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Peter Gabriel's Real World Records: interviews with Sheila Chandra, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Thomas Mapfumo and Yungchen Lhamo

Andrea Warner

In 1989, Peter Gabriel used his big Genesis bucks to fund Real World Records. equal parts passion project and record label that would drastically alter the sonic landscape. Real World prided itself on producing music from a panoply of cultural and ancestral traditions, often with modern twists.The label that, arguably, gave rise to the popularity of world music is celebrating its stellar history with a series of reissues called Real World Gold. CBC Music seized the opportunity to interview some of the label’s biggest names. Below you'll find interviews with once acclaimed vocalist Sheila Chandra who can no longer speak, gospel and traditional group the Blind Boys of Alabama, the self-exiled "Lion of Zimbabwe" Thomas Mapfumo and Yungchen Lhamo, the exiled Tibetan devotional singer.

We’re proud to kick things off with this deeply personal interview with Sheila Chandra, one of Real World’s biggest stars, thanks to her phenomenal voice. The reissuing of Chandra’s two albums, Moonsung: A Real World Retrospective and Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, is the closest you’ll come to hearing anything “new” from the 47-year-old London-based artist for the foreseeable future. That's because a rare neurological condition rendered her mute years ago.

In a candid email interview, Chandra wrote about being a singer without a voice, her experiences with Peter Gabriel and Real World, and the role music plays in her life now.

How did Real World change your life?

I’m not sure I’d say that Real World changed my life. But they did provide the most excellent home for my solo voice and drone trilogy and help me to reach a wider audience around the world, especially in North America ... I looked at Real World’s roster at the time, and noticed that it was heavily biased towards male artists, and African music. So I knew what I was offering would help them to balance their catalogue.

Why was Real World the right home for you through the '90s?

I didn’t want to sign to a major, having had a bad experience with Phonogram in the early '80s. Phonogram told my band Monsoon — an Asian fusion band — to "lose" the Indian influence when it was our entire raison d’etre! Perhaps I overreacted, but it made me very determined to walk my own path artistically, and very suspicious of record companies in general ... Real World have a reputation for understanding artists, perhaps because they’re headed by one. And although inevitably we haven’t always seen eye to eye over everything, they have been remarkable for letting me see through the most unorthodox of artistic ideas. I hope they feel that I’ve added to the depth and quality of their catalogue as a result.

What’s been the lasting impact of Peter Gabriel’s interest in world music?

When an artist who has the respect of the entire industry around the world puts his name and support behind a genre, the world takes notice. Peter Gabriel is renowned for his own inventive musical explorations, painstaking recording process, classic albums and innovative live shows. You feel that anything he’s interested in as an art form, or that he endorses, is going to be well worth checking out. Music critics are very aware of that fact.... And without Real World we wouldn’t have had many of those amazing collaboration projects such as the Massive Attack remixes of Nusrat’s work.

That seems unthinkable now, but without Real World, many of those artists simply wouldn’t have received the right exposure in the right places, or had those opportunities, and we’d all have missed out. The fact that it seems unthinkable gives you a clue as to the lasting impact of his interest.

When did you first know something was wrong with your voice?

I’ve had problems with my throat since the early '90s when one of my vocal chords was scarred — probably during an emergency operation for a detached retina. However, I’d done a lot of work on my throat and I could still sing well, although stamina was a problem and I had to be very careful. In 2009 I was seeing a vocal physiotherapist and having some very intensive work done on the muscles in my neck to see if I could improve things any further.

At first I thought the burning sensation in my mouth was simply a result of the physio work, and only a short-term thing, but it got worse and worse. Now I experience long-lasting neurological pain whenever I speak. Singing is out of the question and I haven’t even dared to warm up for about two years. It feels like my mouth is on fire and it goes on for hours or days, and can get bad enough to wake me at night.

Remaining silent — which means no talking or singing or laughing or crying — is the only way to stay pain free, and I’m effectively mute. For the first couple of years I didn’t even get a correct diagnosis, but I now know that what I have is burnt mouth syndrome (BMS). It often strikes menopausal women, and there is no known cause or cure. The frustrating thing is that my voice sounds completely normal when I do speak. It just hurts like hell!

