Kiran Ahluwalia‘s contribution to world music is inspired and deeply inspiring, seamlessly blending a number of traditions in her unique and engaging original compositions. Now based in New York, she was born in India and raised in Canada. After completing an MBA she gradually gave music more space in her life until it became a full-fledged career.
She calls her compositional style “Indo-Saharan” because it blends Indian musical styles with the sounds of North Africa. She’s been awarded two Junos, one for her album Beyond Boundaries in 2003 and the other in 2011 for Aam Zameen (Common Ground), a collaboration with the singular Malian Tuareg band, Tinariwen. You can read the Mindful Bard review of her latest album, Sanata (Stillness), here.
Recently Ahluwalia took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about what brought her to where she is today? and where She’s headed.
What role did music play in your early background?
Music played a very, very important role in my background. My parents taught me Sikh spirituals?songs that we sing in the really big ceremonies. I would be swinging on the swing that my dad put up and at the same time learning the Sikh spirituals. From the radio I would learn Bollywood songs, pretty early on, too. Since the age of five or six my parents enrolled me in Indian classical music. I was learning many different genres of Indian music right from the get-go.
Was there one person, or one mentor, or one school that was really growth-enhancing for you?
I would say that there were two. The first was my classical teacher, the one I had as an adult when studying in Bombay full time. Her name was Padma Tlwalkar. She was my “classical Urdu teacher,” as we call it, and she had a major role in shaping my voice. We worked a lot on voice culture, and my voice became what it is through her guidance.
The second is my Ghazal teacher. “Ghazal” is love poems set to music, sort of?It’s a genre that was created in Hyderabad. My teacher’s name was Vithal Rao. In his lifetime he was a legendary person and musician.
These two people have shaped me the most. I don’t sing primarily Ghazal anymore. I started off singing Ghazal, but now I sing a more contemporary form of music. For lack of a better word to describe it, It’s modern Indian original music with influences of African desert blues and jazz.
Is this a genre that you developed yourself?
My husband, Rez Abbasi, is the one who introduced jazz into my music? four CDs ago, actually?13 or 14 years ago. He’s my arranger, and he brought in some very intricate harmonies that come mostly from jazz and the western classical tradition.
Then, of course, there’s the style of playing. There are many songs that are more jazzy and are improvised in a jazz fashion. We both love African desert blues and have concentrated on listening to and learning this music and being with musicians who play it. We try to imbibe it as much as we can. So, there are many songs whose rhythms are in the desert blues tradition. My husband is a vital partner in my music making.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m putting together a festival of three or four groups, one of which will be dedicated to doing Sikh spirituals in the Sikh temple. This music has never been heard in a public space. It’s very compelling music, but if you want to hear it, you have to YouTube it, and in order to hear it live anywhere in the world, you have to go to a Sikh temple.
Is there a stigma against playing this music publicly?
No, not a stigma. I’ve researched it, and none of the temples would mind. It just never has been done. In India, you can hear it for free in a temple. Here in the West, however, It’s never been done and, It’s very, very compelling music. Everyone who I’ve introduced to it loves it. I’m putting together a travelling festival. It will hopefully have bookings in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Montreal.
And of course I continue to compose for my next recording.
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.