Journey from Kiran Ahluwalia’s debut album Kashish-Attraction through to her latest Sanata: Stillness, and you’ll trace the unique evolution of an award-winning singer-composer who has entranced listeners around the world by crossing musical borders with fearless grace and sure-footed artistry.
Ahluwalia calls Sanata “a fruition of musical ideas I’ve been building up.” Those ideas are rooted in the Indian and Pakistani forms she’s been involved with her whole life – most notably the ancient, love-and-pain, rhyming-couplets-and-refrain form of the ghazal. The songs also reflect a more personal integration of the Saharan desert blues sounds that emerged on her fourth CD Wanderlust (2007). “I fell head-over-heels for this sound,” she recalls. “This electric-guitar-heavy, mellow-yet-groovy African blues resonated with me, and I started exploring it intensely.” Her fifth album, the JUNO Award-winning Aam Zameem: Common Ground (2011), saw her collaborate with two Saharan Tuareg bands, and the adventure continues.
“I never dreamed I could be a musician full-time.”
“With Sanata: Stillness, I’m creating this hybrid without Tuareg musicians, approaching it from an Indian music standpoint, but contained within my band,” she says. Digging into that canon of Saharan blues and Indian music, Ahluwalia latches onto rhythm before the melody and words progress too far, taking her ideas to acclaimed guitarist-arranger Rez Abbasi for a creative back-and-forth before bringing tabla, keyboards, and jazz elements into the mix.
Sanata: Stillness sees Ahluwalia’s lyric-writing come to the fore. “On my first three CDs, I found exceptional ghazal poets in Toronto, people who were born in Pakistan and whom I would not have met had I not moved here, so I was lucky to have such a treasure chest of lyrics,” she explains. But as her sonic palette has expanded over her most recent three albums, Ahluwalia found herself crafting lyrics more often. “I started writing lyrics to fit the melodies I was creating because there was a need,” she explains.
For Ahluwalia, music has been a serious pursuit since early childhood. Her study of music began in India and continued in Toronto, where she moved with her family at age nine. After graduating university and a brief work stint, she studied music full-time in India for a year.
“Then the bug bit me,” laughs Ahluwalia, now based in New York. For a decade she moved between India, where she would spend several months of intense study, and Canada, where she’d work to save up for her next trip. All the while, she was performing and building her repertoire. “I never dreamed I could be a musician full-time,” she explains. “I wanted to live in Canada, and thought I could never make a living singing in another language.”
Ahluwalia may translate the Urdu lyrics of her songs for the liner notes, but her music conveys meaning with an eloquence that transcends language and goes straight to the heart.
Turning the Page
Commissions from other artists – specifically dancer Jahanara Ahklaq and violinist Parmela Attariwala –marked a crucial turning point for Ahluwalia. “It got me going,” she says. “I was being pushed to do something for myself, but I found it difficult, partly because my training in Indian classical music had been about improv. Then along came these people who had certain criteria, and deadlines, and more faith in me than I had in myself at that time. After that, I loved composing.”