At what point did you finally realize you probably couldn’t or shouldn’t speak again?

It took me a few weeks to work out that it was speaking that was causing the burning pain. Prior to that I only had an aching throat if I overdid it vocally, if I’d spoken intensively for more than an hour a day. But still, the idea of remaining silent seemed too surreal to contemplate. It took a good 18 months for me to adjust. In part that meant developing coping mechanisms and acclimatizing my friends to the situation, all of which took time.

I think for a long time, I was in denial. I just talked through the pain, and ended up in agony. I still do that, if I think the conversation is important enough. And it’s such a surreal and unusual illness that, to begin with, if I told people I had a problem speaking, quite often it just didn’t compute and they’d carry on asking me questions as before. It took a good while for me to actually come up with a phrase to describe my problem which they couldn’t ignore. The word "mute" does that very effectively. And to just refuse to talk.

I was also afraid that people wouldn’t believe me because there is nothing visibly wrong and if you drop a hammer on my foot I shout just like everyone else. And I didn’t want to admit defeat, to admit that I just can’t talk at all, because I hate being pitied.

I can’t imagine how devastating that would be for a singer. I’ve talked to a few vocalists who’ve battled problems in the past and you’re living their worst nightmare. How did you cope initially?

For me, the most difficult thing at the moment is not being able to speak without pain. People’s sense of who you are as a person, including your class, education and intentions are intimately bound up with the way your voice sounds. That’s because they know instinctively that hormones like oxytocin and adrenalin affect voice quality instantly and give a true picture of what you feel, even when you’re trying to hide it. When they can’t hear your voice to assess you, they feel slightly lost. Without my speaking voice, it feels as though the real me is hidden, and there is only a very crude caricature left.

If I’m out with a friend and they get chatting to someone, say in the street, without mentioning my problem, that someone usually assumes I’m a stereotypically shy and traditional Asian woman, which I find particularly irritating! Others think I’m antisocial or even rude because I’ll avoid chatting and give terse answers when I must speak because every syllable costs me. And vocalists avoid me. I’m just too vivid a reminder that the voice is a fragile thing, even if you look after it.

On the upside, I’ve learned to write very fast.

How has your relationship with music changed since your diagnosis?

I completely avoid music. My brain is still musical and it’s just too tempting to want to sing along or learn a new song. It’s also emotionally difficult to have to stop myself relating to music in the physical ways that I once did. If my voice did come back tomorrow, I think I’d find that my songwriting muscles have wasted away along with my vocal muscles to some degree.

You had experienced other vocal problems much earlier in your career as well. Were you making provisions and decisions then about what your future would look like if you couldn’t sing?

Well of course I thought about it, but singing is a vocation — a madness. Serious singers are generally devoted to singing and it defines who they are. It’s also the part of them which gets them most attention and praise and status as well. To contemplate being entirely without singing is difficult for them.

And they’re supported in their madness by other people. If what they do is valued, no one wants them to give up. In fact, their own needs as a person can become submerged and lost besides what other people want them to be. So for instance, before the BMS struck, I could do concerts only if I remained silent for weeks at a time in the concert season, so that I could use the vocal time I did have to rehearse and perform. No one ever suggested that doing that was bad for me psychologically as a person, although it undoubtedly was.

Serious singers alter their lifestyles to take care of their voices. They avoid loud parties and clubs. They go to bed early. They avoid drinking and smoking. They exercise and they protect their throats with scarves, and take taxis rather than wait for buses in the wind and rain, even if they can ill afford them. I’d done all that for as long as I could remember. I prioritized my singer self. So it was natural to hold out for as long as I could, trying to find specialist help to restore my voice completely, and to keep working, however much pain and difficulty that entailed. I never thought I’d have to give up completely.

You might say that I wasted time when I should have been making other plans, but I’m glad that I did absolutely everything in my power to keep going for as long as possible. Singing was my gift and the thing I had to give to the world. I doubt I have another such gift, and I’m glad I gave it for as long as I could.

