New Internationalist

Nights at the Circus

Issue 406

Back in the mid-1990s, when Britain’s culture wars were located in one long tedious to-and-fro over Britpop, something actually far more seditious and extraordinary was bubbling away in the underground. In art-club venues such as the Mint Tea Rooms, the Siren Suite and most recently, KashPoint, Bishi Bhattacharya was remarkable even amongst the remarkables who surrounded her. Then a young art student from a Bengali background, Bishi sang, DJ-ed, composed and spent part of each year in India studying with a sitar master. Fast-forward to the present and a debut album that, despite its nods to Indian classicism and briefer acknowledgements to club beats, is very much its own thing.

Taking its title from Angela Carter’s novel, Nights at the Circus shines with the plush sounds that its literary inspiration imagined. Unsurprisingly, it’s a heady mix. Sitars, ripples of tablas, harps, accordions, a few electronic pulses and strong vocals that can summon up shades of Björk, suggest rarefied atmospheres, but Bishi also has her feet on the ground. ‘Nightbus’ brings a troubadour-like lilt to one of the more prosaic experiences of life after dark; and ‘On My Own Again’, a throbbing anthem to love’s travails, breaks free into a stream of percussion and vocals. Interestingly, Bishi allies herself with the new psychedelia current in contemporary folk music. But there is, conversely, a case for hearing, in her cadences and tunings, a homage to such experimental folk pioneers as John Fahey and Bert Jansch, musicians who turned Western music towards the East.

Louise Gray

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