She puts the world into her music

Boston Globe, November 19, 2011

NEW YORK – In the course of five albums, the singer Kiran Ahluwalia has blended the Indian classical and folk forms that are her specialty into collaborations with Portuguese fado musicians, the Celtic fiddle of Natalie MacMaster, the Inuit throat singing of Tanya Tagaq, and more. For Ahluwalia, such partnerships across genre and culture aren’t an experiment, or a social commentary on our times, or a producer’s cute idea, or a pitch to gain new listeners.

They are a personal necessity.

“The needing of collaboration comes because we ourselves are collaborations of culture,” says Ahluwalia. “We’re not pure. I collaborate in the kitchen: I make Japanese soy bean curry, Indian style. I think in English, or in Hindi – or French. Our lives are collaboration, because we don’t belong to one culture.”

It’s a fair self-assessment. Ahluwalia was born in India, raised in Toronto, and lives in New York, where she performs on both the world music and jazz circuits. On her newest, most confident album, “Aam Zameen: Common Ground,” she has turned her ear to the desert, joining her working band with the great Tuareg bands Tinariwen and Terakaft. Gambian ritti (one-string fiddle) player Juldeh Camara appears as well, as does Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar.

Ahluwalia calls herself a “collaboration junkie,” and not just for the guests she brings onto her albums. Her own band, which she brings to Johnny D’s tomorrow night with the addition of Rob Curto on accordion, is itself a study in roots and hybridity.

On one hand, all five regular members have family origins in India or Pakistan, and are comfortable with the ghazals – a hallowed genre of Indo-Persian devotional love songs -and Punjabi folk songs that form the core of Ahluwalia’s material.

On the other hand, while Nitin Mitta on tabla and Kiran Thakrar on harmonium supply the classic accompaniment for Indian vocals, Nikku Nayar on electric bass and Rez Abbasi on electric and acoustic guitars dramatically widen the landscape, creating room for bold new arrangements of traditional songs as well as new compositions.

At a recent CD release show in New York for “Aam Zameen,” the band wove together virtuoso tabla drumming with searing guitar work with a jazz-rock bent: Abbasi, the band’s music director and Ahluwalia’s husband, is a jazz guitarist of growing renown.

Ahluwalia, who performs standing instead of in the formal seated pose of Indian playing, offered sassy, self-deprecating stories to introduce each song. At one point, she got the audience to follow her lead in vocalizing a syllable in increasingly complex ways – a building-block of Indian singing that a club audience is rarely invited to attempt.

Beneath the playfulness, of course, rests deep technique. Ahluwalia set aside a career in finance when she decided to return to India and immerse herself in music. Her now-octogenarian ghazal teacher, Vithal Rao, was one of the last court musicians of the Nizam, or ruler, of Hyderabad. Ahluwalia still visits him yearly to advance her training.

Despite five albums and a dozen years of performance and touring, she says she’s still working toward singing the way she wants to sing.

“I have a sonic image of what I want to sound like, and I want to always move toward that image,” she says. “I am always working on a very open-throat, unencumbered, effortless kind of singing where I visualize the air just coming out of my pipes.”

Ahluwalia may see her craft as work in progress, but what she does was enough to seduce the members of Tinariwen when they met her in a Paris studio for a session that Ahluwalia had sought, and that was organized by former Tinariwen producer Justin Adams.

“The way she sings conveys nostalgia,” says Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche. “It made us all miss our home. We found our musical point of connection, and it all happened very naturally. The way she presented her songs, it was very easy to work with her.”

The sentiment is mutual. A highlight of “Aam Zameen” is a long version of “Mustt Mustt,” a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan classic, featuring Tinariwen. “That was definitely one of the coolest experiences of my life, and I’ve collaborated a lot,” Ahluwalia says.

The connection was quicker and fuller than any she’d had in what can be the forced setting of a studio session among near-strangers. In Paris, the Tuareg musicians improvised lyrics in their language, Tamashek, to Ahluwalia’s Urdu, and she returned the favor.

“No one told them to clap, no one told them to sing, but Eyadou just gets up on the chair and dances, he doesn’t know my words but he’s singing behind me. We do a 20-minute song and after that there are no worries. It’s going to happen.”

Now, Ahluwalia says, anytime she meets up with Tinariwen, she ends up backstage in a long jam session with their singer Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. This coming January she will play with them at the famous Festival in the Desert in Mali.

It all validates Ahluwalia’s view that an excess of reverence for one’s own or another’s tradition should never get in the way of crossing borders to make great music. There is such a thing as too much respect, she says.

“I’m a citizen of the world,” Ahluwalia says. “Other influences are open for me to take in. I don’t have to stick to Canada or India, I can incorporate any other piece of culture into my character and personality.”