The India-born Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia is known for her ability to combine a wide range of styles in single compositions - from the Indian and Pakistani “ghazals” of her girlhood, to Celtic folk music, Portuguese Fado and, most recently, the traditional hand clapping and blues-inspired music of the Tuareg tribes of West Africa.
“It’s not that I intended to come here,
but the path has led me here.
Laced with dust though I am,
yet please consider that for years
I have been wandering dusty paths…”
Those are lyrics to the ghazal “Yeh Nahin.” It's Punjabi for “Wandering Dusty Paths,” composed by Kiran Ahluwalia. Born in India, raised in Canada, now living in New York and touring the world with her band, Ahluwalia’s own path has been wandering ever since she first heard these traditional love songs as a girl.
“Even though the words were beyond the comprehension of a 10 year old, I was just mesmerized by the music," says Ahluwalia, in the apartment overlooking Harlem she shares with her husband, fellow musician and producer Rez Abassi.
Ahluwlia is known for her daring collaborations with musicians from far flung corners of the globe. In her new CD, “Aam Zameen: Common Ground,” she teams up with Tinariwen, a Tuareg desert blues band from Mali, as well as traditional Tuareg musicians and a Gambian “ritti” player.
When Ahluwalia and the Tuareg musicians met in France to record, they often had to resort to hand gestures to convey ideas. She says they experimented, rehearsed, gesticulated and laughed together for hours before the recording session began.
“So when I walked into that Paris studio all of my energy pods were open, and oh my God, at the end of that day like 20 people had jumped inside of me,” she says. “We just found a completely instant connection after we started singing."
That kinship can be heard in “Musst Musst" the CD’s signature song. Ahluwalia knew it was a risk for her mostly Indian musicians to play a traditional Sufi Muslim song from Pakistan with Tuaregs in a Saharan blues style. But South Asians and Tuaregs both combine hand clapping and call and response in their traditions, and somehow it worked.
“I think we all succeeded in integrating our different backgrounds so well, it is one unit. There was no dividing line.”
While the musical styles that Ahluwalia explores are rooted in particular cultures, emotions are universal. For example, even though she spoke no Portuguese, she immediately recognized the sense of love and longing that are the hallmarks of the Portuguese “Fado” and sought out a partnership with Fado instrumentalists that resulted in her 2007 “Wanderlust” CD.
“I almost never know the words when I am falling in love with a different type of music,” says the singer. “It’s really everything else in the music: the feeling of the phrases, the melody, the rhythm, and the mood it creates… that is touching me.”
Sometimes, the moods in Ahluwalia’s collaborations are joyful, as in “Jhanjra,” a traditional Punjabi folk-song she recorded with the Celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster. At other times, she has collaborated with traditional Afghani musicians and Inuit “throat singers.”
Ahluwalia says that she is drawn to collaboration because as an India-born woman raised in Canada, “I myself am a collaboration. Culturally and musically, those two influences are very much within me and my own identity. On the other hand, I’m a citizen of the world. And the entire world is there for me to be influenced by.”
Just where Ahluwalia’s travels will take her after her current tour is anyone’s guess. However, one thing is certain: while remaining rooted in her own musical heritage, she will continue to honor the traditions of others to create a musical world where geographic boundaries need not apply.