After a decade of scouring the world for daring collaborators capable of engaging with her highly refined creative vision, Indian-born vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia has turned her own band into a global sonic laboratory.
Steeped in Punjabi folk music and ghazals, a poetic Persian song form, she’s recorded with Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster, Portuguese fado guitarist José Manuel Neto, Tuareg desert rockers Tinariwen and some of New York’s finest jazz musicians (starting with her husband, the sterling Indian-American guitarist Rez Abbasi).
“It started off with having a passion for all these different genres,” says Ahluwalia, who performs Sunday at Cornish College of the Arts. “Then I started composing for the collaborations, and these influences haven’t left me.”
She’s still reaching out to an international array of artists, but now she’s brought a diverse cast in house, touring with one of the most interesting bands on the world music scene.
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The quintet features Abbasi on acoustic and electric guitars, Senegalese bassist Mamadou Ba, tabla expert Nitin Mitta and jazz accordionist Will Holshouser, best known as a member of David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness! and violinist Regina Carter’s similarly expansive Reverse Thread project.
A fairly recent addition to the band, Holshouser took over a spot previously filled by harmonium, an instrument traditionally employed by ghazal vocalists.
“At times in the ballads Will provides beautiful lush chords,” she says. “He can be very lyrical and melodic, and on the Punjabi folk songs, when I want to be more rambunctious, he can take it up 10 notches because of his background in klezmer.”
Born into a Punjabi family in the north Indian state of Bihar and raised mostly in Canada, Ahluwalia grew up attending ghazal concerts with her parents. A rigorous poetic form that usually consists of a series of couplets laced together by a precise rhyme scheme, ghazals originated in Persia and spread to India and Pakistan around the 15th century.
The topic of most ghazals is unrequited love, though many also explore mystical themes (the great 13th-century Farsi poet Jalaluddin Rumi was one of the form’s early masters).
From the beginning of her career, Ahluwalia has resisted all efforts to pin her down as a traditional artist.
She developed a repertoire of new songs by searching out Urdu poets in the Indian Diaspora and setting their lyrics to her original music.
Insisting that she’s “singing contemporary music, music written and composed today,” Ahluwalia is busy honing a transnational sound as fresh as tomorrow.
Andrew Gilbert: firstname.lastname@example.org