Asian Music and Dance

Kiran Ahluwalia

The Bristol, UK-based Asian Arts Agency’s announcement that Kiran Ahluwalia was making her London concert debut at long last was a cause for genuine excitement. Since the Toronto-based singer released Kashish – Attraction, her 2001 recording debut of ghazal and Punjabi folk songs, she has been seen to be a talent to follow. A whole stream of traditional, modern and cosmopolitan influences has shaped her music and musical mind. But what it boils down to is that, in a complex and pretty complete sense, she is a child of the South Asian diaspora. Born to Punjabi parents in Bihar in 1965, she and her parents crossed continents. Five years in New Zealand and a return to India preceded settling in Canada in 1974.

Her travels and studies provided her with an out-of-the-ordinary cultural wherewithal and keen original perspectives. These are reflected in her singing, song delivery and abilities to get under the skin of poetic forms such as geet and ghazal. Her song sensibilities were tempered in Toronto’s mushiara – poetry gatherings – at which she discovered the poetry’s potential for contemporary relevance and allegory. For example, ‘Tamana’ (‘Desire’) is, she clarified, about female sexuality and shame-avoidance. The also-unreleased ‘Sanatta’ (‘Stillness’) is (how modern!) “basically […] a break-up song”. Her fondness is for one-word or snappy titles.

This performance allowed fingers to uncross. She utterly vindicated hopes of delivering something in concert beyond what she has delivered in the recording studio. Truly in her element on stage, she coloured lines with waves of the arms and facial gestures. During the Punjabi folk song ‘Meri Gori Gori’ (‘My Fair One’) she swayed her arms, still lacking the wished-for yellow gold wrist bangles in the lyrics. She sashayed with post-giddha dance steps and once even hopped in one-legged fashion like a Punjabi Chuck Berry duck-walk fantasy.

In terms of her type of repertoire, she is in an arc of development that arguably starts with the post-Partition Pakistani Gypsy folk singer Reshma. Reshma also sang across the centuries while bringing contemporary arrangement values, instrumentation and ideas to her material. Next came the London-based Najma Akhtar whose arrangements added jazz-inflected saxophone and funk-bass elements to ghazal vehicles on Qareeb (‘Closeness’ or ‘Nearness’, 1987) and Atish (‘Fire’, 1989). A musically-omnivorous gig-goer, Najma was in the audience – as was, perhaps a portent of things to come, Gurinder Chadha of Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife direction and production repute. 

Last in this mini-sequence of ear-openers is Kiran Ahluwalia. With a tight four-piece band behind her, Ahluwalia ran through songs that touched base with much of her now fourteen-year professional singing career. The band was marvellously in tune with her emotionally. Rez Abbasi on semi-hollow body D’Angelico (re-issue model) and Ovation electric guitars and Nikku Nayar on Sadowsky electric bass guitar provided the contemporary tonal palette and vocal reinforcements. Nitin Mitta on tabla (who shone in his solo prelude to ‘Meri Gori Gori’) and Kirin Thakrar on harmonium supplied the more desi rhythmical and melodic underpinnings. 

Her introductions were peppered with insights. Take the first set closer, ‘Musst Musst’ – one of the evening’s highlights. A qawwali popularised by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it is to do with “getting intoxicated with the Divine”. Her stripped-back interpretation of ‘Musst Musst’ was closer to the sensitivity of Reshma’s version known as ‘Dum Mast Qalandar’ (a title NFAK also used). It and the slinky encore ‘Rabba Ru’ (‘To The One’) demonstrated how empathetic an ensemble she has around her. It all augured well for Kiran Ahluwalia’s return to Europe in 2015 to promote what will be her European debut album for the UK-based Arc label.



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