Kiran Ahluwalia – Bridges the Punjab and the Sahara
Indian-born, Canadian-raised, now-NYC-based singer and composer Kiran Ahluwalia has built a reputation for exquisite renditions of Punjabi folk songs and the refined poetry called ghazals. She’s no rigid purist, however, as the title of her 2003 Juno-winning album Beyond Boundaries suggests. At Toronto’s Harbourfront Festival in 2004, Ahluwalia fell in love with the music of Tinariwen, Tuareg tribesmen from northern Mali whose gritty Saharan blues-rock is the toast of world-music circles in recent years. “The rhythms are simpler than Indian rhythms,” says Ahluwalia, “and yet they’re so trance-y. I’m totally taken in by them. To me, it’s like minimalist music. It has far fewer notes than Indian music has in a song—but it has the exact right notes.”
Kiran Ahluwalia composed a Tuareg-inspired tune, “Tersay Darsan,” for 2008’s Wanderlust. “I thought I’d gotten it out of my system, but lo and behold, it wasn’t. I was still mesmerized.”
Enough so, in fact, that her latest album, Aam Zameen: Common Ground, finds her collaborating with both Tinariwen and Terakaft, a younger Tuareg band taking up the torch. Contact was brokered by Justin Adams, Tinariwen’s first producer, and sessions occurred in France, Toronto and New York. “It was just exhausting, because there was such a huge emotional bond every time we would record.”
It’s a varied album, a back-and-forth between the Sahara and the Punjab, with lyrics care of Desi poets from the Toronto area (and for the first time, Ahluwalia herself). The cornerstone—kicking things off, reprised halfway through and expanded at the end—is “Mustt Mustt,” made famous by Pakistan’s king of qawwalis (ecstatic devotional singers), the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Though the tune’s handclaps and call-and-response choruses provided the requisite ‘common ground” for the Tuaregs, Ahluwalia says, ‘I thought it would be very interesting for Pakistanis and Indians to hear a different take on this classic song. Pakistanis don’t really have a lot of electric guitar on their classic songs, and yet here were Muslims from Africa that were going to put a very electric touch on it.”
Tinariwen and Terakaft couldn’t tour with Ahluwalia for this record, but she and her musicians will more than compensate. “The Tuareg stamp,” she says, “is pretty firm on my group.”