Singer, songwriter, producer
Indian-born vocalist Asha Puthli (pronounced PUT-lee) anticipated several major developments in Western popular music with a series of recordings she made for the CBS label in Europe in the 1970s. Her sexy, slinky vocals, deployed against a pulsing background of electronic beats, pointed the way toward disco. Rediscovered in the late 1990s by hip-hop and electronic dance-music DJs, Puthli also seemed to be a forerunner of the East-West fusion dance styles that had become popular among clubgoers, especially in Britain. A boundary-crosser in music and life, Puthli returned to performing in 2006 and prepared to release a new album in the genre that had first attracted her to Western music:—jazz.
Puthli was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, into a family with the resources to give her a musical education. She has refused to discuss her age, telling Jon Pareles of the New York Times in 2006 that "I'm spiritually 6,000, I'm mentally 98, I'm emotionally 5, and chronologically in between." Although an adherent of Hinduism, she attended Catholic schools. She studied both Indian classical vocals (and dance) and Western opera as a young woman, but she was entranced by Western music she heard on the airwaves—jazz from the Voice of America, and the British pop of Dusty Springfield on Radio Ceylon, from the island of Sri Lanka. When she was 13 she started taking female-vocal slots with local bands. Her teachers told her that singing pop music could damage her technique, but she chose in favor of the pop world. "I'm like a wild horse," she told Pareles. "I decided, I have to give up opera if it's going to put any kind of restraint on me."
Puthli's first exposure to Western audiences came when she was still living in Bombay and singing in nightclubs there. New Yorker magazine contributor Ved Mehta, a blind writer whose vivid sketches of Indian life introduced many Western readers to the country's cultures, heard her singing and devoted part of a long article on "Jazz in Bombay" to Puthli; the article was reprinted in Mehta's book Portrait of India. At the same time, Puthli was breaking into films. She visited a house in Bombay where the duo of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory was filming The Guru (1969). "I was absolutely dying to be discovered," she told Pareles. Hearing a call for silence on the set, she gave a big, operatic stage laugh. Merchant entered the room and demanded to know who had laughed, and Puthli launched into a false apology routine. Her ploy worked: the director identified her as a performer who could project vocally, and cast her in a bit part.
Having already made one small recording and performed a unique jazz-Indian fusion piece at the Bombay Arts Festival, Puthli was determined to try to crack the American market. At first she applied for a job as a BOAC (British Airways) flight attendant in order to be able to travel internationally. Winning a dance scholarship from the company of choreographer Martha Graham, she came to New York and tracked down Mehta. The writer introduced her to the legendary Columbia Records executive John Hammond, discoverer of a sequence of innovative vocalists running from Billie Holiday through Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. Hammond himself produced a Puthli single called "Asha's Thing," but it went unreleased. She recorded a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" with the Peter Ivers Blues Band, and then Hammond arranged her real breakthrough: a featured-vocalist slot on the 1972 Science Fiction album by avant-garde jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
That album, considered a jazz classic, garnered Puthli a best female jazz vocalist award in the influential Down Beat magazine critics' poll and was reissued in 2000 with unreleased material as The Complete Science Fiction Sessions. At the time, however, experimental jazz was on the decline commercially. Seeking new opportunities, Puthli began working in Britain with Elton John producer Del Newman, focusing on pop rather than jazz. The result was the 1973 release Asha Puthli, which featured a wide mix of styles. Some tracks, such as "Right on Time," evoked later R&B and disco styles with its slinky bass and horns. "I Dig Love" was a cover of an Indian-influenced composition by Beatle George Harrison. Puthli turned the song's emphasis around. "The way the Beatles saw it was as a spiritual song," she explained to Pareles. "They did it like a bhajan, an Indian religious song. In 1973, when I did it, I felt I was already Indian, and the spirituality was inside me. I was trying to become Western, so I brought out the material aspect, the sexual aspect." Many of her songs had a calm, chilled-out feel that anticipated acid jazz and ambient dance styles that were still several decades in the future.
