International Singer Kiran Ahluwalia
Brings Indian Music Around the Globe
World music artist Kiran Ahluwalia has crisscrossed
the globe with her South Asian-influenced sounds. With four albums
drawing from ghazals and Punjabi folk songs, Ahluwalia's work has
been recognized with a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a
Grammy. Ahluwalia chatted with ABCDlady about her musical style,
influences and professional development.
Tell me a little bit about your sound and style
I sing what I describe as contemporary Indian music. I make the
distinction that it is contemporary because a lot of people think
that it's traditional. And the word "traditional" is very ambiguous
to me. I don't know if it was music done 3,000 years ago, 300 years
ago or 30 years ago. I compose most of my songs, and I'm alive right
now. The lyrics to the songs that I compose, many of them are written
by poets living in North America, living in Canada, some living
in India. And so we're all alive, and I call it contemporary Indian
music. The style that my music is based on is ghazal – that
would be folk song. Then again, I'm not presenting ghazal in the
traditional way. My music is influenced by my multi-layered culture,
being born in India, brought up in Canada, then going back to India
as an adult. I'm very much a part of these two countries and that's
represented in my music. But beyond that, I'm also a citizen of
the world, so the whole world is there for me to be influenced by.
So if I like Portuguese Fado and I want to include it in my music,
then I go ahead and do that, as I did in Wanderlust, the
You got very interested in music when you were
a very little girl; let's talk about the genesis of that.
My parents were both ghazal singers and they sang ghazals and had
parties where they would have dinners and like-minded friends, who
would also sing ghazals after or before dinner, and so I was surrounded
by people singing. They would take me to concerts in India and Toronto,
where we later immigrated. So with my parents, part of the declaration
of life was music.
What were the concerts like for you as a little girl?
At the ghazal concerts, I was often, if not always, the only child
because the subject matter of ghazal is beyond the scope of a child.
But I loved that environment. I loved the way the melodies lilted
over the rhythm and the softness of it, so I never complained, "Oh,
I want to go home now." So I was quite content, not understanding
the words but totally getting fulfillment from the music and everything
else from those nights.
When did you realize that you had a talent for this?
As a child, I started singing Sikh hymns at religious functions. Maybe I was like 8 or 9 and people started commenting, "Oh, you have a good voice," so I guess I got my first little encouragement at a young age.
What was your parents' reaction
when they found out you'd be doing this as a career?
Even before it was a career, when I started to get more passionate
about it, like in the late '80s, after I finished my graduation
from the University of Toronto in an academically different subject
– International Relations – I announced that I wanted
to go to India to be a full-time student of music because all of
my life, until then, music had been an extracurricular activity
– I'd done it part-time. So when I announced that, they [my
parents] were totally upset: doors were slammed, tears were shed,
it was a terrible rough patch. They thought it was a terrible mistake
for me to do that. They didn't see any monetary security in it,
and they didn't think that, living in Canada, learning Indian music
was going to be an asset for my resume. And so they were quite upset
and we had lots of arguments, but before I boarded the plane, they
came around and understood that I was going to do this no matter
what. And so they started helping me. They started helping me shop;
they helped me find a place in Bombay to live. They came on board,
in hindsight, relatively quickly. For more than ten years, I kept
bouncing back between India and Canada. I would stay in India for
a year and do music full-time, and then I would come back to Canada
and do something else for a year. And then I'd go back and forth
and back and forth. In 2000, when I was working at a world music
record label, Putumayo, in San Francisco… I left that position
because they were closing that office. At that point, it was my
parents who told me to come to Toronto and record my first commercial
release, Kashish Attraction. They were a stimulus for that;
otherwise, I might have just stayed in San Francisco and New York,
and perhaps just kept working for a record label.
How did working
at Putumayo, help you develop professionally?
I was very lucky because Putumayo was the largest world music label
in North America, and I was wearing many hats. I was like the No.
3 in command there and they employed about 40-50 people. At times
I was involved in distribution, at times in marketing or finance.
There were many, many things that I could see. But mainly it was
the grassroots effort that Putumayo made to put non-world music
listeners into the realm of listening to world music. And those
grassroots efforts of outreach and different unique types of marketing,
those were probably things that I couldn't have got at other labels.
You have a following in Europe. What are your
experiences traveling abroad and getting your music to different
They've been amazing experiences. Europe, generally, is much more
open to world cultures in many ways. Europe is Europe and America
is America, and they are different. Parts of America are absolutely
wonderful – the West Coast, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles
are very kind to us – but in Europe there is much more of
a curiosity and a desire to not only learn from another culture,
but to be able to get fulfillment and joy from other cultures. So
we quite like it. We're going back three times this year so far.
The tours are still being expanded, but so far we've got France,
the Netherlands, London, perhaps Sweden, Switzerland. And I'm the
vocalist in my husband's – Rez Abbasi – jazz group,
and he's the guitarist in my group. With his group, we're going
to Eastern Europe – Prague and Poland – and we're also
heading over to Dublin.
What are your proudest professional achievements
and what's on your to-do list?
In terms of professional achievement, there's the Juno Award, which
is the Canadian Grammy. That was really amazing to get that award.
In terms of what to do, I pretty much try not to be obsessed with
a destination. I have a destination in mind, but I really like to
enjoy the journey and make efforts to do that, to enjoy the journey.
And then you pick up a lot of beautiful things that make you feel
accomplished when you are able to enjoy the journey.
Do you have advice for women
who have their own dreams about things they'd like to do creatively
Don't let fear stop you. One friend of mine said he really admired
that I went to India at such a young age, not knowing a single soul
in the city that I was going to, not even having a place to stay
until I landed. He said, "I'm amazed that you're not afraid." I
said, "I have fear just like you, I just don't let it get in the
way." That's the key factor, you will feel fear, it's natural. But
don't let it stop you.
Kiran's next concert is in Seattle at the Kirkland
Performance Center on April 11 as part of the Namaste series. For
more info, visit: http://www.kpcenter.org/.
For more on Kiran, visit her official Web site
To become a Facebook fan, visit: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kiran-Ahluwalia/42633523228?sid=217bb0941384fb35e8625a67a1273b05&ref=search
You can also check out Kiran's MySpace page at: http://www.myspace.com/musickiran
Elaine G. Flores is a New York-based writer and editor, who specializes in covering beauty, style and entertainment.
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