Music News

Cornering the Market

To the easy rhythm a person assumes when striding through an open-air market, Cornershop's Tjinder Singh intones, "First I was a foreigner/Then suddenly everything was cool forever/This Western Oriental's going full circle." These lyrics--from "Wog," on the 1995 CD Woman's Gotta Have It--are the most concise way to sum up Cornershop's sound, which melds East and West so seamlessly that neither end of the equation is diluted or fetishized in the process.

The latest Cornershop disc was released by Luaka Bop, the Warner Bros. subsidiary that David Byrne uses to prospect for world-music gold. But Singh, an Asian Indian born and raised in central England, objects to the locution used to define such acts.

"I think the term 'world' sucks," he spits. "World music is something that was brought over from different countries basically to the West. For it to do that, there has to be an element that links it to the West. That's why a lot of the stuff, like African music or Asian bhangra music, has bass slapped on it or other elements like electronic drums--it just doesn't work for me. A lot of world music just rubs off the wrong way on people because they're not seeing it in its more pure form as it would have been, say, twenty years ago."

At first glance, such a statement seems surprising, especially given the fact that Singh himself plays bass and utilizes a drum machine on Woman's Gotta Have It, a disc that's as likely to shimmer with the metallic drone of a tamboura as it is to kick with guitar licks worthy of your neighbor's garage. But unlike the music of Sheila Chandra and others whose hybridizations do small justice to the traditions they plunder, Cornership digs deeper and throws more into the pot. The end product created by Singh and his cohorts (guitarist Ben Ayres, percussionist Pete Hall, drummer Nick Sims and guitarist/keyboardist Anthony Safferty) is so inclusive that one is hard-pressed to think in terms of hemispheres.

As for Cornershop's lyrics (particularly those heard on the act's 1993 release, Hold On It Hurts), they often speak frankly of prejudice. It's a subject with which Singh is intimate; he has endured threats, violence, torment--even the decimation of the fields in which he played as a child. In songs such as "You Always Said My Language Would Get Me Into Trouble" and "England's Dreaming," he expresses the fear and fury such discrimination engenders.

Among those the musicians accused of propagating bigotry was vocalist Morrissey. Singh and his fellows inveighed against his dalliances with skinhead imagery and racist lyrical allusions by burning pictures of the singer on stage and at a press conference outside EMI Records. These protests earned Cornershop a flurry of early publicity, but Singh feels they also did something more: "A lot of good things came out of it. People actually thought about it and agreed with us." But, he adds, "it showed how the issue of racism is as much a fad as going back to the Seventies is. Next year they've got the European drive on anti-racism, and it will become an issue again. It's a lot like heavy-metal music. It comes in and out of vogue."

Though Asians are frequent targets of racist hostilities in Great Britain, few of them have employed the musical forms on which they were raised to voice protest. "In England, Asians are expected to run corner shops, and it's said that that's all they add to society," Singh says. Thus, he sees his music as "a way of kicking back at all that--kicking back at Asian music having to be sort of passive and spiritual.

"I don't think it's been used as a mode of dealing with things in the main in England," he continues. "I can appreciate it being uplifting. It's the same as Punjabi folk music, which is also very uplifting spiritually. But the two are a means of getting away from life at times. That's why we don't fit in with regular Asian music--because we actually pose a few more questions." Clearly, Singh and his collaborators hold their politics as dear as their ethics regarding music. "We started off in the vein that the music that's going on is very, very bad and that we're going to do something about it now and not wait until later, when we're a bit more proficient with our instruments."

Singh's dedication to pushing creative boundaries ensures that no two Cornershop compositions utilize the same methodology. For instance, the group's words are sung or spoken by Singh, various female vocalists or sundry children; furthermore, these vocals are sometimes cut straight up or processed until they crackle like a shortwave. Though most of the lyrics are split between Punjabi and English, these are not the only languages to be found in Cornershop's repertoire. "My Dancing Days Are Done," a sexy sitar-driven tune that incorporates the male/female dialogue found in many Punjabi folk songs, has been recorded in three separate tongues. "We wanted it in English, French and German, because we've got French friends and German friends," Singh reveals. "I actually love the German language when it's sung. It's a really strange language because when talked, it's very coarse. But when it's sung, it's really powerful."

Even the recording process of Woman's Gotta Have It reflects the band's interest in manifold possibilities. "Have you heard the last song on the CD?" Singh asks breathlessly about "Never Leave Yrself Open," a secret track. "That was just recorded in a bedroom. 'Camp Orange' was sequenced with technology. 'Jullander Shere' was done live...

"We could have quite easily thought with the first EPs that we've got a formula to keep on going, but that would have been boring," Singh expounds. "So for the next single, 'Reader's Wives,' we used a lot more technology and sampling, and that baffled a lot of people."

For Singh, experimentation of this sort comes quite naturally. Whereas his use of the dholki (a traditional hand drum) harks back to the years he spent playing in a Sikh temple during his boyhood, he's also the holder of a degree in business-information technology. "People don't realize how much I do use technology," he says. "It's good to have that background behind you--and also the business background. There has been a lot of use of my degree. Just tell my dad that."

While Singh's father may be dismayed over his son's career choice, adventurous listeners are thrilled by Cornershop's delicious lo-fi, high-tech multi-culti. "It's been a real revelation--the fact that so many people have been into our development and have delved into our back catalogue," Singh enthuses. "That's what people are starting to do now; it's selling quite well. It's people like Sonic Youth and Pavement that have sent them in our direction."

Another supporter is Perry Farrell, who recently approached Cornershop to play the upcoming ENIT festival, a traveling event that slightly resembles his abandoned baby, Lollapalooza, but sports a revitalized philosophical foundation. "People will be planting trees and everyone having a meal, very much set on Indian principles in terms of everyone sharing the same food and giving praise to the Almighty," Singh elaborates.

Despite his enthusiasm for the project, however, Singh does not share the hope at the heart of Farrell's vision. "I can only see things getting worse," he laments. "So I feel quite privileged to have lived in better times in terms of community--in the way that people treat each other. I see nothing but doom and despair, unfortunately. On the question of fetching kids, there's no way I'd want the responsibility of taking someone through to the next century. It's too daunting."

Still, Singh is not about to give up on his musical crusade against oppression. "There's no one really doing it now," he says. "We started getting press in '92, and since then, no one's really taken it in the direction we've taken it. A lot of Asians couldn't really care. They want to just leave it--to try to cope, or at worst forget about it completely. Using music as a means of attacking [society's ills] is to them a very stupid thing when you could just be earning money, which is the very crux of the matter." Nevertheless, he sees his ethnic heritage, which has shaped his worldview as much as it has his music, as "a gift--something you can either disregard or take on. I'm happy to say I take it on a lot."

Porno for Pyros, with Cornershop. 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18.50, 830-2525 or 800-444-

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Amy Kiser