Newcomer: Kiran Ahluwalia
Album: Wanderlust (World Connection)
“This is the first time you’ve had the Songlines Music Awards, right?” asks Kiran Ahluwalia down the phone from the US. She’s the winner in the Newcomer category, inevitably the one that’s going to throw up interesting new names. “Wow,” she gasps, “I’ve been part of history-making with Songlines.”
Sometimes a record turns up that just gets under your skin. There’s the warm, silky voice which twists and slips seductively around a yearning melody and the sweet tingling sound of Portuguese guitar and accordion. And that’s just the first song. Other numbers on Wanderlust are accompanied by more typical Indian instruments like tabla and sarangi, as the voice swoons and subtle harmonies slip one to another. Ahluwalia creates an intoxicating world of heightened emotions – something that ghazal singers in India have been doing for hundreds of years. But Wanderlust is different.
I hesitate to call it a fusion record, because it’s not. There’s something more subtle going on here. But perhaps it’s not surprising that Ahluwalia is open to many influences given her peripatetic upbringing. She was born in India, but moved around between Patna, the capital of India’s poorest state, Bihar, and New Delhi. Her family is Sikh, but she was educated in a Catholic school. “We listened to the radio and a lot of records at home – ghazals and Bollywood,” Ahluwalia recalls. “My mum would write down songs from the radio and I would try and memorise them. Some were quite erotic and my mother got embarrassed about the words.” At the same time she was singing Sikh hymns in the temple every Friday.
She left India, aged nine, for Toronto, Canada, where she befriended an Italian girl: “Sikhs and Catholics have similar attitudes to bringing up girls – strict, basically.” When she was at high school, “once I got fed up of playing my ABBA and Bee Gees records, I’d listen to records of the very best ghazal singers like Jagjit Singh, Vithal Rao [who became her teacher], Ghulam Ali and Shobha Gurtu [mother of Trilok].” She ended up doing a degree in international relations: “But music was always a passion, a strong passion.”
After graduating, Ahluwalia went back to India to seriously study music eight hours a day with a strict teacher, Padma Talwalkar, in the time-honoured Indian way. “If you got something wrong, it’s quite possible you’d get a slap, or something thrown at you,” she says. “I’d close my eyes and get lost in the music and then I’d get a sudden shock as something hit me.” Ahluwalia went back and forth between Canada and India for more than a decade.
In North America she worked as a touring manager for Putumayo artists and then decided to start singing professionally. She released records in Canada: Kashish Attraction in 2001 and Beyond Boundaries in 2003 (which won a JUNO Award, Canada’s Grammy); and then Kiran Ahluwalia (taking tracks from the previous two) got international attention in 2005. But it is last year’s beautifully produced Wanderlust (World Connection/Times Square) that is her first proper international release and responsible for the Songlines Music Award. It’s soon to be released in India by Saregama
Ghazal music isn’t particularly widely known in the West, but these romantic songs are hugely popular in North India and Pakistan – the form arrived, like the Mughals, from Persia and Central Asia. In India today they are heard continually in films and performed as popular and light-classical songs. Ahluwalia sings in Urdu and Punjabi and, whether performing old poetry or contemporary lyrics, she gives them a new twist. “My music is a representation of my personality and my character,” she adds. “Beyond my birth in India and growing up in Canada and now living in New York, I’m a person of the world and the world is there to influence me – whether it’s Portuguese fado or trancey African grooves. I don’t only sing traditional songs, I want to create a new genre.”
© Simon Broughton, originally published in the June 2009 #60 issue of Songlines