Innerviews, music without borders

Kiran Ahluwalia
Intrepid connections
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2012 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Kiran Ahluwalia’s elastic approach to the universe of ghazals and Punjabi folk songs has long reflected a world of influences beyond conventional borders. Born in India, raised in Canada, and now residing in New York City, the vocalist and composer has collaborated with Latin, Afghan, Celtic, Turkish, folk, pop, and electronica artists since releasing her debut album Kashish Attraction in 2001. For her latest release, Aam Zameen: Common Ground, she engaged in her deepest cross-cultural collaboration to date, working with Tinariwen and Terakaft, the most celebrated exponents of the Tuareg Saharan desert blues sound.

Ahluwalia became fascinated by the guitar-driven approach of the Tuareg groups in recent years. After intensely studying the Tuareg sound, based on West African influences, and full of addictive, hypnotic and cyclic rhythms, she was convinced it had complementary elements that could mesh with her compositional ideas. Ahluwalia got in touch with Tinariwen and its producer Justin Adams and they reciprocated her enthusiasm. They were particularly intrigued by the idea of collaborating with Ahluwalia on a cover of “Mustt Mustt,” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s best-known song, which went on to serve as the album’s centerpiece.

Aam Zameen: Common Ground came together across sessions in France, the U.K., and Canada. The album was co-produced by Adams and Ahluwalia’s husband Rez Abbasi. Abbasi is a leading jazz guitarist who is an integral part of Ahluwalia’s creative endeavors. In addition to production and arrangement work, he’s also a principal member of her touring group that includes tabla player Nitin Mitta, bassist Nikku Nayar, and harmonium player Kiran Thakrar.

Earlier this year, Ahluwalia traveled to the Festival au désert in Mali to perform her new material with Tinariwen. To say it was a unique experience is an understatement.

What was it like to perform at the Festival au désert?

For one thing, I was scared. Mali is a volatile place. So many foreign tourists have been kidnapped there. It’s related to Al Qaeda penetrating the region. Apart from that, there’s the civil war erupting there. It was looming right in the middle of the festival. But I rounded up a couple of friends from New York and we made the trip. We landed in Timbuktu, which is one of the oldest remaining, functioning towns in the world. It was almost as if we had landed in ancient times, because the architecture was completely different from anything I had ever seen. Everything seemed to be made of mud, including the exteriors of large buildings. Most of the roads are desert roads.

When we arrived, they had tents for us there. Then, I realized that hardly any of the artists were staying in the tents, not even Tinariwen—99 percent of them were staying at the hotels. That night, I made the decision to return to my beautiful little hotel. I was returning to the hotel at 3am or later. The closing night of the festival, when I was performing with Tinariwen, I went on at 3:40am and returned to the hotel at 5:30am.

Why were you performing so late?

Because there were miscommunications between other artists. Some took longer to do their sets and there were technical issues with sound. The artists that experienced these technical issues felt they could perform for an hour longer. When all of that added up, it was 3:40am for me. At 9pm, there were 10,000 people in attendance. At 3:40am, there were about 3,000. These were the diehards. The other factor was Bono came and things were changed around. The schedule got messed up and crazy, just for Bono, who I understand is doing a lot of good things for Africa.

I noticed that the audience was 97-percent Tuareg. There were only 200-300 foreigners. The audiences don’t have a huge culture of applauding, which I realized from watching the artists that went on before me the previous two nights. I didn’t know how I was going to be received. I got on and started speaking in French and right away, there was a nice response. I said I was going to do “Mustt Mustt” and there were some cheers in the audience. So, I thought there were a few people who knew the song. I started with the alap in the extended version of the song and they were very warm with their appreciation. They were making noises and expressive about the fact that they liked what they were hearing. When I got going with my alap, I had to pause once because the cheering got so loud. So, I went on and finished the alap and the song started, and it was really lovely. People in the audience were taking videos of my performance and it was a really nice feeling to know that people wanted to remember that moment.

You went with full knowledge of the potential dangers. You must have had serious motivation to be there.

The day after I returned, a massive civil war broke out in Mali. The situation is incredibly dangerous there for everybody. But, why did I go? I’ve been wanting to go for the last three or four years. My compositions have been very much influenced by Tuareg rhythms and phrasing. I wanted to go and do more research right there in the heartland of the Sahara, but I’m not a camping kind of girl.

The producer of the album, Justin Adams, said “If you feel that way about it, you don’t have to go to Mali to do your research. You can do it all from here. There’s plenty of music available.” So, for a few years, I kept backing out of going to the desert, and met Tinariwen for the first time in Paris. We were communicating through other people, but there was a real feeling of connection with them. There’s a YouTube video that has footage of “Mustt Mustt” from the Paris sessions and you can see where the majority of views are from. And they’re from Mali, Algeria and Niger—where the Tuareg people are. I thought “Oh, this little video is more popular in the Tuareg regions than it is in Canada and America. More people have clicked it in these countries where Internet connections are not readily available in everybody’s house.” That really spoke to me. So many Tuaregs friended me on Facebook, reaching out and saying they liked the video. Somehow they heard the music. I felt “This is really the time to go. It won’t be like this next year. There will be another song everyone is excited about.” So, I did it.

