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No one can blame Indian singer Asha Puthli for a bit of name-dropping. Contributors and benefactors to her career since the late 1960s include, for example, Ornette Coleman, Martha Graham, Notorious B.I.G., filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and talent scout John Hammond. She scandalized India and wowed British talk show audiences; she was the catalyst of German disco and an Italian B-movie actress.
With a four-octave range and a lifelong ambition to synthesize East and West, Ms. Puthli sang jazz, disco, rock and Indian music. She'll play her first New York gig in 25 years tomorrow at Central Park SummerStage — joined by jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman and rapper Guru — followed by a night at Joe's Pub on September 13.
Some of Ms. Puthla's most unlikely hybrids—the mid-1970s songs she recorded with a disco pulse, psychedelic guitars, and vocals that range from puffing jazz phrases to the quips and slides of Indian music—have been rediscovered by hip-hop and electronic producers. After being out of print for several years, her 1973 album "Asha Puthli" is now available for download from the iTunes Music Store, and a compilation album - "Space Talk: The Best of Asha Puthli, CBS Years" - will be released later this year years .
"I feel like a global person," she said in an interview at a friend's apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. “I think my psyche is very American. My soul and my roots are very Indian. And my career was more European."
From her first encounter with jazz as a young girl, Ms. Puthli, wanted to merge the 6000 year old culture of India with American music. When asked about her age, she said, "Spiritually I'm 6000, mentally 98, emotionally 5 and chronologically in between."
Cross-cultural encounters have always been a part of her life. She was born in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, to a well-to-do family, was educated in a Roman Catholic school and practiced Hinduism at home; she studied classical Indian music and dance, along with European music. She trained as an opera singer until, she said, she discovered that preserving her voice meant giving up other styles.
"I'm like a wild horse," she said. "I decided that I must give up opera if they were going to put any restrictions on me."
Mrs. Puthli heard jazz on Voice of America radio and began singing it in nightclubs in Mumbai - she would come as a customer where musician friends played, stepping on stage with her back to the audience so her parents wouldn't find out. One performance impressed Ved Mehta, a writer for The New Yorker, whose article about a young singer who decided to go abroad for real jazz—"a beautiful, lively girl," he wrote—appeared in the magazine and in Mr. Mehta's book "Portrait of India" from 1970.
Her professional career began, she said, with a calculated laugh. Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory shot his 1969 film "The Guru" in Mumbai in a house where one of the mrs. Puthli's girls lived.
"They were completely exposing me," she said. "They were filming in a big hall, and I was talking to a girl in another room. When you sing opera, your voice changes and your laugh changes - I used to laugh like a waterfall. Even though I heard them say, 'Silence on set!', I laughed my operatic laugh. It worked! The door opens and there is Mr. Merchant and he says, 'Who was laughing?' I did it as an apology, though I did it on purpose, but Mr. Merchant said, 'No, no, no, we want you. Put on a sari and go on stage.’ But all they wanted was my laugh.”
She began performing more seriously as a singer, including a performance at the Bombay Arts Festival where she improvised in jazz and Indian style in the same song.
"It was fusion only in the sense that it came from the same mouth," she said. Mrs. Puthli won a scholarship to dance with Martha Graham and looked up to Mr. Mehta when she came to New York City; he referred her to Mr. Hammond, who had read the article. And Mr. Hammond soon sent her to record Ornette Coleman's "Science Fiction" album.
Other singers had problems with Mr. Coleman's difficult tunes, but Mrs. Puthli learned them on the spot. For her two songs on the album, she shared the award for the best female jazz singer in Downbeat magazine's annual poll of jazz critics.
But Mrs. Puthli did not want to stay in jazz. She worked with a psychedelic blues band whose recordings were not released after Ms. Puthli demanded more money than Columbia Records was willing to pay her. She appeared, scantily clad, in the 1972 Merchant-Ivory film Savages, which was banned in India.
I was known as a maverick, she said. "It was a violation of the traditions of show business, showing the body on stage, half-naked in the film."
Mrs. Puthli wanted a career in the United States, home of the jazz and soul she loved. "When Americans talk about fusion, they're talking about American artists who brought in Indian elements," she said. "I'm proud of my Indian heritage and I want to build a bridge and let them understand that someone came here who can sing on equal terms - even if it wasn't equal terms - without compromise.' Hey guys, I'm talented, so what if I come from another part of the world?' But it was one-way traffic, and when I got here, the door was closed.”
Instead, she got a chance in Europe. After a cheeky appearance on a British talk show, Ms. Puthli signed a recording contract with CBS Records in England. On her debut album, she aimed for the pop mainstream and worked with Elton John's producer, Del Newman. Among its range of styles, the album "Asha Puthli" included "Right on Time", with a mid-tempo wah-wah rhythm and whispery vocals that could have been the template for Donna Summer's hits a few years later.
It also featured a version of George Harrison's "I Dig Love," a wild, post-psychedelic artifact, complete with sound effects, soulful horns, and Ms. Puthli alternately gasps and giggles.
"The way the Beatles saw it, it was like a spiritual song," she said. "They did it as a bhajan, an Indian religious song. In 1973, when I was doing it, I felt that I was already Indian and the spirituality was in me. I was trying to become a Westerner, so I brought out the material aspect, the sexual aspect."
Mrs. Puthli's third album, "The Devil Is Loose", perfected her disco sound. Made in Germany, where Mrs. Puthli co-wrote most of the tracks, featuring airy vocals driving smooth yet lush beats. One of his songs, "Space Talk", would be sampled for Notorious B.I.G.'s 1997 song "The World Is Filled ..." (although B.I.G.'s album incorrectly listed it as Kit Walker's "Spacewalk").
Mrs. Puthli recorded a soundtrack song for an Italian B-movie, "Squadra Antigangsters" (also known as "The Band That Sold America"), then took over the lead role when Ursula Andress dropped out. In the early 1980s, she tried her hand at rock, hitting the charts in Japan and singing on her 1982 album "Only the Headaches Remain" about nuclear meltdown and a wave of anti-Asian violence in England.
She almost gave up music for a whole decade to raise her son Jannu. He told her in the late 1990s that a friend who was a New York disc jockey had just bought one of her old albums - now a collector's item - for $100. Disc jockey Sean Dinsmore was behind the Dum Dum Project, an Indian-electronic hybrid, and at her son's request, Mrs. Puthli sang "Hey Dawani, Hey Dawana" to him. "Then I found out about the sampling," she said. Her old songs have been revived by Jay-Z, Neptunes, Governor and others.
Suddenly Mrs. Puthli in demand in the US - but as an Indian singer. She sang mantras for bassist and producer Bill Laswell and improvised in a high, Bollywood voice for the English group Stratus. But she has recorded an album of jazz tunes, and in Central Park her set could include songs by Lionel Hampton and Nirvana alongside her music.
"I'm a free spirit," she said. "My mind always works on the in-between, like microtones in music. I'm an artist, and artists have a hard time drawing lines. We draw circles—concentric and eccentric circles."
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