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The exotic adventures of Indipop

The aptly titled compilation 'Compilasian' chronicles the pioneering English mom-and-pop label's 20-year history.

September 07, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Indipop is an inspired label for both a record company and the music it produces -- a unique blend of Indian textures and rhythms, ambient sounds, dance grooves and lyrical melodies. "Compilasian: The World of Indipop" (Narada), the latest album in the series, offers a fascinating overview of both the organization and the music, chronicling the 20-year history of a company that launched a new star -- Sheila Chandra -- while creating a new pop music genre, Asian fusion.

The plangent sound of the sitar and the fleet rhythms of the tabla drums first broke through pop music consciousness courtesy of George Harrison and the Beatles via "Norwegian Wood." By the '70s, simulations of Indian music were vibrating through films and TV commercials.

But it wasn't until English producer-musician Steve Coe and his wife and partner, singer-composer Chandra, established the Indipop label that something more than the external exoticisms of Indian music became creatively incorporated into popular music.

Starting in 1981, Indipop released a series of fascinating recordings, some by Chandra with the group Monsoon, some by Chandra alone, some by the group the Ganges Orchestra (which, Coe says, consisted of himself, "a featured vocalist or instrumentalist and whoever else turned up at the studio").

Indipop has never been more than a cottage industry, often funded by the income from Coe's mainstream work. But the company, nonetheless, has sold more than 1.5 million albums and singles over the past two decades, virtually all of which were the product of adventurous musical efforts.

"Compilasian: The World of Indipop" contains 15 tracks, some from the early years, some produced as recently as 2000. Most were either recorded as one-offs for other projects, were unreleased in recent years or were never commercially available. The company's on-again, off-again history alternated periods of activity with total shutdown over the 20-plus years of its existence.

Virtually all its product was created by Chandra and Coe's various group permutations: Monsoon and the Ganges Orchestra. The catalog contains five Chandra solo albums as well as Compilasian CDs and 2001's "This Sentence Is True." Chandra also released four albums on Real World in the '90s.

What becomes clear from the earliest Indipop tracks is the extent to which Coe maintained both the exoticism and, to some degree, the musical content of Indian music while producing tracks with distinct commercial potential. He was, in that sense, one of the more intriguing offspring of the English progressive rock movement of the '60s and '70s.

Playing with sounds

When Chandra made her first recording at age 16, Coe's perspective was dramatically enhanced by a performer who combined a warm textured voice with an understanding of Indian music and a prolific creative curiosity.

On a track such as "Ximerre Mix," for example, she plays with sounds, some sung backward, some sung forward and played backward, etc, all held together by an organ-like groove and sudden bursts of tablas.

"O.U.R." is all Chandra except for percussion and drone -- a fine example of her characteristic combination of long sounds, repetitious bursts of vocal rhythms (simulating the solfeggio of Indian classical music) and spoken interjections.

Other numbers reflect Coe's occasional efforts to specifically craft a commercial item. He describes "Can't Face the Night" -- accurately -- as a sort of Indian Kool and the Gang party disco sound.

Most intriguingly of all, the tracks are consistently appealing, as music, as dance grooves and (especially the concluding, 17-minute "Contemplasian") as atmospheric environments. Obviously, independent production by creative people, unencumbered by the need to sell big numbers, can produce impressive results -- even in an area as specialized as the unique cultural synthesis chosen by Steve Coe and Sheila Chandra.

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