The Zen Kiss

Sheila Chandra

Released 03 May 1994

  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

Liner notes

When I go on stage I’m completely alone. Hundreds of people are out there, waiting for me to sing. I have only my voice to carry me. I’ve had the experience of looking at the next song on the sheet and thinking “Oh no, I don’t feel the song in my throat, I don’t know if I can do this.” I know I’ve got to do it so I trust and open my mouth. Sometimes my own conscious and active “waiting” is rewarded by an incredible feeling. It’s as if an outside influence has entered me, sound is channelled through my body like a flute and there’s no sensation in my throat. I find myself a listener to this really good rendition of the song, better than anything I could possibly have rehearsed. It feels incredible and joyful, and sharing that with people is a wonderful experience.

I wanted to encapsulate this experience in a phrase, to reflect it back to the audience. I chose The Zen Kiss, not as a reference to Zen as an orthodox belief, but as a sense of a beautiful force moving effortlessly through me and leaving me through my lips, like a kiss. I have this sensation when rehearsing by myself but I hadn’t known that other singers apparently have the same experience. Playing live has heightened and intensified the experience for me.

Sometimes I have a similar feeling when writing. Instead of it being hard work, a whole section of a song or lyric will come at once. I go into a kind of dream state. It’s very difficult to describe but there seems to be no effort on my part. It’s as if a very calm voice in my head is giving instructions: “Go into the chorus here” or “Use another note here” or I may just get a feeling as to where to go next in the melody. It feels like tapping into a collective unconscious, or even into the personality of a song that actually exists before I write it. The song has been calling me rather than being created by me.

Photo credit: Sheila Rock

I’m very aware of the relationship between the creative process and my ego. I can have a sense how I would like things to be but it doesn’t necessarily translate realistically. I think that conscious intelligence is often inferior to this instinctive intelligence. The process is not about constructing your work of art, it’s about connecting to something higher and allowing it to weave levels into your work for you to discover later.

My work has always been fuelled by an intensely personal interest rather than by any kind of intellectual quest. By following my voice I have been guided to musical and personal discoveries. I think it has worked this way because I have had no musical sense of geographical and traditional barriers.

The voice has always been the centre of my universe. I had been experimenting with soul, gospel and other highly ornamented styles before joining Monsoon in the early 1980s. Later, as I started to listen to other vocal musics, especially British folk music, I discovered that the key ornaments sung by June Tabor or Sandy Denny, for instance, were exactly the same as the ones used in the north Indian tradition.

To find the links between these juxtapositions of notes was a real key for me. I made up silly names for them so that I could identify each one. With time I could listen to a piece of music and recognize new connections. To be able to follow at great speed in my mind the exact notes of each ornament that someone else was singing was a real thrill. The links are all there in Islamic, Andalusian, Bulgarian and Celtic musics, for instance.

Instead of it being hard work, a whole section of a song or lyric will come at once. I go into a kind of dream state. It’s very difficult to describe but there seems to be no effort on my part. Sheila Chandra

The concept of drone has been important in bringing these many influences together. I think that life has a drone, like your blood singing in your ears or the sound of the stream. Where there is a constant drone, it’s not difficult to bring musics together as I do. I am often unaware of the precise joining point between two styles; it seems so natural to slip from one style to another.

It’s fascinating the way that you can move from singing a soul vocal to an Islamic vocal, and then into that very hard guttural sound of Andalusia. It becomes a kind of vocal chain, with techniques leading into each other.

My last album, Weaving My Ancestors Voices illustrates crossing between different musics within a single vocal line. The Zen Kiss has moved on. The structure of my songs have become more challenging now that those connections have been absorbed into my sub-conscious. I now see a place, like the eye of the storm, where there’s just pure vocal.

With the ‘Speaking In Tongues’ pieces I have pushed the boundaries even further. The idea stems from an Indian technique of calculation for drummers. The sounds that drummers make on the two, main classical drums (tabla in the North and mrdingam in the South) are repeated as onomatopeic syllables. You learn the syllables first, before you pick up the drum. In South India it has become a vocal art form called Konnakol. I have discarded the calculation and the rigid time cycles and use the technique to achieve a purely emotive collage of sound. I’m breaking up patterns and throwing you off the beat, being as mad and chaotic as possible, yet I’m also keeping you hooked using the psychology of the rhythm. I have started to build in other percussive elements like elocution exercises and silly tongue twisters, snippets from advertising jingles, or an ancient Celtic imitation of bird song— anything that will get you to question the nature of these percussive syllables rather than accepting them because you think they’re traditional.

Sheila performs 'Speaking in Tongues III' on Later... with Jools Holland in 1993

‘Speaking in Tongues IV’, which moves through vocal percussion singing and then into singing, maps out the different points of reference between pure vocal percussion and song. It’s a very playful process to chop up rhythms and stick them back together. It’s almost like giving a voice to the chatter that goes on in your mind. A reviewer in Australia said it was like a lover’s quarrel; it’s true, there are a lot of changes in tone that imply two voices. When I perform the ‘Speaking In Tongues’ pieces some people think that they are improvised. In fact, it took me eight months to write the two pieces on this album! Every single syllable is set and never changes in performance, and if they weren’t, with so many clips and changes, I would probably fall into a rhythm which would spoil the chaotic effect.

I  would class these as post-sampling compositions! I don’t think I have written them without having heard samplers and what they’re capable of. My point is that the human sampler is ultimately the best. I often get a sense that when an audience sees me completely alone on stage beginning a ‘Speaking In Tongues’ piece they are not sure whether I can actually deliver. When I do, they take away with them a tremendous sense of abundance and empowerment, knowing that even though technology is all around us, it is still human skill and inspiration that are the most important things.

Reviews

  • With a dexterous tonal range that's as bright as lightning and bold as a summer cloudburst, she weaves a near-climatic spell so lovely and haunting it becomes its own environment... Billboard

Credits

Produced by Steve Coe. Mixed at Real World Studios, Wiltshire, England, November 1993. Mixing engineer Stuart Bruce. Assistant mixing engineer James Cadsky. Recorded at the Coachhouse, Clifton, Bristol. Recorded by Andy Allen and Rik Dowding in the two weeks around the Neptune/ Uranus conjuction of October 1993.

Mastered by Ian Cooper at Metropolis, London.

All drones played or sung by Steve Coe and Sheila Chandra.

All songs written and arranged by Steve Coe and Sheila Chandra except ‘En Mireal del Penal’ by Arroyo/Benito.

Art Direction by Michael Coulson, Real World. Designed by Tony Stiles, Real World. Design Consultation Assorted Images. Series identity Garry Mouat. Photography by Sheila Rock.

Interview by Martha Ladly and Tatiana Spencer.

  • Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices

    Sheila Chandra

    Released 11 May 1992

    On her Real World debut Sheila Chandra explores the musical territories of her spiritual ancestors, drawing upon South Indian, Celtic, Spanish and Muslim influences. This album concentrates on the purity and emotional intensity of Chandra’s extraordinary voice.
  • Sen

    Sevara Nazarkhan

    Released 01 July 2007

    Sen - which means 'you' in Uzbek - sees the irrepressible, ever curious artist Sevara Nazarkhan leaping boldly into contemporary writing and production. This is the album she has always wanted to make: a looping, shimmering, beats-laden gem underscored by traditional instrumentation and Uzbek-language lyrics provided by past and present Uzbek poets.

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