The Kronos Quartet: Brimful of Asha

The Kronos Quartet is collaborating with a Bollywood singing superstar. Michael Church speaks to her, and asks the quartet about their fascination with India

Tuesday 06 September 2005 00:00

You wouldn't imagine much in common between Bollywood and a Western string quartet. But it just so happened that the Bollywood fan - and friend of Kronos - Ken Hunt, did: compiling an album for India's favourite singer Asha Bhosle, he conceived the notion of subjecting the music she sang to string-quartet treatment. Kronos was receptive: Harrington had already fallen in love with a Bhosle song, which, with the aid of the tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, they'd recorded for their album Kronos Caravan.

But the lure was as much the music as the voice: Asha Bhosle's husband, the late Rahul Dev Burman, was not just Bombay's leading film composer, but, in Harrington's view, of global significance: "The more I listened to music from Indian films, the more I recognised that Burman's music was always my favourite. I began to realise that, as an orchestrator he's as good as Stravinsky or Debussy or Duke Ellington, and as a melody writer he's on the same level as Schubert or Gershwin or the Beatles."

He chose 12 songs, eight of which she would sing, with the other four being solos for the quartet. Zakir Hussain was drafted in again, as was the Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man. "We needed a plucked instrument with a much greater range of colour than you can get from the guitar," says Harrington. Then, taking Burman's own recordings as musical templates, Harrington began to build up his battery of studio effects. He brought in toy instruments, and invented new ones, such as what he terms the "hammered violin". "If it could make a sound, it became an instrument," he observes, citing the way he and Sherba threw and caught eight violin bows to make a clicking sound they've christened "bow percussion". And they began dubbing like crazy, layering themselves 20-times-over to create the effect of massed screaming violins: some songs had 180 layered tracks. "We wanted to go from the most intimate sound to the largest, in the space of a heartbeat."

Asha Bhosle, says Harrington, "commands one of the biggest vocabularies of all the musicians I've encountered. What she can do with her voice is beyond belief. It's like this amazing natural resource: she has the capability of making her voice like one of the instruments we play, and also of being the quintessential vocalist. And she can move between these modes quite naturally."

Such praise may seem over the top to those unfamiliar with the woman revered as Ashaji, but her voice has sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles combined. Flanked by her son Anand, the lady greets me in her London hotel room with the softest of handshakes and a meltingly demure smile: it's hard to believe that this diminutive creature - who struck up an unlikely partnership with Boy George, and who cheekily named a pop group she'd formed with Depeche Mode "The West India Company" - recently used her muscle to wrest better royalties for Indian composers.

She looks back with amusement on her beginnings as a "playback" star. "First they composed music, then they played it for us, and told us how they wanted the songs to be done. Then we read the words, and worked out what feelings they wanted. They might have said, "the actress is 18 years old, so you must sing as she would". Or they might have said "middle class", or "an old lady singing, sing like that". Or they might have said, "it's a cabaret", so I would have to sing as though I am dancing and crying inside. By the time I was in front of the mike, believing I'm the actress, then I could sing."

Everything in those days was a struggle, she says, and not only because her elder sister Lata was the biggest star on the block. She remembers being on a train with hundreds of weeping families on their way to exile after Partition, in 1947, "but all I was aware of was my own struggle, and that fact that when I got to the audition, I would be told 'Don't call us, we'll call you'." As Burman's muse, she was always aware of his restless genius: "David Harrington thinks RD Burman is Mozart, which makes me feel very good, and also very sad, because he is no longer here to hear this. I felt the same when I saw the film Amadeus. I cried that day.'

How does she feel about the Barbican concert on October 7, when she and the Kronos will present the CD's love-songs under the title "You've Stolen My Heart"? "A little nervous, because there are no retakes. Every day I practise by singing raga, at least one hour, otherwise I would not be able to go on. I am now 71, so my voice is deteriorating."

You wouldn't know it from the CD, where she runs the gamut from refined nostalgia to outright raunchiness, as though she herself were the thirtysomething protagonist. She hopes the audience won't just be Indian expats: "I'm not new for them - I want white people to come! For them I will be new."

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Meanwhile, the Kronos caravan is moving on. A few days before that concert, they are due to give the world premiere of Henryk Gorecki's Third String Quartet, in a small town in Poland. "We commissioned in 1991, and it arrived this spring," says Harrington wrily. "Gorecki said it was finished in 1995 but he couldn't let go of it, and couldn't explain why. But it's been worth the wait. This quartet is one of the landmarks of recent music." Not even the composer has heard it yet, and Harrington can't describe it. "But the chord changes are haunting, and there are moments that draw you right in, in the most intimate way. We'll record it when we've performed it a few times. A piece like that needs to be out in the sunlight for a while."

'You've Stolen My Heart' is out now on the Nonesuch label. Asha Bhosle and the Kronos Quartet perform at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891; on 7 October

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