What is it about the Tuareg sound that compelled you to explore it so deeply in your music?

It’s hard to articulate. I have sat down and tried to analyze it and I don’t know if there is a proper answer. It’s very emotional. For whatever reason, that music enters my heart. So, that’s the answer. If I like something, I want to possess it. When I saw this music entering my heart, I wanted it in my music. So, I started composing with the influence of these rhythms and phrases. The rhythms aren’t intricate, like those you can find on tabla. They are much simpler and take you into a different kind of trance or groove.

Describe the intersection you felt existed between Tuareg and Indian music.

It might not have been compatible with Indian territory, but I made it compatible. [laughs] What happened in the beginning is I composed a tune called “Teray Darsan” that was influenced by Tinariwen, for my previous CD Wanderlust. I learned that the Tuareg rhythms and phrases didn’t lend themselves easily to the type of music I do, which is ghazal and Punjabi folk songs. What I did was go back to one of the very first ghazals written in Urdu from the 1500s. It was a ghazal that had never been sung, because the language isn’t like the Urdu we speak today. It was a much folksier style of Urdu. I felt I could experiment more with that poetry and create a melody to go with the Tuareg rhythms.

When it came time to do the latest album with Tinariwen, “Mustt Mustt” was a brilliant idea. I thought it was going to work with Tuareg rhythms. It is typically done with harmonium and tabla, but I had a feeling it would work with electric guitars. It was a song that came from the Masonic tradition. And here are Islamic people from another part of the world, interpreting their sound through it.

For the rest of the songs, I had to go outside the repertoire of ghazal and Punjabi poetry. I started writing my own lyrics for pretty much the first time. The reason I did that isn’t because I’m a poet. I’m firstly a composer and singer. But I needed material I could use guitar rhythms and phrases on, so I required a vehicle. I wrote my own words that I knew were going to work with them. It’s another reason why things sound different from my previous albums.

Tell me about the process of connecting and communicating with the Tuareg musicians.

When I met Tinariwen’s producer Justin Adams in Copenhagen for the first time, I told him I had done the track “Teray Darsan” for Wanderlust that was heavily influenced by his work with them. He said he wanted to hear it, so I sent them a copy and we developed a dialog. I said I’m still influenced by them and we started talking about doing something together. I thought that would be wonderful. Then, I thought if I was going to do something with them, I would like to do something with other Tuareg musicians as well. By this time, I had researched more about this kind of music and was listening to a lot of groups. I eventually thought Terakaft would be another good choice for me. One of the things I like about Tuareg music is the rhythm guitar in the background. But after everything is produced and done, you can hardly hear it. That’s my only kind of sorrow about it. There’s never enough in the mix for my liking. However, if you put it up too much, you can’t hear the other things, so it’s a real challenge. The person who invented this kind of rhythm guitar playing is Diara, who was an original member of Tinariwen. But he was thrown in jail and when he came out, Tinariwen was already touring. So, he formed the group Terakaft. I really wanted that rhythm guitar sound, so that’s why I worked with them.

In terms of communication, we exchanged CDs through management. It’s really easy for me to buy a Tinariwen CD, but Tinariwen and Terakaft were sent my CD by my management, along with links to videos. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the lead singer of Tinariwen, liked my voice and wanted to collaborate. We communicated mainly through management until we met in Paris. It was an instant connection when we met and one that refuses to die.

Do you foresee more collaborations with Tuareg musicians in the future?

I’m definitely still composing influenced by the sounds I hear from Tuareg groups, but collaborations are very expensive. If there are presenters in the world who can make it happen, then of course, there are positive vibes from both sides to do it. When Tinariwen tour and I happen to be in New York, I usually get up on stage with them to sing a song. It was the director of the Festival au désert that said “I want to hear this collaboration live.” He came up with the funding to make it happen. If it can happen again, it would be lovely.

Tell me about Rez Abbasi’s role during the making of the album.

