Sasha Perera: Frontwoman of Jahcoozi

In spite of or perhaps because of the identical pale yellow plastic fork earrings dangling from each ear, Sasha Perera catches your eye and then keeps it. The child of a Sri Lankan Tamil father and a Sinhalese mother, Sasha was born in London, has lived in Singapore and Malaysia and is now based in Berlin. Since 2002, she’s been a frontwoman and lead vocalist for the eccentric electro-pop band Jahcoozi, which she founded along with beatfreak producer Robot Koch (Germany) and the bassist Oren Gerlitz (Israel).

As the MC, Sasha does flamboyance particularly well, bringing a distinctive look and uninhibited energy to her performances. But what’s really won the band fans is their music – a collision of strong melodies and tripping beats that ripple across the pit of your stomach.

Sasha Perera.

From her heritage to her choice of collaborators and onward into the very heart of her music, Sasha has embraced a diverse range of influences. Even the band’s name, with its genial nod in the direction of the Rastafarian movement, is meant to reflect on the comingling of the very distinct musical styles of the three founders. (Sampling everything from hip-hop to dub, reggae, grime as well as more contemporary electronica, the group first made their breakthrough on the tracks Fish and Black Barbie.)

The collaborators on Barefoot Wanderer, the third of Jahcoozi’s albums, are also a cosmopolitan lot. Barbara Panther is from Ruwanda, Uko Flani from Kenya, Guillermo Brown from New York as is M. Sayyid, a member of the Antipop Consortium. Explaining that she’s never gunned for the big names, Sasha says, “I’m in it for the music. I really like to work with people I’ve met along the way, friends of friends, and people that just inspire me.”

A self confessed nomad, Sasha has always enjoyed travelling; as a consequence her gruelling tour schedule is yet to get her down. It’s clear though that while on stage, Sasha is in her element. Her outsize personality thrives on all the attention, she tells me.

”As a front person in a band, you’re an addict, it’s like some sort of ADD.” She’s been compared to Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, but Sasha’s voice is nowhere near as wispy. In performance, she lingers around the deep end of the scale, opting to go for smooth sound with just a hint of throatiness. This plays to her advantage, particularly on songs like Close to Me, a cover of the classic by The Cure and a pretty track called Read the Books.

The lyrics of the latter, an invitation to rediscover one’s individuality, are the most obviously on the same continuum as the lyrics of previous tracks like Asian Bride Magazine and Rainbow Coloured Rizzla off Jahcoozi’s first two albums.

“With stuff like Rainbow Coloured Rizzla it’s as simple as telling people not to be a bunch of religious homophobes… it’s also demanding to listen to that stuff. Almost every song had that edge.” Case in point, the lyrics to Chill Jill, from their second album Blitz n Ass, begins with the lines:

“They just opened up a Starbucks in Guantanamo Bay,
So wake up and smell the coffee soldier, everyday.
In lakes of toxic waste, Chinese children shall play,
Oh damn, that line just cost me all my Chinese airplay.”

Sasha does almost all of her own lyric writing and has cited influences as diverse as Ravi Shankar and Cormac McCarthy. Now, she says that Barefoot Wanderer presents a much more relaxed reincarnation of Jahcoozi. “At one point I said I don’t want to have a political edge before I could sit down and write a song. It’s taken a shift towards wanting to make more music without such a dogma to it – maybe its age.” Having been with Jahcoozi for seven years, Sasha says she doesn’t know what lies ahead. She’s teaching herself the guitar and has begun writing a few solo pieces for it.

Over a coffee, the musician also tells me that this is the fourth time she’s been to Sri Lanka (“tikak Sinhala puluwang”). She could blend right in – if it weren’t for the accent. With her dark skin, she’s sometimes mistaken for an African (“In Kenya they thought I was Somalian and they treated me like a queen and you come here and they’re like ‘aiyo, scrub your skin!’”) but Sasha just embraces it – I’ve got to keep up my kalu image she says, grinning, adding that she’ll keep her tan through her next gig. It’s on the Caribbean island of Martinique after which it’s on to Norway and then to Moscow, all within the month of February. However, she should be back in Sri Lanka by the year’s end at the invitation of the Goethe Institute to play here.

She had her first trial concert last week – she was down south and says she ended up giving an impromptu concert for a group of 20 young Buddhist monks. To all appearances, she had a blast. “I love to travel alone and I love third world countries – everyone in Europe, they have everything, but they’re still boring and depressed. A lot of other places have a lot less, but they’re a lot warmer, they have a vibe and a much stronger social structure.”

Sasha herself has family here. Her parents, Wineetha Perera and Nagamuttu Ravindranathan, are both doctors and chose to separate when she was 12. (Their paths crossed at Peredeniya University because her surname came before his on the register.) Her elder sister is a doctor too, but Sasha opted to pursue a B.A in European politics and speaks German fluently. She founded Jahcoozi right out of college at the tender age of 22.

Her mother, who plays the harmonium and the piano, taught Sasha how to play when she was younger. “I was one of those unconcentrated, lazy kids, who would want to play the piano one minute and then run back to the other side and want to play with my glow worm,” she says grinning. Still, as an adult she knows she’s found something she really loves. “I’m just lucky to get paid to do it.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lankaon February 13, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

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