You’re now a published author with Banish Clutter Forever. How has your relationship with language changed since your diagnosis?

Fortunately for me, I’ve always written in a voice which is close to the way I speak. I think that comes across in my writing and it feels as though the written word is now my true voice. I miss being able to banter with people the most. And I value language and its subtlety all the more now that it’s rationed.

The Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama had already been together for almost six decades when Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records came calling back in 2002, signing the then septuagenarians to their label. The gospel group made the most of their brief tenure, releasing three records in three years, including two that became the highest selling of their lengthy career.

Those two albums, Higher Ground and Go Tell it on the Mountain, are featured in Real World Gold — though founding member Jimmy Carter didn’t actually know about the reissues until we told him in the middle of this interview.

CBC Music spoke with the 82-year-old from his hotel room, on tour with the Blind Boys, about working with Gabriel, spreading the gospel and being a role model.

The Blind Boys of Alabama were already so well established when you signed with Real World. What made it the right move for the group?

You must remember, we have been around a long time, but it wasn’t all success. Signing to Real World was prestigious. We were still making records, but Real World was a prestigious company, so why not?

How did it change the band or your experiences?

It didn’t change the band. We did more collaborating with people, but it didn’t change the band or the music. We are a gospel group, we sing gospel songs and we do not deviate from that.

Did it open the door to more collaboration for you?

Yeah, we collaborated with a whole bunch of people. We even did a song with Peter Gabriel. He’s a big part of Real World, we collaborated with him. In fact, we did a tour with him on account of that.

What’s it like working with him?

Peter Gabriel is a nice gentleman. He saw that you were comfortable, that everything was right just like you wanted it to be. He’d do some extra stuff for the Blind Boys also. We have a couple of diabetics in the group and he’d give us sugar-free cakes we could eat. It was nice [laughs].

The label brought so much attention to different types of music — I’m glad they’re doing this reissuing through Real World Gold.

We’re on our own label now, so I don’t know what’s going on because we’re not there.

Oh, two of your albums are getting reissued.

Oh, really? [Laughs] I didn’t know that. Real World’s doing that? So they’re going to reissue Higher Ground and Go Tell it on the Mountain?


I sure didn’t know that. I’m glad you told me [laughs].

Me, too! What’s the most important gospel song for you?

The first one that pops up is “Amazing Grace.” That was our first Grammy-winning song. I like 'em all, but when you ask me to name a favourite, that’s the first one that pops up.

Is there one that’s fallen off people’s radars that you’d like to see get a revival?

You know, we have a message. We sing gospel. We tell the people about Jesus. That is our message everywhere we go, to every audience. We plant the seed. If they accept it, and most of them do, then it’s good. That’s our mission. That’s all we’re here for. We appreciate the accolades we get, but we’re not out for that. We just want to tell people about Jesus and we love gospel music. We’re just like a family, we’ve been together so long, everyone loves one another. We have a good thing going right now.

I was watching video of you performing at the Apollo and doing “Satisfied Mind.” How important is the energy of a room to you when you’re performing?

When you hear the crowd respond, when you hear how they’re getting into, it motivates you. When you get out into the crowd and start mingling with people and hear that great response, it just motivates. That’s what we love.

Are there certain collaborators who stand out for you?

We did that great album with Ben Harper [There Will be a Light]. That stands out. And we did a Christmas album with some people.

Do you have any upcoming collaborations you’re excited about?

We don’t have anything on the radar right now, but we’re exploring some possibilities. [Laughs] They’re secret for now.

This project has literally been almost your entire life. Did you ever anticipate that?

No. When the group started out, we did it because we just wanted to get out and we loved doing what we were doing. We didn’t even consider the money at that time. It takes money to live, we understand that, but we were just out there singing because that’s what we loved to do.

You’ve become role models for so many people. But some people still think if you have a physical limitation, somehow you don’t count. Which is ridiculous.

