Asha Bhosle may be a superstar in India due to her long career as a leading singer in Bollywood movies, but she’s best known to Western audiences as the heroine of Cornershop’s pop tribute to her talents, “Brimful of Asha”. Bhosle was already a legend a decade earlier when Tjinder Singh sang “She’s the one that keeps the dream alive / From the morning, past the evening, till the end of the light”, but the Indian songstress’s career was far from over. She’s still kicking it at 73 years of age, as evidenced by her recent double album of love songs. The Enchantress, as she’s known on the Asian subcontinent, sounds as supple and sylphlike as ever.
The first disc consists of brand new material. Bhosle sings all eight songs (plus one edited version of the 9-minute “Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Kara”) in Hindi. The tunes are a series of ghazals, or romantic poetry set to music, a common Indian pop style. I have no idea what the lyrics mean when strictly translated, but the implications of Bhosle’s intonations are clear. For example, when she delivers the title phrase “Mujhe Tum Nazar Se”, the Indian singer’s voice changes from a trill into a direct statement, presumably a declaration of love. If this sounds old-fashioned, the musical arrangement behind her certainly is not. Bhosle sings this line to the accompaniment of a deejay scratching a record and an electric guitar wailing in what might be called Carlos Santana mode. Other songs also feature innovative musical backing. The tracks usually feature electronic dance beats, drum machines, pianos, synthesizers, saxophones, and other Western instruments that play rhythms and melodies normally found on American radio, mixed with sitars, tablas, bansuris, and other Indian instruments performed in a traditional manner.
The most striking composition is “Aarwagi”, which begins with a percolating Cuban style piano solo that turns into a funk groove before Bhosle even starts to sing. The Enchantress croons in a husky voice. At times she stretches the title word into a multi-syllabic seven-second term of endearment. Other times the Enchantress just repeats the word over and over again during the seven-plus minute track to create a mantra of love.
The second disc contains eight bonus tracks of Bhosle’s favorite romantic duets that she has recorded over the years with Indian stars that include R.D. Burman, Mohammed Rafi, and her sister Lata Mangeshkar (who has been dubbed the Nightingale). These songs were originally recorded for the movies and clearly have a cinematic edge to them. One can picture the elaborate film scenes over which these tunes were featured. It is common for Indian performers to lip sync to Asha and other vocalists’ recordings, and one can imagine the woman in distress over an ardent lover on tracks like “Duniya Mein” (with Burman), or the tender amorous scene in “Abhi Na Jao Chhod Kar” (with Rafi).
The two songs that feature Bhosle and Mangeshkar show the two sisters’ different ways of singing. Lata has the sweeter voice. No wonder she’s called the Nightingale. But Asha has the more womanly articulations. It’s clear who would be the good girl in the film, and who would be the bad one. One guesses that Bhosle’s character would have more fun. These selections, and the others on the duet compilation disc, suggest the complex creatures that the movies show delivering the vocals.
Bhosle was the first Indian singer nominated for a Grammy, and was nominated again last year for her work with the Kronos Quartet. While she didn’t win, she has earned a ton of awards in the past (including honorary doctorates, the Freddie Mercury Award, and every music prize the country of India has to offer). Despite her age, Asha still has a lot to offer. This package should lure new fans that may have never been exposed to the Enchantress before.