She's S-s-s-smokin'! : India burned up the Latin charts, with her '93 debut, 'Llego La India.' Her new 'Dicen Que Soy . . . ' goes beyond the hot dance-club sound and dips deeper into her Caribbean salsa roots.

Elena Oumano is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in music

When Madonna sat down a few months ago for her infamous visit with David Letterman and fired up a big, fat stogie, fans of Latin tropical and underground dance music recognized the gesture.

It belongs to India, the cutting-edge diva known for wailing into a microphone while pungent smoke from the cigar in her well-manicured fingers curls past her darkly beautiful face.

But there's more to India than simply serving as a model for one of Madonna's shock tactics. Her vocal talent and musical vision mark her as a creative force and potential star of the first magnitude.

Few singers can match the operatically trained India's supple vocal gymnastics, and her vibrant voice is flushed with stronger, finer feelings than any of Madonna's musical offerings.

India, 25, is the first performer from the hip-hop '80s to set her sights on conquering not just one but two musical domains: the international dance-club sound of her peers and the sizzling Caribbean salsa that is the Puerto Rico-born, Bronx-raised singer-songwriter's rich cultural legacy.

"Love and Happiness (Yemaya y Ochun)," India's bilingual single, recently made No. 1 on Billboard's dance club chart, just as "Vivir Lo Nuestro" ("Live for Ourselves"), her duet with salsa crooner Marc Anthony, jumped to the top spot on the Latin singles chart.

Her tropical solo music debut earlier this year, "Llego La India" ("Presenting India"), burned up the Latin music album charts. "Beautiful People," the dance track she wrote for fellow diva Barbara Tucker, competed there with India's own hit.

"India's blossomed into a major innovator in the dance underground since I first saw her perform in 1988," says Marques Wyatt, deejay and promoter of the Brass dance club at LunaPark in West Hollywood and other dance music functions in Los Angeles. "She could always sing and write, but now the two have fused into something celestial."

As for the cigar, that began about four years ago. Unlike Madonna's shock-shtick, India says her smoke runs in the blood.

"Every time my grandmother lit up a cigar, I'd say, 'Put it out! I can't breathe!' " recalls the former Lindabel Caballero, sitting in the living room of the downtown Manhattan penthouse she shares with her husband, renowned remixer-deejay-producer "Little" Louie Vega.

"Once, just before she passed away--may she rest in peace--she looked at me and said, 'Girl, you keep messing with me about my cigar. You don't know how good this is, how free it makes you feel. You want to get to me now, right? But when you get older, before you have your kids, you're going to be holding one too.'

" 'No, I'm not!' I told her. The next thing you know, she dies, and a year later I got this urge to smoke cigars."

Casting a longing look at the hand-wrapped specimen awaiting her pleasure, India defers to the tobacco phobia of her guest and takes up the subject of her celebrated imitator.

"Watching Madonna puffing on a cigar on David Letterman's show, I thought, 'Gosh, she's feeling so India! All she needs is long, black hair and a trip to the Caribbean to burn her skin up,' " India says in ripe, "Nuyorican" accents. "She was feeling good about it, and it made me feel good. I actually saw it as a compliment."

Though on record she can sound like a funk incarnation of Maria Callas, only live performance conveys the complete "La India" thrill.

She eyeballs audience members with a direct, dark-eyed gaze while wailing her heart out. She might begin at the chesty low tones of the scale, bending notes every which way as she climbs to the highest register. Grabbing one at the very top, she hangs on . . . and on. The power of her emotion is so indelible that it lingers in the mind's ear even after her voice has stopped.

Earlier this year, she performed at San Francisco's Sound Factory, with her husband as deejay. After a soaring conclusion to "Love and Happiness," India turned over the crowd to the deejay via a hip-hop aria. "Louie! Lou-ou-ou-ou-ie! Where's my boo-boo?" she called out, then reprised the final melodic line from "Happiness," stretching out the last note until Vega dropped in the beat from the song's euphorically tribal instrumentals. A mega-jolt of electricity flashed through the room.