Asha Puthli and its successor, 1974's She Loves to Hear the Music, gained audiences in European clubs, and Puthli went to Germany to make her third album, The Devil Is Loose in 1976. The album saw Puthli moving into a full-fledged disco sound. The single "Space Talk" was later sampled in "The World Is Filled," a 1997 single by the Notorious B.I.G. (and miscredited on the cover). With a major presence in European disco and soul, Puthli also began to find new popularity in India, even though she had scandalized conservative audiences there by appearing partially nude in the 1972 Merchant-Ivory film Savages. In the 1970s, Puthli was a high-fashion icon, appearing in shoots by such photographers as Richard Avedon. In 1979 she released the album Asha L'Indiana on the disco-oriented TK label. As dance music's popularity declined, so did Puthli's along with it. She recorded music for film soundtracks and tried a straight rock album, Only the Headaches Remain. For much of the 1980s and 1990s she curtailed her performing activities to focus on raising her son, Jannu; occasionally she emerged to record in India.
The insatiable appetite of Western dance music DJs and producers for retro and exotic sounds revived Puthli's career in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Samples of her 1970s work began to appear on major hip-hop releases by the likes of Jay-Z (The Blueprint Vol. 2: The Gift and the Curse). Puthli realized the depth of interest in her music when her son told her that New York DJ Sean Dinsmore had paid $100 for a copy of one of her albums, and she subsequently sang on an Indian-flavored track called "Diwani Diwana" recorded by Dinsmore under the name the Dum Dum Project. During her heyday, Puthli had rarely sung in ways that drew fully on Indian styles, although her Indian classical training was audible in many small ways. Now, however, with electronic music incorporating a host of world music traditions, Puthli found herself in demand as a specifically Indian vocalist.
For the Record …
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India; children: one son, Jannu. Education: Attended Catholic schools and a university in Bombay, India; studied traditional Indian and Western operatic singing in Bombay.
Appeared on EP with Indian band the Surfers, 1968; appeared in film The Guru, 1969; moved to New York on dance scholarship; featured female vocals on album Science Fiction, by Ornette Coleman, 1972; signed to CBS label; released album Asha Puthli, 1973; released She Loves to Hear the Music, 1974; released The Devil Is Loose, 1976; signed to TK label, released disco album Asha L'Indiana, 1979; signed to Autobahn label and released albums in Europe, 1980s; re-emerged after discovery by hip-hop and electronica artists, 2000s; appeared on album Asana Vol. 3: Peaceful Heart, by Bill Lasswell, 2003; appeared on recording "Hey Diwani, Hey Diwana," by the Dum Dum Project; performed in Central Park, New York, 2006.
Addresses: Booking—Superlatude Music Group, Inc., P.O. Box 578, Prince St. Station, New York, NY 10012. Website—Asha Puthli Official Website: http://www.ashaputhli.com.
She appeared on two albums by electronic music experimentalist Bill Lasswell, Asana Vol. 3: Peaceful Heart (2003) and Asana Ohm Shanti (2006), on the successful electronica release Fear of Magnetism by Stratus (2005), and on various other electronica and "chillout" releases. In 2006 she resumed live performances with a summer concert in New York's Central Park—but not in electronic dance genres. Instead, Puthli returned to jazz, the music she had learned from records and radio in Bombay.
(With the Surfers) Angel of the Morning, EMI, 1968.
Asha Puthli, CBS, 1973.
She Loves to Hear the Music, CBS, 1974.
The Devil Is Loose, CBS, 1976.
Asha L'Indiana, TK, 1979.
1001 Nights of Love, Polygram/Worrell, 1980.
I'm Going to Kill It Tonight, Autobahn/Worrell, 1981.
Only the Headaches Remain, Autobahn/Polygram, 1982.
Hari Om/Railway Bazaar, CBS India, 1990 (not released).
The New Beat of Nostalgia, Top of the World, 1998.
Selected guest appearances
Ornette Coleman, Science Fiction, Columbia, 1972.
Dum Dum Project, Export Quality, Times Square, 2001.
Bill Lasswell, Asana Vol. 3: Peaceful Heart, Meta, 2003.
Stratus, Fear of Magnetism, Klein, 2005.
Bill Lasswell, Asana Ohm Shanti, Meta, 2006.
Mehta, Ved, Portrait of India, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
New York Times, August 12, 2006, p. B7.
"Bio," Asha Puthli Official Website, http://www.ashaputhli.com (November 20, 2006).
"Recording Superstar Asha Puthli Stages Comeback," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/news.php?id=10659 (November 20, 2006).
Sai, Vijay, "All That Jazz," The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/mag/2006/10/15/stories/2006101500120500.htm (November 20, 2006).
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