The story of Anna Kashfi is one of the strangest in cinematic history. Whether the first wife of Marlon Brando was the ultimate girl on the make, a vengeful harpy, or the increasingly desperate victim of an abusive husband and the Hollywood star system, or perhaps all three, is even now the subject of endless speculation and individual interpretation. Kashfi remains even now almost 50 years on from her heyday one of cinema's most extraordinary, but also enigmatic and elusive figures.
Anna Kashfi first came to public attention in 1955 when as a budding 21 year old starlet she won a role in 'The Mountain', an action film about two mountaineering brothers which starred Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner.
The small but pivotal part in which she played a Hindi dancer was totally fitting. Kashfi came, or so she claimed, from India. Her studio biography stated that she had been born in Calcutta in 1934, the daughter of wealthy parents. Like many other Indian girls, the young Anna had learned the classical dances of Asia. While at a dance class, she had drawn the attention of the directors of an Indian film company, whom, much to her parents' dismay, she signed a contract with to make two films. Neither film was released in Europe or America, but from this Kashfi made enough of an impression to start a career in Hollywood.
While he did not act in 'The Mountain', Brando was intrigued by the exotic Kashfi when they first met after he engineered a meeting with her on its set at Paramount Studios. The pair started going out. When Brando returned after several months away working in Europe on 'The Young Lions',a World War II epic, they rekindled their romance. Their relationship might have remained little more than another passionate fling for the notoriously promiscuous Brando, but then Kashfi fell pregnant. Rather than risk a scandal and possibly the end of his career, Brando, who was then already one of the biggest stars in the world, proposed marriage, and the two wed in October of 1957.
Shortly afterwards it was revealed by William O' Callaghan, a Cardiff steel worker, that Kashfi was in fact his estranged daughter, Joan. While she had been born in Calcutta, where O' Callaghan had worked as a superintendent on the Indian State railways, the family had returned to Britain when Joan was 13. She had never appeared in any Indian film. She had worked as a waitress in Cardiff, before moving to London where she had become a model, and had changed her name to Anna Kashfi when she had won the part in 'The Mountain'.
Brando was furious at being deceived, and the marriage ended less than a year than after it began in September of 1958, four months after the birth of his and Kashfi's son, Christian.
Anna Kashfi's film career dried up in the early 1960's after she had made just four films. She would remain a thorn though in Brando's side for several decades to come. In an epic custody battle for Christian that would last for years, she would accuse him of being a womaniser and a wife-beater. He in turn would point at her increasing dependency on drugs and alcohol. The battle came to a bizarre conclusion in 1972 when Kashfi kidnapped Christian from school and ran off to Mexico. She was arrested for this, and the incident prompted the courts to grant solo access for Christian to Brando.
In 1979, Kashfi humiliated Brando further by publishing a torrid account of their short-lived union, 'Breakfast with Brando'. The ongoing turbulence of his parents' relationship had had a profoundly unsettling effect on Christian, who in 1991 was convicted of the manslaughter of his half sister Cheyenne's boyfriend, Dag Drollet. He would serve four years. Each day during his trial Anna Kashfi would try to visit her son in his cell who would steadfastly refuse to see her. She cut a sad, desperate figure outside the courtroom, telling anyone who was prepared to listen that Brando was entirely to blame for the tragedy.
Estranged from her family, Anna Kashfi is reported to continue battle alcohol problems and to now live in a trailer park in San Diego.
The Mancurian group, that have named themselves after Anna Kashfi, formed in the late 1990's initially as a duo consisting of Sian Webley (vocals) and James Youngjohns (guitar, piano, organ and harmonica). Webley and Youngjohns released two singles on their own Magic Jukebox label, 'Three Wise Men'(2000) and 'About a Boy' (2001), before signing to a local vinyl only label, Emma's House, with whom they recorded a six song album, 'Philokelia' (2001). The group expanded to a four piece in 2002, with the induction of Sarah Kemp (viola, glockenspiel) and Peter Martin (bass, guitar) into the line-up. Other than a brief appearance on a compilation, 'Sunset False' (Slow Noir, 2003) with a cover of a Matt Hill song, 'Ash Ballad', there has been an absence of new Anna Kashfi recordings since 'Philokelia' and the closure of Emma's House shortly afterwards in mid 2002. The group, however, recently returned to the fore with a 7" single, 'Lakeside Call/Whitworth Park', which has come out on another Manchester-based vinyl label, Stolenwine Records. They also plan to release a full-length album soon.
Anna Kashfi have often found themselves tagged as an alt. country or Americana band. While much of their instrumentation is roots-based, their dreamy, melancholic soundscapes have more in common with Sparklehorse or Mazzy Star than a lot of the acts on the country circuit. Webley is a phenomenal presence, her airy vocals flitting seemingly effortlessly across a wide number of guises. Many of the characters that inhabit the band's stark, dark world-the girl in 'Rain Keeps Falling' driving away from an unhappy past to a future which looks no better ; the enraged lover in 'Sunburn' about to inflict terrible injury on her sleeping lover (both 'Philokelia')and the older woman whose relationship has gone cold lusting after a boy half her age -are caught, like the first Anna Kashfi, in circumstances, both outwith their control and also of their own making.
Pennyblackmusic has followed Anna Kashfi's career since 'Philokelia' and we have been long overdue to talk to them. We spoke to both Sian Webley and James Youngjohns, and began by asking them about their namesake.
PB : What appealed to you about Anna Kashfi to want to name your band after her? What does that name suggest to you?
