Asha Puthli: The Essential Asha Puthli Album Review

Asha Puthli is a spark of a person: a provocative, self-possessed diva who gargled with champagne, identified her age as “spiritually 6,000” and “emotionally 5,” and obtained a visa to stay in the United States by asking a stranger she met at the Museum of Modern Art to marry her. Unsurprisingly, the socialites and artists of the 1970s were drawn to her: The Indian jazz singer was friends with Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, a muse to Manolo Blahnik, and a sartorial influence for Debbie Harry.

But despite her outstanding cultural impact and kinetic vocal performances, Puthli always skirted mainstream fame. Over the last few decades, her music has had a minor resurgence: The Notorious BIG, Diddy, 50 Cent, and the Pharcyde all sampled her psychedelic, slinky “Space Talk,” and she appeared on a few electronica releases. Still, her name remains largely unknown. The Essential Asha Puthli, a new compilation from British imprint Mr. Bongo, captures her sizzling spirit and illustrates the breadth of her musicianship, spanning her gritty early covers, her bombastic disco numbers, and her winding jazz vocalizations. The compilation also serves as a document of a captivating woman learning to fully indulge her artistic, romantic, and aesthetic desires.

Puthli’s audacious personality and unabashed sensuality guide these songs, which get bolder as the compilation progresses. Her playfulness and experimental impulses shine on opener “Pain,” which she recorded in 1968 with the Indian psychedelic rock band the Savages — on it, there are wordless yelps, vocal improvisations, and lo-fi textures. By the time she recorded the disco-funk song “The Devil Is Loose” eight years later, she had refined and embodied a sweeping bravado; the song possesses the beguiling conviction of someone shrugging silk off their shoulder. When the 1979 highlight “1001 Nights of Love (Reprise)” arrives, Puthli’s confidence soars. The bubbling synth cascades as Puthli whispers and gasps about the love and sex she craves. The Essential Asha Puthli shows that as her career evolved, she learned to channel that dramatic flair into music that exudes incomparable verve.

Puthli recorded 10 albums, but when none of her music really stuck with audiences in the ’70s and’ 80s, she ultimately retired and raised her son in Palm Beach, Florida. In interviews, she has cited the prejudice of American record labels as part of the reason her career stalled: They wanted her to change her name to Anne Powers, and often failed to support Indian artists who did not make strictly Indian music.

More recently, she has inspired a new generation of young Indian American fans and artists — like R&B singer Raveena, who featured Puthli on her album Asha’s Awakening this year. As one of the very few South Asian women working in the entertainment industry at the time, and one who boldly asserted her desires, her story resonates with young listeners.

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