Born in India, raised in Canada and currently living in New York City, Kiran Ahluwalia is a modern exponent of the great vocal traditions of India and Pakistan. Interestingly, her original compositions embody the essence of Indian music while embracing influences from both the West and Africa especially the Sahara, writes Anjana Parikh
AL: Why was there a need for you to search for contemporary Urdu poets in the Indian diaspora for your songs?
Kiran: For this new album Sanata: Stillness, I wrote my own lyrics and music – this is my 6th release. In my earlier recordings, I composed the music to words of Urdu and Punjabi poets who I had discovered living in Canada (where I grew up). With this discovery of poets living in Canada, I no longer had to look to India to find words to create a melody — I had poets right in my own city — from Pakistan and India who were writing beautifully inspiring poetry. It was like having the first pick at a fresh crop. Then in my 5th album, I started to incorporate rhythms and ideas of Tuareg desert blues. The words of ghazal poetry were not working for me to incorporate these ‘outside influences’ and so out of necessity, I started writing my own lyrics – not ghazal but a contemporary style of lyric writing.
AL: What kind of influence has cross-culture made in your kind of music?
Kiran: Like all of us in the diaspora, I myself am of hyphenated cultural citizenship. I’m Indo-Canadian and both these cultures are reflected in my music. But beyond that I’m a citizen of the world and am open to influences from the entire globe. I have dedicated a large part of my life learning traditional genres from India, however, I have walked away from tradition in my own compositions. What I have learnt provides me with a strong base however I am keen to incorporate esthetics that I have fallen in love with from different cultures. I’m not worried about sticking to the boundaries of my Indian or my Canadian heritage; I fell in deep love with desert blues and so I choose to incorporate that in my own music.
AL: Many people say that your music is a hybrid. Is this true?
Kiran: I’m one of the people who say that so yes it’s true. It’s a hybrid of many influences. At it’s base it is informed by my training in Indian classical and ghazal. But I’m not composing/singing classical or ghazal — I’m writing and singing a hybrid of modern Indian with desert blues, jazz, and some Canadian folk elements.
One big influence is my guitarist, NYC-based Pakistani-American Rez Abbasi. Rez has won accolades in the jazz and guitar world and for me his musical and marital partnership is one that transcends place and politics. Myself being Indian-born and Rez having been born in Pakistan, he and I would likely not have been able to create together, had our parents not moved from their motherlands to the West. The diaspora is the only social context in which our personal and creative journey would have been able to fully unfold.
Rez’s infusion of jazz, alongside my discovery of Malian Tuareg music has propelled me from composing ghazal to fully embracing a more modern sensibility with a guitar-centric brand of desert blues.
When you take two styles and merge them together and you don’t want a simple cut and paste then you’re really developing a new hybrid genre. You’re doing something with no clear blueprints to help you. For me, it’s important to blur the musical boundaries between my Indian background and outside influences. It’s incredibly invigorating when I feel a connection in expressions from different cultures and then figure out ways to connect them seamlessly. Those moments of discovery are nothing short of sublime. It’s the essence of everything for me.
AL: How did you get drawn towards Gazals?
Kiran: My parents are both ghazal enthusiasts – they both sang in their youth and young adult life. We used to have ghazal parties at home where we would all sing – the guests, my parents and me too. As a child growing up in India and Canada – my parents also took me to many Indian concerts – ghazal, Bollywood, folk and classical. At that time the music and lyrics were beyond the scope of understanding for a child – I was however entranced by the music – even then.
AL: In one of your interviews, you’ve compared Gazals to Jazz. Tell us more on this.
Kiran: They are very different but the similarity is that they both have aspects of improvisation.
AL: Do you still consider yourself as a new comer in Europe?
Kiran: In parts of Europe where I have not toured extensively yet they may refer to me as a new comer. Hope to change that soon as I look forward to a multi-city tour of the UK in September 2015.
AL: You’re immersed in North and West African especially Saharan music. How and when did this love affair started?
Kiran: I first heard Tuareg music with the band Tinariwen in Toronto Canada – about nine years ago. I was at the time recording my 4th album – Wanderlust. I composed a song inspired by these new grooves – Teray Darsan and recorded the song for that album. After that I started to search out more Tuareg music and listened to a lot online and through European radio which was playing a lot more of it than North American radio. Then in 2009 I was getting the Songlines/WOMAD Award for Best Newcomer (in Europe) – we were in Copenhagen and I met Justin Adams, the producer of Tinariwen’s first 3 albums. I told him how I was very influenced by desert blues and sent him a CD. From there we started talking about doing a record with Tinariwen (and Terakaft) and a year later recorded Aam Zameen: Common Ground. Since then I continue listening to desert blues supplemented by travels to the Sahara in Mali and Morocco. This influence has stayed with me along with jazz and other North American influences.
AL: What does your new album ‘Sanata: Stillness’ speak about?
Kiran: My themes on Sanata-Stillness, confront civil war, not within a nation but within ourselves. The track, Tamana, celebrates female sexuality by discarding shame. Hayat is what I call my immigrant song that speaks to being more introverted than was my nature to be – because of the sense of isolation of firstly being Indian in Canada and secondly being Indo-Canadian and living in New York City. Hayat also has a video, beautifully shot floating on the Ganges River.