Cornershop Ready ‘Urban Turban’ For Release
Ready with the release of their eight album Urban Turban, Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh talks about Punjabi folk music being a precursor to hip hop
It starts like any other studio video: zoomed in on the guitar strumming a familiar acoustic section from The Beatles’ hit “Norwegian Wood.” But this cover version dating back to 1997 could hardly be analogous. Ben Ayres’ guitar chops and David Chambers’ drumming aside, Tjinder Singh’s vocals were in Punjabi. Paul McCartney and John Lennon perhaps didn’t foresee a regional translation, but then Cornershop has hardly done anything banal. It is with this unusual sound that British indie troopers called Cornershop, fronted by Singh who is a second generation Brit-Punjabi, marched onto the commercial music video battlefront with their retro video for “Brimful of Asha,” from the album When I Was Born for the 7th Time.
Since that breakthrough, their sardonic disco/rock/hip hop has resulted in three reincarnate albums referencing everything from social issues to club culture, and of course, the immigrant situation. Ayres and Singh are now ready with their eighth album Urban Turban, pegged to release on May 13th worldwide. In his crisp North London accent, Singh attempts hyperbole to describe the record, “Urban Turban has elements of Cornershop & the Double ”˜O’ Groove of and Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, but has the diversity of Handcream for a Generation, can be hugged like When I Was Born for the 7th Time, grabs people by the booboo like Woman’s Gotta Have It, and kicks at the doorway of Hold on it Hurts.” Singh quickly rattles his entire discography smirking, “Not all our catalogue could be mentioned, but I tried.”
The pre-dated comparisons may not help, so Singh builds on what is thought to be a sequel to their 2011 folk collaborative album Cornershop and the Double”˜O’ Groove of featuring London-based folk singer Bubbley Kaur. “When I was younger, I was used to listening to an album from start to finish, to grasp the group and their process or lack of it. It’s like sitting in a gurudwara, and listening, but not many can listen to albums throughout nowadays,” explains Singh, referring to Urban Turban, “This is a collection of songs that is everything from hip hop, disco, folk and even nursery folk.”
The nursery folk he is a referring to comes from the album opener, “What Did the Hippie Have in his Bag?” featuring kindergarten toddlers from Castle Primary School in North London. “The song created during the Manchester International Festival, where we were invited to spend a few days in a school working with five-year-olds, became the starting point for the new album,” says Singh. The school kids were asked to imagine what they thought of the bag’s belongings and they filled it with marmalade, scooters, stories and some more jam. The narrative nursery-rhyme-like track is an ode to a child’s imagination.
The album also includes several collaborations including “Non-Stop Radio,” a remix with French singer Celeste, a ghetto hip hop beast “Milkin’ It” with indie rapper In Light Of Aquarius. Unsurprisingly, there’s also Punjabi folk in “Beacon Radio 303” featuring friend and singer Rajwant and “Inspector Baba Singh’s Lament” featuring vocalist Amar. “We have always had elements of Punjabi folk in our songs, with tumbi and dholki, sitar and Punjabi lyrics, such as in “Jullandar Shere,” or a song like “My Dancing Days Are Done,” which is a folk duet song I had translated into French,” Singh traces his musical genesis to his childhood when Sikh devotional music and Punjabi folk would play at home. He would play dholki in the gurudwara and followed the poetry of Mohammad Sadiq and Ranjit Kaur closely while growing up.
In fact, Singh considers Punjabi folk a precursor to hip hop. “They have the same elements. Folk music is a simple raw beat that can be played by anyone on a street corner, lyrics that depict what is going on in a pind (Punjabi for village), lyrics that transfer the hardships of living into something the community can all benefit from or be repulsed by. That is hip hop.” That, says Singh, has been his consistent driving force of songwriting and seeking reinvention.
Besides taking to the sound, Cornershop has also imbibed some of the rebellion heard in hip hop in the way they work. “We can’t be bound by format and that is why we have never been on any major label. We want to now push musicians who sound bizarre,” says Singh of the band’s new indie label Ample Play, on which Urban Turban will be released.
Singh blames promoters and local labels for never having played a gig in India despite having visited the country twice. “Every time we have been asked to play, it has never been right for us. Our last attempt to play there was based around distribution through Sa Re Ga Ma Records. When we asked what plans they had for us, they seemed clueless,” Singh rues, but would like to bring his music to the mother ship. “Having played in Japan and Australia, it’s sad that we haven’t made it to India. Perhaps now someone will?” Singh is still hopeful.