ”I don’t think I can break it down into just Eastern and Western.”
Talvin Singh (no relation to Tjinder) has similarly broad tastes, a result of growing up in a culturally diverse atmosphere. ”My music is about my environment, which is London,” he says. ”I listen to lots of different types of music: rock, thrash, drum-and-bass, hip-hop, Indian, Japanese, Chinese music. The world is becoming much smaller now, and we need to learn about other people’s cultures. Music has been very black and white. I want to bring some color back into it.”