It is ridiculous. We hope that we can be role models to people. People ask me, "What does it take? What do you do?" I say, it takes three things when you’re at a project: dedication, persistence and patience. If you got that, it don’t matter about your handicap. We don’t call ourselves handicap people. This is not a handicap. It’s a little inconvenience, that’s all it is [laughs].

Thomas Mapfumo

Depending on the source, Thomas Mapfumo is either a folk hero making music for the people of his beloved Zimbabwe or a coward who criticizes from afar. However, there’s no disputing the power of his Chimurenga music. It’s a phrase Mapfumo coined from the Shona word “struggle,” and speaks to the challenges of the poorest Zimbabweans under the repressive brutality of their president, Robert Mugabe, in power since 1987.

Mapfumo's 1989 album, Corruption, was enough to make him a target of the government, so in 1990 he moved to Oregon and kept making his politically charged music as Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited. In 2006, the band released its Real World Records hit, "Rise Up," which has now been reissued through Real World Gold. Mapfumo spoke from his home about how he plans to use his music to keep up the fight for Zimbabwe, or die trying.  
You got involved with Real World through the WOMAD festivals. Were you surprised to see how much interest there was?

There was a lot of keen interest, especially music coming from Africa. And we still have a lot of people all over the world who appreciate our music and love our music. Most of the people seem to like it.

Were you still in Zimbabwe at the time, or were you in the United States?

I was still in Zimbabwe and then when I came to the States I only played one WOMAD festival and we missed the other one, but we were supposed to play both. But I still miss the WOMAD festivals very much.

Were you very aware of what Real World Records was?

Yeah, I understood it was a label by Peter Gabriel. I recorded a CD for Real World, The Lion of Zimbabwe, and that went down very well. I’m sure they’re still selling the CD. I actually enjoyed working with Peter Gabriel’s company.

Do you feel like you’ve created a home for yourself in Oregon?

Yeah, here it’s a nice place and a small town and also very quiet. My children have been able to go to school here peacefully. My daughter is now working as an accountant, she did economics at the University of Oregon and I have my youngest daughter, she’s in high school. That’s the last of my children and if she graduates, I will celebrate [laughs].

A lot of people hold you up as a folk hero, calling you the Lion of Zimbabwe. Is that hard to live up to?

It’s not hard to live up to, because that’s what I’m used to. I’ve been deemed a bad seed since I started playing this type of music. I’m not going to abandon the way. That’s the way I am and I’ll die the way I am.

Is that what you intended for yourself when you started playing music?

Well, when I first started playing music, I just thought the music was entertainment. But when I grew up, I knew music had a duty to play and support the poor people who are suffering in this world. Since I am a musician, it is my duty to fight against poverty and fight for the poor people.

Yungchen Lhamo

When Yungchen Lhamo fled her homeland of Tibet in 1989, on foot over the Himalayas with her baby son strapped to her back, all she thought about was surviving the pilgrimage to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama heads the Tibetan government in exile. She never planned a future that would involve her pairing Buddhist prayers with music, signing to Real World Records and touring the world as a devotional singer. She didn’t know Peter Gabriel from Billy Corgan, but more than two decades later, Lhamo has collaborated with both.

Living in Brooklyn since 2000, Lhamo has kept the connection to her native Tibet alive through her music and charitable contributions, such as her current project to build aqueducts in villages without access to clean water. CBC Music spoke with Lhamo over the phone from her home about how Real World changed her life, her resistance to becoming a singer and her childhood prayers to become a man.

How did get involved with Real World?

I was in Buddhism school in my teacher centre and I made some prayers into melody. Real World got my tape, somebody passed it to them, and by that time I had already made one CD called Tibetan Prayer that won Australia’s Aria Award, which is a version of the Grammy Awards but for world music. But I don’t consider myself a singer per se, because in the Tibetan saying, it’s a karma. Peter [Gabriel] wanted to release my album internationally, since it was just released in Australia. So, I signed to Real World and then I came to England and that’s how my journey began.

Did you know who Peter Gabriel was?

