Indian-Canadian singer brings true world music to Greensboro
The singer Kiran Ahluwalia is a global citizen. That’s how she describes herself, and her music reflects that reality, drawing on traditions from West African, the Indian subcontinent, Europe, American jazz, Western pop styles and beyond. Ahluwalia is an Indian-Canadian living in New York City, and I spoke with her by phone briefly last week. Ahluwalia and her band will perform at the North Carolina Folk Festival in Greensboro this week.
Listening to recorded music has always been a way of experiencing the world — the sounds of other places, other people, other aesthetics, other traditions. Even back in the early days of 78s in the 1920s, styles from the Mississippi Delta or the Carolina Piedmont or the urban jumble of Chicago could get dispersed around the world. Musicians from remote pockets of Greece who had come to New York could document rare and ancient repertoires, preserving them for future centuries. Record companies had scouts in places like Yemen or West Africa or the mountains of the American South, tapping into markets they hardly knew existed.
Music has also been a way of connecting with home for people who have emigrated or been displaced. Ahluwalia said that when, as a child, she moved with her family from India to Canada, listening to Punjabi folk music, Bollywood soundtracks or Hindustani classical music was a way of staying attached to her past.
“When I came to Canada, it was quite lonely for me, and what I knew from India was Indian music,” she said. “And so Indian music never left me, because it was such a crutch.”
Ahluwalia said that when she would attend Indian concerts with her parents, she would routinely be the only young person there. She was listening to Western pop, but she retained a love for Indian music. Her interest in the music inspired her to travel back to India to study some of the traditions there. She has studied ragas and ghazals (a classic form of love poetry that also gets rendered in song).
“That is a launching pad for me as a composer,” Ahluwalia said. But she’s quick to point out that she’s more of a synthesist than a traditionalist. She writes her own songs and incorporates lots of other elements into the music. You can hear bits of flamenco, R&B, soul, rock, jazz, desert blues and Afropop in her songs. (She’s recorded a song with the legendary Tuareg group Tinariwen, who will be playing in Winston-Salem at the Ramkat on Sept. 17.)
When Ahluwalia said she’s a global citizen, she means it, both in terms of the scope of her musical influences, and in the themes that she addresses in her songs. Her most recent album, 7 Billion, is very clearly one with a worldwide perspective. The record gets its title from the rough estimate of the human population. And the song “Saat” is named for the Urdu for the number seven.
“The song is about the cultural intolerance amongst the seven billion of us,” Ahluwalia said. “There’s seven billion ways of doing things. There’s no one right way.”
The translation of one verse goes like this: “Seven billion winding paths/Each with its own peculiar questions/Infinite answers, infinite answers/All spectacular.”
Current events and a sense of global turmoil found their way into Ahluwalia’s writing process.
“That was very much inspired by the discord and disharmony in the world today,” she said.
Another song, “Haafa,” flows out of Ahluwalia’s frustration with the gatekeepers of organized religion. People claiming to own access to the divine have soured the experience of many individuals longing to have a spiritual connection with the cosmos, the lyrics suggest. “The song is about lamenting the loss of a direct relationship with god,” she said. That loss means that people are deprived of a chance to be aware of themselves, to explore deep questions about themselves and about their place in the universe.
The final song on the album is called “We Sinful Women.” For the lyrics, Ahluwalia took the words written by the Pakistani feminist Urdu poet Kishwar Naheed and set them to music. It was partly a response, on Ahluwalia’s part, to the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S.
“This was soon after Trump was calling strong women ‘nasty women,’” Ahluwalia said.
The song includes lines that translate to, “It is we sinful women who come out raising the banner of truth against the barricades of lies on the highways/who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold/who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.”
As Ahluwalia said, “unfortunately the poem is still relevant.”
The song churns with a hypnotic funk drone that sounds akin to the protest-centric afrobeat of Fela Kuti, with sizzling organ blasts, percolating tabla rhythms and jazzy guitar lines from Ahluwalia’s collaborator and partner Rez Abbasi. Making resistance, human rights, poetry, feminism, global awareness and justice all part of the mesh of the music is something that Ahluwalia and her band do with ease.
In that regard, the language barrier isn’t something that prevents the message and the emotion from coming across.
“If you don’t understand the language, don’t worry,” she said, “we’re entertaining everybody.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Kiran Ahluwalia, who will make four appearances at the North Carolina Folk Festival in Greensboro on Friday, Sept. 6 at 6:45 p.m., and Saturday, Sept. 7, at 1:15 p.m., 3:15 p.m. and 6 p.m. For a full schedule visit ncfolkfestival.com