India and Vega's partnership dates back to a grade school friendship in "La Candela" ("the Candle"), one of the Bronx's toughest areas. In high school, Vega became the borough's top-ranking disc-spinner, and India would pass out flyers and herd all her friends to his dances.

By the time she was 15, her exotic looks had earned her a modeling career, but she wanted more. One day she appeared at the Devil's Nest, Vega's main club headquarters, where TKA, one of the first Latino hip-hop ensembles, was holding auditions for a female singer. No contest. India dropped out of school.

With the group and Vega's guidance, she cut her teeth in the same "street" music environment that had nurtured Madonna. But India realized that her big, soulful voice and precision-honed technique were more suited to R&B.; Besides, she expected that house (a blend of R&B; and disco), would be the next big thing. In 1992, Vega and India's single "I Can't Get No Sleep" became a smash on the international underground dance circuit.

As their popularity as performers shot up, India (she acquired the name as a child, thanks to her strikingly Indian appearance) began investigating her Afro-Caribbean roots.

The background harmonies she arranged and sang for Vega's remixes of Tito Puente's "Ran Khan Khan," from the "Mambo Kings" soundtrack, were playing over the recording studio speakers one evening when Latin music legend Eddie Palmieri strolled in to talk business. India was sitting in a corner, blowing smoke rings.

"Sounds nice, sounds nice," said Palmieri of India's harmonies. "And who is that young lady smoking the cigar?"

"Oh, that's my wife," Vega replied, adding that the harmonies were hers. Intrigued by India's vocal chops, passion and cigar habit, Palmieri decided to groom her to lead the next generation of tropical singers. India asked for time to prepare.

"Eddie Palmieri took me to school," she says. "He taught me about the rhythm, how you improvise within Latin beats. You have to distinguish the up from the down beat. It's different and harder than dance. I thank God that the rhythm was already inside me and I was able to grab onto it real quick."

Her graduation thesis was "Llego La India," the only album Palmieri has ever produced for a female singer. Like "Vivir Lo Nuestro," her pairing with Marc Anthony from a compilation album of duets, it sounds as though India has been wrapping a crystal-clear soprano around rumbas, merengues , batas and boleros all her life.

But India is not satisfied. Latin music may be her mainstream and dance music her experimental ground, but she seeks the same innovative partnership with a Latin music producer that she shares with her husband.

"Louie and I still see ourselves as teen-agers," she says, "growing up and wanting to do something, experimenting and going out on a limb. We want to stay in the underground because we're doing it for the music, not to be on pop charts. In another 15 years, these records are going to be classics, just like the underground club hits we used to listen to and still love."

The producer of India's upcoming album, "Dicen Que Soy . . . " ("They Say I Am . . . "), is 32- year-old Sergio George, who also produced last year's "The Mambo Kings," Tito Puente's 100th album.

" 'Llego' was, 'I've arrived and I can sing this incredible old school, the motherland of our music,' " says India. "The new album will be, 'This is me, my flavor in a tropical way,' and showing what I can do with my voice. The mistake of 'Llego' is that it only works my soprano. There's so much more than hitting these piercing high notes. Where's the excitement and sustenance of the sultry low tones?"

In the album, which will be released Sept. 13 by RMM Records, India and George are creating a new wrinkle in "a New York salsa vibe," says the producer.

"I'm trying to inject elements here and there--vocally and musically--that dance-club kids can also relate to. . . . We're using the roots of classical tropical music and breaking the rules, if there were any to begin with. To me, there are no rules."

Musically restless, propelled by a feverish energy and prodigiously gifted, India seems willing to take on almost any musical form.

"There's so many other things I want to do," she says. "I don't want to do them to be different or just for a challenge, but because my heart and soul tell me to."

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