Flicking through the racks at Mr Bongo’s record store, I pulled out the Asha Puthli self-titled reissue LP. Drawn to the beautiful sleeve, the first track ‘Right Down Here’ had me hooked straight away. The wonderful fusion of jazz, soul, blues and disco and that VOICE!
I started to do more research on Asha’s career and discovered an awe-inspiring journey across continents and musical genres...
Born and raised in Bombay, Asha began her musical journey in classical Indian music and opera, which later branched out and evolved into jazz and fusion. Her quest to synergise east and west began via a dance scholarship to NYC with Martha Graham.
Her first music break came in Europe after a TV appearance on a talk show. A signing to CBS records in the UK followed and she worked with Del Newman, Elton’s Johns producer, in 1973 to create her first album (self-titled) - a pop-tinged crossover gem. Her disco album of 1976 ‘The Devil is Loose’ was recorded in Germany and named ‘An Instant Classic’ by The New York Times.
A familiar face in the Studio 54 disco hey-day in the 70s and always rocking a fantastic sense of style, Asha was dressed by top designers such as Manahlo Blahnik and photographed by the pop-art legend Andy Warhol. The epic track ‘Space Talk’ became popular with David Manusco and the infamous NYC loft crowd in the 70s. The song then went on to be sampled by hip hop heavyweights such as 50 Cent, Dilated Peoples, The Notorious B.I.G, P Diddy and Redman.
Not content with this already impressive CV, Ms Puthli then went on to star in (and provide soundtrack songs for) films such as ‘Savages’ (Merchant Ivory), which was subsequently banned in India due to the racy outfits, and later ‘The Gang That Sold America’ (Bruno Corbucci).
Following a recommendation by John Hammond, the influential record producer and talent scout, Asha went on to perform vocals on Ornette Coleman’s fabled jazz album “Science Fiction’ in 1971.
After an almost 10 year hiatus out of the music scene, during which she raised her son, Asha then discovered her old albums were selling as collector items for $100 a pop. She was soon back in demand in the US and singing Indian mantras for Bill Laswell and English group Stratus whose track ‘Looking Glass’ achieved great success in the UK chart.
The legendary Central Park Summerstage in NYC was the venue for Asha in 2006. Sharing a line-up with Talvin Singh, Prefuse73, jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman and Dres from Black Sheep, a wonderful example of the cross-cultural identity that Asha has carried throughout her incredible career.
Thanks to the wonders of the worldwide web, I was thrilled to be able to get in touch with Asha directly and ask her some questions about past, present and future…
What current projects are you working on?
I’ve completed a Jazz album. It’s a tribute album to the great legendary Jazz composers, for whom I was privileged enough to be given the opportunity to sing with, either in concert or in recordings. I'm looking for the right company for distribution, all that is left now is mastering of the tracks. It includes compositions of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Cy Coleman and Ornette Coleman. Over the years I have recorded as the featured vocalist on Jazz albums but this will be my first solo Jazz album. All my solo albums till now have been in Rock, Soul, Pop, and Disco genre even though I was initially categorized as a Jazz artist. So it’s full circle now.
I am also looking forward to the release of a compilation set of my albums from the 70's and 80's and some never released recordings from the early 70's before the end of this year. Also before the end of this year, Nov 10th to be exact, I will be performing at the Le Guess Who? music festival in Utrecht NL. Really excited about this.
What is your song writing process?
It’s a Go with the Flow process. Sometimes a melody may come first, in which case I meet with a pianist or guitarist and set some chords and we progress from there. Sometimes there may be a recorded instrumental track without a song, in which case I write lyrics and create a melody line, and sometimes a composer may have a specific melody line and title for a song but no lyrics. There are no hard and fast rules when creating music. The ones that become popular or become hits may be a song created in 5 minutes in a flash of inspiration.
What do you feel is the best song you've released and why?
Songs are children so there is no one best song, from an emotional point of view my favorite song is "Peek A Boo Boogie" because I wrote this in a joyful playful frame of mind - while playing hide and seek with my 3 year old son. As a single mom and a songwriter with an album deadline I needed to multitask.
"The Devil is Loose" - best song from a success angle, the song was in the charts, went gold and it led to a lot of TV shows in Europe. Inspired from a comment in the recording studio- this is my 5-minute song.
"Space Talk" had a life of its own, an organic kind of evolution- it has a progeny with its DNA in several songs sampled by P.Diddy and Notorious BIG then grandfathered into a Jay Z song.
Most importantly Space Talk has been traveling in outer space since the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Apollo Launch. ET aliens may be dancing to it.
How does it feel to be described as a ‘fusion pioneer’ by Anne Powers from the New York Times?
I Feel deeply touched and honoured. Artists love being appreciated especially from cognoscenti and critics who have their finger on the pulse of music. I am particularly grateful to her and Eric Weisbard the originators and organisers of the Pop Conference who invited me to speak with the erudite Jason King at the EMP event in Seattle some years ago.
Did you prefer performing at Studio 54 or Central Park Summerstage?
Studio 54 - because that concert was for a cause close to my heart. I had come to America on a Dance scholarship from Martha Graham in 1969 and had become good friends with Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino the founders of the Joffrey Ballet. I gave up dance a year later to concentrate on my recording career. Years later in 1982 when Pres. Ronald Reagan cut off subsidy for the arts, the Joffrey Ballet was strapped for funds and Gerry asked me if I would organize a fund raiser for The Joffrey Ballet, which we did with a star studded, over sold successful event at Studio 54. Fait accompli.
Are there any current artists you would like to collaborate with it or excited by?
Yes, I love collaborating with young musicians and feel energized and inspired by them, especially happy and proud when I hear or read about the current young S.Asian talent making waves in mainstream music on the International scene. I'm excited that platform has now opened to accepting more diverse artists like Raveena Aurora, a young R&B singer from New York, Bishi Bhattacharya in London and Saba Azad in Mumbai, I welcome them all into our musical sisterhood. I collaborated with Imaad Shah and Madboy Band at the Red Bull Music Academy event 6 months ago and plan to collaborate with Imaad Shah again for the Le Guess Who event this coming November. It will be a blast.
Thank you to Asha for answering my questions and for all the wonderful music so far!
Written by Jane Cudworth.