RR LogoAsha Puthli Is In The Studio Recording Once Again

Asha Puthli Photo OnePop / Jazz singer Asha Puthli. with some assistance from her friends Ron and Mara New, has been recording songs for a new and yet to be named album. When Ms. Puthli left her homeland India in the 1970’s and traveled to America on a dance scholarship, armed with a background in Classical and Opera music, her goal was to bridge the Indian and American cultures and to record and perform the type of music she had listened to on the radio shows Voice of America, hosted by Willis Conover and Radio Ceylon.

“I listened to what was called Radio Ceylon in those days and now it (the country) is called Sri Lanka. I was fascinated by Jazz, because of the similarity of Indian music and Jazz in so many ways, in the sense of the freedom and the improvisation quality and a lot of it used chords (similar to) raga music, which I was studying. It was Jazz, which I was so passionate about, but it only came on for an hour. The other one was the Voice of America.  Radio Ceylon taught me Rock and Roll. It had Elvis Presley, Pat Boone and Cliff Richard. Little did I realize that one day I would meet Pat Boone and one day I would do a television show with Cliff Richard. A year and one-half after I left for America Willis Conover, was playing Ornette Coleman’s album that I had sung on, so it was like a cycle coming complete.

In Willis Conover’s autobiography called Broadcasting To The World he mentions John Coltrane and me as being the first people to bring Indian music to Jazz and mixing the two genres of music,” says Asha Puthli.

It was not the only time that Asha Puthli had been referred to as an innovator. Ann Powers writing for the New York Times referred to her as a pioneer of Fushion music, along with Ravi Shankar.

When reminded of that article, Ms. Puthli says, “I am happy that people think in some small way I have made a difference and a contribution. When you are young you just do it, because you have a passion to do it. I just wanted to build a cultural bridge and I am happy that people feel that way. I hope that I opened the door for others to do the same. We all have a collective consciousness, but they may not do it for various reasons.  Hopefully they got more motivation to do it or to pursue it.”

In recent years Ms. Puthli has been mentioned in two books about the evolution of music in India and she finds it funny that she is mentioned in both, because of the diverse genres. The books are, Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age and India Psychedelic, The Story of a Rocking Generation, by Sidharth Bhatia.

Ms. Puthli talks about her new EP, “Ron New is very fond of Jazz music and that concept and I had for some time wanted to pay tribute to the wonderful Jazz people (that I met). That was my original goal to sing basic Standard Jazz, which I heard over The Voice of America. The very first man I met (in America) was Duke Ellington. I was asked to sing in a church, the St Peter’s Lutheran church. While I was singing there was a lovely lady in the front row all dressed up in a hat with blond hair and a pink dress and she came up to me after I sang and she said you have an amazing voice, I want you to meet my brother. I didn’t know who she was and I didn’t know who her brother was until she gave me her card and it said Ruth Ellington at Central Park West. I said is your brother Duke Ellington and I almost fainted and I said oh my God. I had not even been in the country for two months. I went and he was very dapper looking with a cravat on. He was so well dressed and I couldn’t believe it. I looked so scruffy. He said why don’t you sing for me and how stupid of me, I was totally unprepared with his own songs. All I could think of was “Summertime,” which I knew (Editor’s note: George Gershwin composed Summertime and Duke Ellington was one of several artists to record it). He liked that and he said would you like to go on tour with me? When I entered America they said you are not allowed to work. You are here as a student, blah, blah, blah. I had worked too hard to risk being deported, just because I was going on tour without a work permit. They were going in two weeks.  As you know there are so many pebbles on the beach, so why go through all that trouble for me. He would have probably taken some other singer if I had said oh I don’t have a green card. There was a wonderful opportunity and I had to say, I’m sorry I can’t go now. The first person that I sang for (in America) was Duke Ellington.

The second (person I met) was Ornette Coleman and that was because of John Hammond who sent me to the studio. Ornette asked if I wanted him to write the music (out for me) and I just said play it a few times and I will sing it. DownBeat Magazine was there and Rolling Stone. I got it and that is what they wrote about. On the strength of those songs I won the DownBeat Female Vocalist.

(On this record) I wanted to do a new take on Ornette Coleman and I wanted to make it easier for listeners. I wanted to make it adaptable to a different audience not just an avant-garde audience. I wanted to make it (accessible) to people of all kinds and who love Standard Jazz and not so esoteric or cutting edge.  We finished four tracks of Duke and two tracks of Ornette.

The third and fourth people that I met were Lionel Hampton and Cy Coleman. I want to do a couple of Cy Coleman songs and I want to do them as Blues, which I haven’t done yet. I would like to write a book with the album and to write about my experiences with these four people.”

The seeds for Asha Puthli’s music career were sown in what was then called Bombay, India and the city has now reverted to an Indian name and is known as Mumbai. Ms. Puthli explains that the city is now named for Mumbai Devi, one of India’s goddesses. She says her family was not really a musical family and she describes her father as “an industrialist and a very self-made man.” Although her family was not musically inclined, Asha Puthli did study Classical and Opera music under Hyacinth Brown at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

“Most of the children from upper middle class families would go to English speaking schools, so we were very influenced by western culture. For example I went to a convent, St. Joseph’s Convent and nuns taught us. There was one nun who was (mean), but most of them were adorable and chubby and cute. All I remember was when I was in boarding school they gave us castor oil. We learned to get on our knees and every Sunday we had to go to the church.  It was an interesting thing, because I came from a Hindu background and I only bring this up because I was exposed to everything.  From the point of view of religions, I believe all religions are one.  I grew up surrounded in a secular country with many different influences.

