Indo-Canadian singer-composer Kiran Ahluwalia is a two-time JUNO award-winning world music artist. She was born in Patna, India, grew up in Canada and trained in Indian classical music and the Indian-Pakistani poetic song tradition ghazal. Although her work borrows from these and other traditional forms, she has developed a unique style of her own. She has released six albums and her upcoming tour schedule includes stops in Brooklyn and San Francisco. She is married to the accomplished Pakistani-American guitarist-arranger Rez Abbasi. Stay Thirsty Magazine caught up with her at her home in New York to discuss her music and her influences.
STAY THIRSTY: With the advent of the internet we live in a borderless world and your music draws influences from India, Africa, Ireland, Afghanistan, Portugal and American Jazz. What led you to create such a global fusion sound?
KIRAN AHLUWALIA: The basis of my music is Indian. The countries that you mention are cultures that I have collaborated with over various albums. Over the last couple of albums my main influences have been desert blues from the African Sahara and elements from the west such as jazz and the singer/songwriter tradition – all the while keeping a solid basis in Indian modern music. I myself am culturally hyphenated – I'm an Indo-Canadian, born in India, brought up in Canada. Apart from that I'm a citizen of the world and open to its influences. I'm not worried about sticking to a genre – if I hear something I love then I want to possess it in my own music. All the music that I've ever collaborated with was music I first heard live – at a concert. What the internet does now is allow you to explore it more easily. When I first heard Tuareg music in Toronto, I was hooked and the internet allowed me to hear many more Tuareg groups right away. I traveled to Timbuktu (and of course there is nothing like traveling to the actual place) but you can hear so much on the internet.
STAY THIRSTY: In your latest album Sanata:Stillness, your lead song entitled "Hayat" recounts how "life drifts in its own shadow" and your video is set along the Ganges River in India. As a woman who was born in India, raised in Canada and who now lives in New York City, are you searching for your roots with this album or celebrating the diversity of the experiences in your life?
KIRAN AHLUWALIA: I don't really think I ever left my roots so the terms "searching for my roots" or "going back to my roots" never really resonate with me. I've studied Indian music since I was 5 years old. The basis of my music – my roots – has always been Indian. Apart from India, I have interest in music from the world so I go to concerts from other cultures. If I end up getting hooked on something, then I learn more about it and use it in my own composition. Most of my lyrics address an internal struggle – the self-sabotaging part of my mind, the throwing away of shame, letting go of stale embraces. Not sure if I would call that a celebration – doesn't feel like a celebration – but the act of writing the lyrics, composing the music and singing it is certainly something in which I find release.
STAY THIRSTY: In 2012 your album Aam Zameen: Common Ground won the JUNO Award for Best World Music Album of the Year. It was your second JUNO Award. How has winning these two awards impacted your career?
KIRAN AHLUWALIA: The JUNOs are the highest musical award in Canada and receiving them helped me to build an international career. When someone hands you a big award, all of a sudden more people take notice.
STAY THIRSTY: You have spent much time studying the Tuareg music of the Sahara desert. How have the hypnotic and cyclic rhythms of the desert become part of your compositions? Have the tribal values of the Tuareg crept into your lyrics?
KIRAN AHLUWALIA: Yes, the hypnotic cyclic rhythms are very much what I am attracted to in Tuareg music and in rhythms from Morocco and other parts of Northern and Western Africa. In my songs, I sometimes start with a hint of a lyric and then build a groove with my guitarist/arranger/husband Rez Abbasi. Once I have a groove that I want to sing on – usually something that I can't get out of my head – then I go back and finish up the song with the full lyrics. A lot of Tuareg lyrics are about external hardship and external enemies of war. Most of my lyrics are about some sort of internal struggle. Whereas they might write about a civil war in Mali, I write about the civil war within myself.
STAY THIRSTY: Love is an important and recurring theme in your songs, as is a longing for the romantic. Beneath the surface the tenets of the Sufi mystics that seek a perfection of worship and the achievement of divine love seem to guide your path. What led you to such spirituality and what ideas do you hope to leave with your audience?
KIRAN AHLUWALIA: The Sufi songs I sing are either songs where the lyrics have been written by Sufi poets or Sufi saints and I have composed the melody, or they are covers like the qawwalis made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – "Mustt Mustt" and "Lament." The Sufi way of talking to the divine is incredibly passionate – often in a very sensual way. I suppose I'm attracted to these songs because it simply feels good to sing them – they are songs that lend themselves to a feeling of freedom, of letting go, of ecstatic trance, of drowning in a breathable way. For my audience I hope to offer them what music offers me – a release from whatever it is that needs untying.