No, because for me, in young age, we don’t hear so much Western music. But you know sometime in life, when you see some pictures or something, even though you don’t know the person or what they do, sometime you feel you will meet? I was very honoured to meet him and sign to his label.... It’s very special. I didn’t plan for this. My vision was that I wanted to practice [devotion]. My plan was never [laughs] "I want to be a singer" ... I still often say I’m not a singer.

What’s the distinction between calling yourself a singer and not?

Many people really want to become singers. I never wanted to. But every human being has some part, we’re born with it, and it takes over.... I do the best I can. When I travel, I always hear, "You are the first Tibetan I’ve met doing this" or "You are the first Tibetan woman I’ve met doing this." Sometimes it’s good to be the first but sometimes it’s very hard. They think it’s very glamourous, but sometimes it’s hard to see the other side of your journey.

The other side of your journey seems difficult and perhaps lonely.

Yes. Of course I have a practice, I cannot be lonely like in some countries or the Western world, like, "I don’t have somebody and I am so lonely," I don’t have that. But on the other side, yes it is. You are just by yourself wherever you go. In my case, I don’t speak the English. Other Tibetans do, they go to school.

For me, I grow up in Tibet, but I don’t know the English or the language or the culture. People say "Oh yes, she has special voice," but then there are these obstacles: "She is woman, she is refugee, she don’t speak the language, she sings devotion songs, she is single." [Laughs] There are many, many things.

Do you remember much of your childhood growing up in Tibet?

In a way, my childhood is very, very difficult and I cannot put into words. Much of the world have no idea of that time. The one good thing is my father, mother and grandmother all very much believe in being loving and compassionate to others, you never hate others. This has kept me in a good place. For me, I see they have been through so much, so much, and for no reason or meaning, and yet they’re very compassionate. I was very lucky in that sense.

What did you want when you were young?

I prayed to be a man and I wanted to grow as quickly as possible. I prayed quietly to myself. One day my grandmother and mother said, "Where did you learn the prayer?" They said, "Prayer isn’t something you can make yourself. You should say what we teach you." One day I told my mother and grandmother the truth: I want to become a man and grow as quickly as possible. They were very much shocked. Their eyes went wide. "Oh, you can’t say that!" It was very much like, "Oh lord, oh lord." [Laughs]

They asked what I wanted to do and I said if I cannot be a practitioner and learn this philosophy, I want to do something to help people and do things for other people. She said, "If you really, really mean it, you don’t pray to become man. It’s such a sin of a prayer. You are woman, which is very special." She explained some Buddhism things, so I understood and changed my prayer, but I had to promise her to sing. I always said, "I don’t want to. Everybody can sing." She said, "You have a gift. So you sing."

When you made the pilgrimage over the Himalayas to India, did you feel you were escaping Tibet?

In a way, because you don’t know where you’re going, where you’ll land, and you packed a little bag and then you leave and then you never know when you return to the place you know, the place you love, your family.

And you had your baby son with you?

Yes, and I was quite lucky and fortunate because many people don’t make that journey and we made it. We arrived in India and met the Dalai Lama and we’re very lucky.... You’re in Canada, right? The last time I was there was with Billy Corgan.

Really? Naturally, when someone thinks of Smashing Pumpkins and Billy Corgan, Tibetan devotional singer is a perfect match. What was that like?

Some people said, "Oh no, Yungchen. It’s very different. Maybe it’s not so matching." But I just said, ‘"I’s a karma. I don’t believe in something matching or unmatching." It was very different from my audience. His audience, they come to see him, and of course it was very young children. It was quite surprising. One time he lost his voice and we were supposed to sing together and we had a big sign on the table, like, please do not talk, no questions, Billy has pneumonia, or something like that. But they talked and talked "Billy, do you remember this? Billy, what about this?" I don’t understand that part. Maybe they are young.

Looking back, how did Real World Records change your life?

Peter Gabriel and all the Real World people are very kind. If it was just myself, people wouldn’t notice, but many people found out about my music through Real World. Peter made it easier for them [to find music] from all of these artists and talents. I really appreciate he supports my art and doesn’t judge me. Some CD companies, they tell you, "You do it our way." Peter doesn’t do that. He really lets you express your art. I was very lucky. 

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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