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Zen kiss from Sheila Chandra

September 24, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Sheila Chandra includes a note on her website that provides a Zen-like insight into her extraordinary vocal art. "If you tell me," she writes, "I've only got five notes to play with to make a melody, you get a very different result than if you tell me I've got all 12 semitones to play with."

On Saturday night, in her first performance in Los Angeles in 12 years, Chandra stood alone onstage, accompanied only by an electronic drone, illuminating in four too-short selections both the complexities and the simple beauties conveyed by her website comment.

Performing at the Los Angeles Convention Center as the principal highlight of Yoga Walk's 12-hour Global Mala Project, the British-born and -reared singer faced an audience of hundreds of assembled yoga practitioners, spread across the floor of the room in a vast half-circle. Most of her listeners were in a receptive mood, seated on their mats, filled with the ineffable energies of having joined for several hours in the collective practice of sun salutations, chanting and meditation.

Chandra began with a solo rendering of a selection from her "Speaking in Tongues" cycle. Based on the classical Indian music technique of attributing onomatopoeic syllables -- similar to the Western music practice known as solf├Ęge -- to percussive sounds, it was stunning. Although the piece is a composed work, Chandra's performance of it had the feel of utter spontaneity -- a quality that has always been inherent in her music, even within the most studio-structured environments of her work with the Ganges Orchestra.

"Waiting," from her 1994 album, "The Zen Kiss," was sung with an appropriately dark lyricism. Chandra then honored the setting for her performance with a mantra combining a chant to Vishnu with a Latin "Hallelujah" in a transformative display of boundary-less spirituality.

Her final piece, "Enchantment," from her 1992 album, "Weaving My Ancestors' Voices," was a further reflection of the explorations she has been making into the common folk roots of Eastern and Western music. Based on a traditional English song, it was sung by Chandra with a vocal quality enhancing the music's timeless simplicity with arching, emotionally expansive melismas.

It was, by any measure, far too brief a performance from an artist who clearly has so much to offer. But it was nonetheless a significant contribution to an event overflowing with fascination. After Chandra's set, singer Jai Uttal added his unique version of East-West crossover sounds with the Agape International Choir, and the evening climaxed with some stirring Yoga Trance Dance enlivened by Global Mala catalyst Shiva Rea.

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