Also lifestyle is very important, because in most Hindu homes when you enter a home you have to take off your shoes and we used to sit on the floor to eat our food when I was very, very young.  We used to eat with our fingers. We didn’t use forks and knives and I was a vegetarian growing up,” she says.

Asha Puthli Photo TwoAsha Puthli shares a funny story from the first talent contest that she was in when she was thirteen years old, well funny now, not so funny at the time.

“I snuck out of the house and I didn’t tell my parents. I was in a big rush. I remembered my dad had bought this beautiful pleated skirt. He had gone to the Leipzig textile sale at some fair. He brought back this beautiful skirt and I was so desperate to wear it. I rushed out and I didn’t tell my parents I was going to this competition, to this singing thing and I realized that all of the spotlights and floodlights were coming right on my skirt and I had forgotten to wear a slip. It was in the Taj Mahal Hotel. It is still there and it was one of the best hotels in Bombay. I ran into the ladies room and I put a towel around my waist. Luckily I was skinny and the towel did fit,” she says laughing.  

When Asha Puthli decided she wanted to pursue Jazz music she also felt it was time to give up singing Opera.

“I was studying both techniques and one of the reasons that I gave up Opera was because my guru said you don’t have to give up Opera you can study both techniques, the western and the eastern and my Opera teacher Mrs. Brown said, oh no, I don’t want you to sing any more Indian music or any kind of music except Opera, because your voice (is too good). She really wanted to make me a big Opera star and she wanted me to focus on it, which I can understand.  I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to be open to every kind of music, so that is one of the reasons that I gave up singing Opera.  I felt if it made me have to choose only one and I was not open to anything else then I would drop it,” she says.

Asha Puthli talks about her efforts to move to America, “After I did my Bachelor of Science (and she started working on her Masters in Science) I applied to many, many American schools, including writing to DownBeat Magazine and saying can you please advise me, as to which schools I can apply to? At the time there weren’t any scholarships.  Everything was negative, but it so happened that a few months earlier Martha Graham had come to Bombay and I mentioned to her that I had applied to the music schools and they all said that there weren’t any scholarships. I asked if she had any kind of a scholarship for her dance school.  I was learning two forms of Indian Classical music at the time.  I told her that and I said I would like to do the same thing that I did with music, but with dance.

As I said earlier, my idea was to bridge the cultures and America was one of the youngest cultures to date. In India we pride ourselves of having 6,000 years of culture. I just wanted to fuse the two together, whether it was through dance form or through music, ideally through music, but if I couldn’t do that, I was prepared to do it through dance.

She said I can only give it to you after I see you dance and you can’t do it here, you have to come to the States to do it. It looked like all doors were closed, as far as music schools were concerned.  When she said I had to go there the whole point was defeated, because I needed a sponsor or I couldn’t leave India. In the late sixties, because it was so soon after independence most Indians did not have a passport, I did not have a passport when I was young. To get a passport you had to have a permission to leave form and you had to have a sponsor. The early immigrants who came from India, not the asylum ones, but the doctors and engineers who came (to America) for an education did so with the promise that they would go back to India and they were the only ones who were allowed to leave.  That is why you see so many doctors and engineers in the west (from India). Musicians were not considered important enough (to allow them to leave).”

That was all about to change, just because Asha Puthli decided to drive her girlfriend to pick up a paycheck.  

“I didn’t have a passport and when we walked into British Airways, it was called BOAC in those days (the man said) why don’t young women like you come for interviews? He had gone through 500 interviews and all he wanted was two girls and he had not found them yet.  What they were looking for was someone who could speak English well, as well as Hindi and who looked reasonably attractive. In those days stewardesses had to look at least reasonably attractive.  If you agree to go in to meet (she tries to remember the lady’s name) and have a quick interview with her, I know she is going to grab you and you can have your passport in two weeks and we will send you to London for two months of training. That is all I needed to hear. I had just come to do a good deed for my girlfriend to pick up her check and instead now the door was opening for me with a passport. It was unbelievable and I got to stay in London for two months where I would get to hear real Jazz and I went to Ronnie Scott’s.  That was in the late sixties. I think it was ’68.

I resigned from British Airways, after vacationing in America and auditioning for Martha Graham. On your last trip (after you resigned) you could request any place that you wanted to go and we used to love going either to Beirut or to Singapore, because they had the best shopping.

I suggested Singapore and here I was in Singapore and someone said Asha you were in the Asia Magazine just last week. It was about five beautiful women of India. One was a dancer, who was Miss India at one time. They spelled my name wrong, but they talked about me being a BOAC stewardess, that I loved to sing and that I had an amazing voice. By then I had done the song “Pain.”

I was going to the office of Asia Magazine (so she could see the article) and I got hit by a motorbike and I had to go to the British Airways doctor. He said you can’t go on the flight. We have to bring in a different stewardess to take your flight and we will have to fly you home (as a passenger). When I went back to the hotel there was a message from EMI. I said I happen to be here on my last trip with British Airways and I got hit by a motorbike, so now I am laid up and my leg is in a cast. She said that’s okay as long as you can sing on a record for us.  I said sure and that is how the record Angel of the Morning happened.  It was an EP with “Sounds of Silence,” “Angel of the Morning,” “Fever,” and I forget the fourth one. 

I had to be escorted by the immigration people out, because I missed my flight. They said you can’t stay in this country, because you are not employed with British Airways anymore and your stay in the country has expired.  You don’t have a tourist visa to be here, so you have to go on the next flight. The next flight was the next day, but we finished the recording.  It happened under weird circumstances, but now that record is in the Singapore Sixties Hall of Fame.

You can read part two of this interview here.    Please visit the Asha Puthli website   Return to our Front Page

This interview published March 15, 2015 by Joe Montague, is protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved.

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