Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia has moved away from her ghazal tradition and come up with a whole new musical genre: a Touareg-ghazal-qawwali fusion. She talks to Li Robbins about her new-found love for music from the Sahara. Photograph by Fernando Elizalde
On the face of it, Kiran Ahluwalia doesn’t have a whole lot in common with Touareg bands Tinariwen and Terakaft. On the one hand there’s Ahluwalia, born in India, raised mostly in Canada, based in New York City and best known for singing ghazals and Punjabi folk songs with sophisticated technique cultivated from years of disciplined study.
On the other, music from the Sahara desert, emerging in part out of oppression, and possessing a rock’n’roll sensibility and a famously hypnotic groove.
Nonetheless, Ahluwalia’s new recording focuses on connecting the two. The album is called Aam Zameen: Common Ground.
Even those most closely involved in the project acknowledge the seeming disconnect – for instance Justin Adams, (famed for work with both Tinariwen and Robert Plant), who produced the collaborative tracks on the album.
‘There are lots of differences,’ Adams says by email. ‘But it was Kiran’s passion that convinced me .’
Her passion was ignited by a chance encounter. On a night off from gigging in Toronto, she decided to go out and hear what other musicians were up to. Disenchanted by the sounds at one venue, she headed randomly for another. Tinariwen were playing there, and she had never heard them before.
“I was struck by them right away,” recalls Ahluwalia. “Some music may be very good and technically proficient but it stops here.” She gestures towards her heart. “It doesn’t enter you even though it’s beautiful. But Tinariwen’s music entered my heart.”
Ahluwalia tells me this story with such enthusiasm you’d think it happened yesterday. In fact, that Tinariwen concert was over six years ago. We’re in a little Greek coffee shop in Toronto, mid-Canadian tour for her new album. It’s minus 20 degrees Celsius outside, but 900 plus fans have braved the weather to hear her in concert at the prestigious Koerner Hall. She doesn’t want to talk about the tour as much as her addiction to Touareg music though.
“After I first heard them,” she says, “I couldn’t shake off that sound. First it inspired a composition, ‘Teray Darsan,’ which ended up on the album I was working on at the time, Wanderlust [winner of the 2009 Songlines Newcomer Award]. I bought their CDs, and played them on tour when it was my turn to DJ in the tour van. And then I met their then producer Justin Adams, and I told him all about my obsession. We started a conversation overseas, England to New York. He turned me on to other Touareg groups, and I started doing a lot of research on the music. This project has been a very long time in the making.”
Adams sent Ahluwalia’s recording to Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, founder of Tinariwen, and the excitement was reciprocated – something that thrilled but surprised her.
“I didn’t think they would like my voice. Their sound is very earthy and gritty. Really I didn’t know what they would think.”
They finally came together in Paris for a recording session of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan classic, ‘Mustt Mustt.’ Ahluwalia thought certain musical elements – the clapping and chorus singing – might work well for all concerned, but there was also a conceptual appeal.
“I thought it would be a neat idea to take a song that is a classic in the Sufi Muslim tradition of Pakistan and interpret it with Muslims from the African Sahara. You know, we’ve got harmonium and tabla on it and here we interpret it with electric guitars and electric bass and djembé and joyous Touareg calling out.”
Still, walking into the Paris studio was walking into a big unknown. Adams, however, had confidence.
‘By that time I knew that Kiran is very flexible, intelligent, and talented as a singer. I also was, and remain, a massive Tinariwen fan. I wasn’t sure how they would be playing a song that wasn’t theirs, with a singer they didn’t know. But when they saw that Kiran just wanted them to play in their own way, and that the groove of ‘Mustt Mustt’ fits a Touareg rhythm perfectly, they were comfortable, and I knew we had something good .’
Until then, Ahluwalia’s impression of Tinariwen was of “rebels and rock’n’rollers.” The reality of the encounter was otherwise.
“They were such beautiful people, so gentle,” she says. “Ibrahim really cared about what I thought of his playing, and he really listened to my singing. He was much more involved than I thought he would be.” The scene was, she says “a three-day party.”
Since the Paris session they’ve all kept in touch, persevering through the difficulties of communications with the Sahara (no cell phone access, but via Skype and Facebook when band members are elsewhere). Some of the band members subsequently recorded on other tracks on the album when the band were performing in North America, and she performed with them on some of their New York dates.
“There’s a strong emotional bond,” she says. “What I call an ethnic bond. To me, it was like they were Indians. And they said I look Touareg. So it was as if, to each other, we were not from different cultures.”
Prior to the Paris session Ahluwalia also recorded with the band Terakaft, for whom she composed songs based on Touareg rhythms, two with her own original lyrics, a first. “They’re not ghazals,” she’s quick to explain. “I would call them Indian contemporary songs.”
The bond Ahluwalia feels with Touareg musicians manifests itself through some of the lyrics on the album too. Her version of Tinariwen’s ‘Matadjem – Waris Shah,’ for example, with a chorus in Tamashek and new Punjabi lyrics by Amrita Pritam.
“I was mesmerised by that song. The words are about civil strife in the Touareg community. They’re trying to fight a common enemy, the oppression of the Algerian and Malian governments, and yet they’re fighting among themselves. Ibrahim’s writing that it’s you who has to come together and fight this oppression. To me that spoke of the loss of brotherhood that I feel India and Pakistan have experienced with partition. I instantly connected it with a Punjabi poem written by Amrita about partition. Partition still resonates with me, my parents saw the bloodshed.”
So it seems the ‘common ground’ is to be found in a number of ways and in a number of places. Justin Adams views it like this: ‘There’s a natural loping groove, and a driving melody based on a drone. Soulful, human improvisations – the idea of music using these tools to get to the heart, via the body.’
For Ahluwalia, the common ground was hitherto unexplored territory. “I think we’re creating a new genre. I mean, with ‘Mustt Mustt’ we took the qawwali genre, we took the Touareg genre, we took me, who is not a qawwali singer, and created a new type of music that didn’t exist.”
It also created in Ahluwalia a sense of significant personal evolution. “Tinarwen taught me to let go of the concept of perfection, to let what happens happen. It was a life changing experience for me.”