Tabla Manners

Cornershop at the intersection of indie and Indian

Anyone who's ever scoffed at the term "one-world music" should listen to the Cornershop song "Jullandar Shere," whose two versions "6 a.m." and "7:20 a.m." both open and close 1995's Woman's Gotta Have It. After a Punjabi-language introduction, which translates to "Let us have faith in truth/ Whomever we believe in," the Indo-indie Brits launch into an ancient devotional trance that mixes fuzzy Velvetsy guitars with electric tablas, a strummed tamboura, and both Indian and rock percussion. His voice soaring with elation and possibility, Tjinder Singh's mantras transcend language; meanwhile, the quirky sounds of futures past -- Moogs and other analog synths -- periodically blip across the radar, further screwing with the space-time-cultural continuum. The song is both uplifting and Bollywood silly, a play on the concept of Indian music as quickie spirituality signifier. (See the Beatles' collaboration with Ravi Shankar.)

Integrationism is the future of pop music (see Cibo Matto, the Fugees, and locals Los Super Elegantes); multiracial Cornershop agreeably recasts rock as a genreless genre, but also infuses it with the kind of identity politics previously the realm of hip hop. In their cosmology, the influences of Pavement, Public Enemy, and Punjabi folk music don't contradict but complement, and are given equal weight; "My Dancing Days Are Done" is a Punjabi folk melody played on electric instruments and sung in French, of all things. Ironically, Singh waits till the most conventional song on the album to make his intentions clear, posturing as the "Rock and Roll Destroyer" in his best Iggy Pop voice.

As far as band names go, "Cornershop" seems innocuous, but it's a reference to the stereotypical profession of East Asian immigrants in the U.K. -- shopkeepers, the American equivalent being Korean grocery owners. (Then again, there's always the curiously cheerful 7-Elevenish drone Apu from The Simpsons.) Racism is a recurring theme for the band, which released its first single, "In the Days of Ford Cortina," on curry-colored vinyl, refuses to translate its lyrics into English in liner notes, and addresses minority oppression in songs like "Wog" (derogatory slang for an Indian laborer) and "You Always Said My Language Would Get Me in Trouble."

Earlier releases like Hold On It Hurts are straightforward indie rock but for the use of Indian instruments. Singh has been accused of cynically reinventing himself as a musical provocateur, but it's arguable that the very act of an Asian artist playing overwhelmingly "white" indie rock is inherently subversive. (See Ear of the Dragon, a compilation of Asian-American indie rock released in the U.S. last year.) Children of immigrants, Singh and his brother, Avtar (also one of the band's two guitarists), were dismissed as "Pakis" and terrorized by local thugs growing up in the West Midlands. Gandhi-like passivity -- another cultural myth on Singh's hit list -- was never an option. Cornershop fed the British music press with headlines for a few weeks when the band publicly burned Morrissey's picture to protest the singer's flirtation with fascist imagery, and became known more for political sloganeering than music. Singh has since learned that generating cultural pride can be just as effective in debunking stereotypes. On Woman's Gotta Have It he sings, "Once I was a foreigner now everything's cool forever/ This Western Oriental going full circle." Sure he's sarcastic, but his voice betrays a spark of hope .

Cornershop plays Mon, May 20, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

 
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