SW : I was a 12-year old girl when Marlon Brando first smashed into my life in the form of Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. The blueprint indelibly impressed into my young mind and it was only a matter of time before I discovered the woman who did what so many others wished they could have done - bagged themselves the biggest lion in Hollywood. Then, when I read her story, I discovered an extraordinary tale that has all the components of a Greek tragedy -love, illusion, betrayal, heartbreak, despair - that's sadly wrapped up in the all too human condition of misunderstanding, thwarted ambition and the desire to see a girl, who fancied her chances, fall. So, for me, her name suggests vilification for doing what I believe we all do, which is present a public persona in order to go about our daily business, be that going to the corner shop or trying to make your way in Hollywood.
PB : Sian, you write the lyrics and James, you write the music. Do the lyrics or the music usually come first ? Is there a set pattern, or does it tend to vary from song to song ?
JY : Usually we work on ideas separately then marry them up afterwards. Some songs Sian gets a demo which ends up being a final recording to work with. Other times it's as basic as a dictaphone tape. It depends how lazy I'm feeling.
PB : The band expanded in mid 2002 from a two piece to a four piece. What do you think Sarah and Peter have brought to the line-up ?
JY : Technically Pete's played on most of 'Philokalia' and some earlier stuff, although he gets to be louder in the mix now. Sarah's a fantastic melodic player and I prefer hearing violin as a lead instrument over guitar or steel or whatever.
PB : There was a gap of two and a half years between 'Philokalia' and 'Lakeside Call' being released. Why was there such a long space between records ?
JY : We spent ages touring around 'Philokalia', then we met Sarah, then we were recording.
PB : Both these releases have come out in the shape of Emma's House Recordings and Stolenwine Records on vinyl only labels. Was that down to deliberate planning, or was that just down to coincidence ?
SY : Happy coincidence. But we have a deep love for vinyl so we were delighted to work with Emma's House and Stolenwine, besides which they're extremely nice people. If we had our way we'd be releasing our stuff on wax cylinder.
PB : Sian, you've said in a previous interview that you see every song "we write as a form of hymn being offered to a greater cosmos". What did you mean by that ?
SW : I saw Morrisey being interviewed on television and he insisted his was not a performance but real. Now I know that could be construed as being a bit precious, but I think I know what he meant. Certainly for me, whilst things I sing about might not actually be happening to me in my life, they're how I feel. And it's the feeling of what happens in the song that I hope to get across. You are free to interpret the songs as you see fit. If they say something else to you, then I hope they're doing something helpful. I know songs have an incredible effect on how I feel. Music saves lives. I suppose what I meant by what I said in the previous interview is that I hope our songs might act as a sonic life-jacket to someone somewhere.
PB : James, would you agree with Sian here about that ?
JY : I know what she means. Yes. I guess you can often take a subject matter for a song as being allegorical - it's the feelings behind the song that are from the heart of the narrator.
PB : James, the majority of Anna Kashfi's songs are recorded in your own home studio. What are the advantages to the band of home recording ? Are there any disadvantages ?
JY : We've had an unlimited time scale on 'Philokalia' and the new album, and inevitably that's made them far more creative than they otherwise would have been. We also seem to work incredibly slowly, so it has been better for us that way. We have, however, done a couple of BBC sessions recently and I've been really impressed with the sound quality they come up with, and we're considering for the next record at least doing the lead parts somewhere with better equipment and acoustics. It just depends on budget though.
PB : You often find yourself bracketed as an alt. country act. Yet you have said when you started out that you wanted to sound like an acoustic Jesus and Mary Chain. You also have more in common with Mazzy Star whom you have also said that you admire alongside, say, Gram Parsons or Hank Williams. Do you see the alt. country tag as a blessing or a curse ?
JY : We've kind of been through this one a few times. If being billed as alt country or Americana help draw attention to us because people are particularly enthusiastic about music of that genre then I'm not going to carp about it. Personally if I'd grown up in the Appalatian Mountains with my Daddy playing the banjo on the porch swing I'd be citing that as an influence - unfortunately I spent my youth living in Manchester and listening to indie records.
PB : Anna Kashfi has close associations with several other Mancunian bands. You've made individual guest appearances on records by the likes of Matt Hill, Quiet Loner and Last Harbour, and covered Matt Hill's 'Ash Ballad' for the Slow Noir compilation. Sarah is also a regular member of Last Harbour, and Kev Craig from that band did the artwork for 'Lakeside Call'. Do you see yourselves as being part of a scene ?
JY : Manchester's a funny place in that respect because we quite often go to various events in North Liverpool where you'll see five or six people on the same night, all of whom will blow you away, and in Manchester although there are some talented people about they tend to be out on the periferies of various cliques of musicians, so you don't get the feeling that the best people are moving into any type of scene. Anna Kashfi and Last Harbour have run in parallel with each other for a few years, and I'm more or less playing full time with them at the moment as well as Sarah, and Matt and Allan Cook from Quiet Loner we've known for years. Otherwise there are people such as Isobel Heyworth or Glass based locally who I'd rate very highly, but they're not people we run into particularly often.
PB : You're a group, who seem to really appeal to the critics, and you have earned a lot of ecstatic reviews. While your following is still fairly small, it seems to be similarly fanatical. Have you been surprised how much of an effect you have had on those who have been lucky enough to hear you so far?
SW : Yes, I am constantly bewildered that anyone even knows who we are.
PB : You're now recording an album. Do you have a title for it yet, and do you know who is going to be releasing it ? When is it due to come out ?
SW : It's called 'Palisade', and it should be out next year. It'll probably be on Stolenwine in the UK, but we're still looking at other labels in the US.
PB : Thank you.