Double Door, November 25

The postmodern artist of color in the West is expected not only to have inherited the same heap of pop junk and exhausted formalisms as everyone else, but to lay claim to something untainted as well. This has been less of an issue in rock music, which has marginalized artists of color (including, ironically, black people) to the point of invisibility. That hasn’t stopped a handful of white rockers from visiting other cultures (think of punk’s embrace of Jamaican reggae, dub, and ska) or a few rockers of color from braving the roots move (think of Los Lobos, who crossed over and then turned back to Latin music).

The brothers Singh, Tjinder and Avtar, named their band Cornershop, released their debut single in 1992 on self-proclaimed “curry-colored vinyl,” and from the start invoked their transnational identity as part of the besieged Indian minority in England. They were given to sloganeering–an early single exhorted, with palpably ironic undertones, “Shut up shop, get in the streets, and fight the powers that be!”–but their music was more interesting than their politics. For while Cornershop muddled through the most shopworn postpunk guitar conventions, they threw sitars into the mix.

Playing sitar on a rock record might in itself constitute a political act, for an Asian at least if not for a Beatle. It might also constitute a goof–an early Cornershop single reworks an Elvis oldie as “Seetar Man.” But the sitar’s sinuous metallic drone also mimics much of what the Singhs’ postpunk guitar peers, from the Jesus and Mary Chain to My Bloody Valentine, have achieved through massively orchestrated distortion: namely, a shimmering shadow melody piercing through the sonic overload.

This makes the sound of Cornershop’s sitars not merely familiar, but practically indigenous within postpunk guitar rock. A song like “Kalluri’s Radio” (from the band’s debut album on the Merge label, Hold On It Hurts) may be a deadpan knockoff of the Jesus and Mary Chain, but it’s nonetheless startling to hear the sitars ride through a brackish little surf ditty. The exoticism is less about sound than context; it comes from using a culturally specific instrument in a new setting.

The more logical deployment of the sitar is in dance music, with its uncoiling, open-ended song structures, closer in spirit to the raga. While Cornershop had swayed toward dance before on older songs like “Reader’s Wives,” they tilt the balance on their wonderful new album Woman’s Gotta Have It (Luaka Bop) and on some new dance remixes released under the pseudonym Clinton. Indian sounds have attained mainstream success in England before, most notably in the early 80s with the dance pop of Monsoon (two white Englishmen and singer Sheila Chandra, whose unabashed crossover ambition was exemplified by a cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”) and in the 90s with the fusion of bhangra and hip-hop found in the music of Apache Indian, Bhally Sagoo, and others. Today’s Cornershop is a little of both and something entirely different.

Two versions of their song “Jullander Shere,” a most improbable and irresistible hit, bookend the new album. Sung and spoken in Punjabi, “Jullander Shere”–which means “in the city of Jullander” (in Punjab, India)–is an anthem of unity and transcendence. The spirit of uplift translates itself.

At Cornershop’s recent concert at the Double Door, a mildly curious crowd watched Tjinder duct-tape his battered tabla to a barstool, strap on his acoustic guitar, and launch into the spoken intro of “Jullander Shere”: “In these days of the 20th century, we seem to have many leaders. Let us have faith in truth, whomever we believe in, and let us live as one.” The sentiment, delivered in Punjabi, was of course lost on most of the audience, but Cornershop stuck to their guns, eschewing their rockish songs in English in favor of focusing almost entirely on more Eastern-influenced material from the new album. Drummer Nick Simms supplied a propulsive dance-rock beat beneath Anthony Saffrey’s ringing sitar and Pete Hall’s entrancing percussion, but it soon became clear that Cornershop had done all its crossing over on the airplane–15 minutes elapsed before a word of English was sung.

Though Cornershop’s increasingly Indian-steeped music bears the stamp of cultural authenticity, it probably failed to impart the reality of Asian England to last weekend’s audience. That’s a shame, because Tjinder owns stores of wit and irony to help him navigate the perilous transnational experience. On “Roof Rack” he answers Enoch Powell, the British politician most enduringly hostile to his country’s Asians: “Maybe I can see it through Enoch’s eyes / ‘Cause breaking these borders will build new order.” Powell, who repeatedly called for repatriation, once said, “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.” Even the squawk-box treatment of Tjinder’s voice on “Jullander Shere” comments on cultural displacement, purposefully amplifying Punjabi’s unintelligibility to Cornershop’s countrymen.

Hanif Kureishi, the screenwriter of My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid–perhaps the most widely accessible depictions of young Asian-English life (at least to Cornershop’s potential audience)–once observed, “As someone said to me at a party, provoked by the fact that I was wearing jeans: we are Pakistanis, but you, you will always be a Paki–emphasizing the slang derogatory name the English used against Pakistanis, and therefore the fact that I couldn’t rightfully lay claim to either place.” In a sense, Cornershop’s music must be like Tjinder’s and Avtar’s lives: neither Indian nor British but something in between, and difficult through and through. In that sense too, then, their music’s culturally authentic–though not necessarily more authentic than the music of anyone striving to wrench free from the pileup at rock’s aesthetic dead end (that’s life).

“The right way is different for different people / Let us live in union / Then we all win, win,” Tjinder testifies on “Jullander Shere.” After hearing these words, an Indian friend wondered whether the Singhs are Sikh or Hindu. Scanning the translation, an English friend wondered whether the Singhs favor England joining a unified Europe. And then there are the synthesizers near the end of “Jullander Shere” sounding like a spaceship landing. Can a homeland’s borders be stretched to the skies? Cornershop must be the sound of borders breaking.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen A. Peters.