Wanderlust with Kiran Ahluwalia
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2008, Volume 15, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue April 22, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Nowhere can the effects of globalism be seen more readily than within the evolving landscape of the world’s music. Further, nowhere in the world’s music are the rapid changes that globalism instigates more evident than in the songs that are emanating from the Indian diaspora. In the last few years, artists such as Bally Sagoo, the Bombay Dub Orchestra, Karsh Kale, and Deepak Ram have confounded traditional expectations by creating works that are influenced by jazz, techno, dub, and hip-hop. Their output increasingly has become easier to find as the world’s population continues to mingle, migrate, and instantly share information through technology.
With her recent endeavor Wanderlust, Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia has contributed to the widening of music’s sonic palette by incorporating aspects of Portugese fado into her new collection of contemporary ghazal songs. During her recent tour stop in Vancouver, I had an opportunity to talk with Ahluwalia about her musical influences and inspirations. Before we got too far into our conversation, Ahluwalia made sure that I understood that although she is classically trained, she doesn’t consider herself to be a classical singer. "I’m not singing Indian classical music, though I have studied it all of my life," she said. "It’s what I like to practice when I’m rehearsing by myself."
"What I compose and what I sing come from two genres," Ahluwalia continued. "Each of them is more popular than academic. I sing ghazals — which are passionate songs of love — and I sing Punjabi folk songs. These two genres are a little lighter in nature, if I can use this word. They allow for a bit more fun, a bit more smiling. They are less rigid. They have rules of their own, but they are more open-ended. I didn’t mean to use the word ‘rigid’ for classical music because it is one of my favorite styles to sing. But, I think — especially Western people — mistake all Indian vocal music for classical music."
Ahluwalia’s new album Wanderlust is difficult to classify. Initially, it sounds like the many other collections of Indian- or Persian-influenced ghazal tunes that are gaining popularity amongst world music fans. Ahluwalia’s voice subtly glides over the light yet intricate melodies to create some of the most quietly beautiful songs that I have heard in some time. Years of practice in the classical tradition have given her the kinds of vocal and interpretive chops that are second-to-none. With her voice acting as a safe doorway into these compositions, Ahluwalia takes her listeners through some thrilling musical territory as the musicians blend traditional Indian instrumentation with the Western sounds of an acoustic guitar and an accordion. Three tracks in particular — Haal-e Dil, Jo Dil, and Hath Apne — represent a perfect blend between the melodrama of ghazal and the heartbreaking melancholy of Portugese fado. The fatalistic subject matter that both of these musical forms favor makes the melding of styles sound natural and unforced. It isn’t important how the music on Wanderlust is classified. It congeals to become a satisfying whole as well as to provide a challenging and delightful listening experience.
Seeing Ahluwalia and her group in concert is the best way to be introduced to her work. Her touring band — in addition to featuring tabla and harmonium, both of which traditionally are part of a ghazal group — includes an electric bass player as well as her husband Rez Abbasi on guitar. The years in which she has lived in Canada and the United States have influenced the presentation of her material. Like a rock singer performing in a stadium setting, she gets her audience to clap and sing along. I asked her if this was typical. "It’s a very Canadian thing. When I go to concerts of any kind of music, it just draws me closer into the music when I’m asked to participate."
The whole question of whether her music is traditional is one that obviously rankles her. Coming from an ancient culture, Ahluwalia’s concept of what constitutes tradition is obviously much different from mine. "I hope I don’t do anything traditional. To me, the word ‘traditional’ is very ambiguous," she said. "When you use the word, does it mean doing it the same way it was done 300 years ago; 3,000 years ago; or 30 years ago?"
Clarifying her vision, Ahluwalia stated, "I describe my music as contemporary Indo-Canadian music. The genres are clearly Indian, and yet the source and composition are clearly Canadian. If I just used the word ‘Indo-Canadian’ to describe my music, no one would get any image or have any idea of what I was talking about. Many of my songs have lyrics written by Canadian South Asians, and then I compose the music to the words with Rez."
When further pressed about how her Canadian ghazals fit within the scope of the different genres of Indian-based music, Ahluwalia explained, "There is something unique about my music and Indo-Canadian music. It is hard to articulate exactly what it is, but in terms of movements there have been many different Indian music movements in different countries. In Britain, the movement that got going was Bhangra. You had bands like Asian Dub Foundation and Bally Sagoo. Their thing was to take folk music — rustic village music — and make it danceable — not in a field of corn, but in a club. That was the major movement that took hold there. In America, I don’t know if I can pinpoint a certain type of movement. There’s no one to compare me to because there’s no one composing contemporary ghazals in the States. The only person in Britain is Najma, but she doesn’t compose her own stuff. Her sound is more electronic than mine."
However one classifies Ahluwalia’s music, it’s apparent, when seeing her in concert, that what she’s doing works beautifully for her audience. The diverse crowd that had assembled to hear her on a cold, February evening in Vancouver sang along with her from the very first song. Her fans needed no encouragement to clap, stomp their feet, and do impromptu dances in the aisles of the church where she performed. In particular, her reinterpretation of Koka, a traditional Punjabi love song about a diamond ring, had everyone on their feet.
"Koka! If I could use the word, it’s one of my ‘hits,’" Ahluwalia laughed when I asked her about the song. "It wasn’t very popular — though it’s an old song — when I recorded it in 2000. The people who are singing it probably know it from me. At folk festivals and places like that, people who know nothing about Indian music or Punjabi music will ask for that song. Even the people in the media ask me if I’m going to sing it. Even with the Indians, that’s the song that people know and most ask for."
When not singing with her own group, Ahluwalia performs with her husband’s experimental jazz ensemble. "It takes me further out into some other sounds," she explained. "Every time I sing anything, it gives me new ideas. I feel safe to try new things. The Indo-Canadian community has been really supportive, so I don’t feel constricted in any way there. On my [self-titled] CD, I didn’t know how they would react to Natalie McMaster, the Maritime fiddler, but they loved her. I got a lot of good feedback. I’m excited to continue making music that challenges people and excites me. It’s a good life, and I feel extremely lucky."
Ahluwalia and her group will be touring this summer, playing at festivals and in clubs across North America. Anyone with the opportunity to see her ought not miss hearing her boundary-shifting music in a live setting. For everyone else, Wanderlust provides an equally wonderful journey, one that comes without jet lag or a hangover.
Of Further Interest...
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