Not only does he play the songs in my own group, but sometimes he comes back from his own jazz shows and tells me he played some of that stuff in his own music. Rez was the co-producer of the album. There were a whole bunch of decisions that had to be made on the spot. When we were rehearsing the first day in Paris, I slowed down everything for Tinariwen’s bass player Eyadou Ag Leche, because he wanted to really work on the chorus for “Mustt Mustt.” So, I sang a portion of it really slow. Then Rez said “Hey, we need to record it at this tempo too.” That’s how “Mustt Mustt Redux” was born. There was another beauty that was coming out of it really slowed down. Some of the questions needing answers were “How are we going to start? How are we going to finish? How are we going to finish this portion of the song?” There’s always a lot of discussion going on. The team was Rez, Justin, Tinariwen, and myself. We worked together to come up with the answers. Rez also arranged and produced the rest of the album during the Toronto and New York sessions. He co-produced the Tuareg sessions with Justin.

You’ve done a lot of work with electronica musicians. Describe your experience in that universe.

It’s okay. I like working with them when I can find a bond and connection with them. There are people in the electronica world I have totally connected with like Eccodek’s Andrew McPherson. But generally speaking, the majority of people I’ve worked with, like Delerium and Bill Laswell, haven’t involved the kind of connection that speaks to me. They work in a different way. I had to go through the process of working with electronica and drum and bass people to realize “Oh, this world seems to be like that.” It’s a world that doesn’t feed off other live musicians. I’m very much that way. I’ll compose something, Rez will arrange it, and I’ll go into the studio thinking it’s going to be one way, but because of interaction with other live musicians, it will change, which is how I get to the final piece.

With Bill Laswell, I walked into the studio, he gave me the track and I improvised on it. He said “Thank you very much,” gave me the check and I walked out. [laughs] Again, it’s not like there’s a connection. It’s a different process. I never even met Delerium or talked to them. I enjoyed the process a bit, because I happened to like the track “Indoctrination” they asked me to work on. I came up with two or three ideas. When I was speaking with their management, they told me not to go in a specific direction, but I did anyway. I gave them what they wanted, but I also laid down tracks of what I wanted to do. They ended up using a mixture of the tracks they had requested and the one they said “Don’t go there” for. So, that was really nice. When I hear the Delerium track, I go so friggin’ high on it. I wonder how I did that? I feel like I could never go that high again. It’s always nice when you do something in which you amaze yourself.

How do you look back at your first album Kashish Attraction?

For lack of a better word, it’s more traditional. It wasn’t wholly traditional, even then. It has definitely been a journey. It’s hugely different from Aam Zameen. With each successive CD, I walked further and further away from where my background, studies and training came from. I think I’ve been more and more open to other influences. When I recorded Kashish, I had done concerts in Toronto, one in India and another in London. I did concerts here and there within the Indian community, but I wasn’t a touring artist. After I did Kashish, I started to tour Canadian folk festivals. During those shows, I was thrown onstage with three other artists and was expected to collaborate right then and there, without ever having spoken to the others, or even knowing anything about their music. I think that was a very important experience for me. When that happened, it forced me to break down my own barriers. When I was doing my own song and a Celtic fiddler started playing with me, my first reaction was “What? No, no, no. That note doesn’t belong there.” Slowly, you start to open up your ears and say to yourself “Well, why doesn’t it belong? If I didn’t cringe, then it’s okay to play that note.” It’s more of a feeling to determine whether it belongs or not. It’s not so much a theoretical answer like “Oh no, this raag says you can’t have that note.” I started seeing that if it feels okay, then it is okay. I opened up my ears in terms of other people entering my music and also in trying to figure out how I fit into other people’s music.

You’ve said Jagjit Singh was the reason you became a singer. Discuss his influence on your work.

When I was in high school in Canada, it was when Jagjit Singh started becoming popular. I listened to a lot of Indian music, but it was really his music that mesmerized me. My music and voice sound nothing like his, but in all my training, that was the guy I was trying to emulate, from the age of 12 to 22. He stopped making music that spoke to me for the last two decades, but his stuff from the ‘70s and ‘80s was brilliant in terms of ghazals. It absolutely entered my heart. He changed my life. If he hadn’t existed, I probably wouldn’t have been a singer. I had the pleasure of meeting him when I went to India in 1990. I met him then as a student of music, but I also met him in Canada as a member of the audience. We would go backstage all the time and I’d say I really liked his music. His music started drifting away from what I like, but other people enjoyed it a lot.

Your longtime harmonium player Ashok Bidaye passed away last year. Tell me what he meant to you.

That was a huge blow to me and Rez, because we had spent a lot of time with him. It was so sudden. This was a guy who would out-party all of us by 10 times. He was so young at heart. I had never seen him angry or upset. He was an all-around great guy and totally easy to get along with. Then all of a sudden, I got the call at the beginning of December 2010 that he had been diagnosed with cancer. We had a tour in January 2011 and it was of great sadness to him that he couldn’t do the tour. He was apologizing profusely. I said “Please stop talking about the tour. Tell me about the cancer. What’s going to happen now?” At that point, we didn’t think we were going to lose him. It was very, very hard to see what he went through.

Everyone in the band developed running jokes that ran for years upon years. They’re not funny to anyone else if you explained them, but to the people who were there at the time, they get the inside jokes and laugh. We still have some of the running jokes Ashok started and when we say them, we realize “Oh, he’s not there anymore.” It’s very hard to get used to someone’s passing when they were that close to you. It’s almost like a shock all over again when you realize they’re not there anymore.

You often walk listeners through detailed meanings of songs at your shows. What compels you to do that?

Sometimes it’s just a nice story that adds to the experience of the performance. When I go hear other performers, I like it when I get something I don’t get from the CD. It’s another way to connect with the audience as well. You connect with them through the music, but I also get great feedback from people who like the explanations. In the beginning of my career, I would feel guilty for explaining these songs to audiences with a lot of Indian people. I felt like I was insulting the middle-age and older people, but even they came back after the concerts and said they really enjoyed it. In the end, it’s an interpretation. If you understand the words, you’re still free to hear them in another way as well.

What differences do you notice between performing in the US and Canada?

The Canadian market is more politically correct and more tolerant of cultural differences. When I first started performing in the US, the presenters, not the audience, would be very frank about what they thought didn’t work. One of the things they said was “Sitting down cross-legged onstage takes away from the energy of the performance.” Canadians would never say something like that. They would make more of an effort to enter your world, rather than wanting you to enter theirs. That specific comment happened in 2002, but didn’t change my performance style for the US. Now, I do stand up when I perform, but that’s part of the evolution represented on the latest CD. I felt when I was writing my own lyrics and composing in a different way, that the energy coming out was different. It made me want to stand up. It came through the music, not because someone told me I should do it.

You won the 2012 Juno for “World Music Album of the Year.” What did winning Canada’s highest musical honor mean to you?

It’s always really nice and helps you market your music better, internationally. It gives everything more momentum and now I have the tagline “Two-time Juno award winner.” Things build and build and snowball in a positive way. In 2004, I won the award for my Beyond Boundaries album as well. It felt really great to win it. I was filled with adrenaline. When you win the Juno, you make a speech, and then you’re ushered in to do all these interviews in the press room, then do photo sessions and videos. By the time you’re released from that backstage mayhem, the ceremony is pretty much over. You’ve missed everything after your award was given out. I wasn’t able to party the way I wanted to after winning. I so wanted to have a beer, but I had chamomile tea. I couldn’t believe I had to drink that as my adrenaline chaser, but the next day at 10am, I had a sound check for a CBC radio show called Songwriter’s Circle. It was the first time they had a performer that didn’t sing in English. I thought “This has to go well, or they won’t ever have anyone on who doesn’t perform in English again.” [laughs] I was really blessed that I was in good shape. There was a hip-hop artist who wasn’t able to make the show because he had lost his voice from partying the night before. I’m glad I wasn’t in that position.

You once said “I don’t adhere to the rules of my genre.” Expand on that for me.

I’ve come to a point where I don’t always feel comfortable saying I sing ghazal. Anyone that’s a ghazal connoisseur will slap on Aam Zameen and say “That’s not ghazal!” and they’ll be right. I feel more comfortable saying my music is heavily influenced by ghazal and Punjabi folk songs. Even the contemporary stuff coming out of India and Pakistan is a very different type of music, if you think about it.

You’ve expressed enthusiasm for the film Everything is a Remix. Does that idea inform your thinking on this topic?

When people ask the question of authenticity, it’s a flawed question, because everything really is a remix. We’re all a remix. We’re all a synthesis of so many different influences. Is Bollywood authentic Indian music? It takes so many influences from around the world. Is North Indian classical music authentic today? Well, it sounds different than it did 200 years ago. That’s why I like that whole remix idea. It helps people realize they’re influenced by more than they may be aware of.

Do you consider yourself a conduit for delivering an element of the ancient into the mainstream?

Not really. I don’t have an agenda of educating people through my music. I want to entertain people. The reason I listen to music is because I want to forget my troubles. If I’ve been working for three hours solid and want a breather, I listen to music. Music brings out various emotions in me. I listen to a different kind of music when I want to shake my booty than when I need help releasing angst, sadness or happiness. That’s what I really wish to offer through my music as well—entertainment and an emotional outlet.

I want to make music that is accessible to people who don’t understand my language. What I do is related to my own acceptance of music that is not Indian, that comes from outside my realm. I love to discover music that is not from my musical training in Indian music. I’ve embraced other types of music and incorporated them into my music. There was a reviewer in Canada that called me the “poster child for cross-cultural collaboration,” because I’ve been inviting so many different musicians to work with me, including Latin American percussionists, Afghani rubab players, Celtic fiddlers, and African Saharan blues guitarists. I want to continue expanding and thinking about how things integrate. So, my music isn’t traditional. It’s very contemporary. I’m open to the possibilities and influences available to me.