Kiran Ahluwalia has made a priceless contribution to the world of music. She’s named her compositional style “Indo-Saharan” because it mixes Indian musical styles with the musical genres of North Africa. The result is a moving and thoroughly engaging body of work.
Born in India and raised in Canada, she now lives in New York. She completed an MBA at Dalhousie University before gradually making music a bigger part of her life until she found herself doing it fulltime.
Ahluwalia has been awarded two Junos, one in 2003 for her album Beyond Boundaries and the other for Aam Zameen (Common Ground), a collaboration with the singular Malian Tuareg band, Tinariwen, recorded in 2011.
You can read the Mindful Bard review of her latest album, Sanata (Stillness), here. Recently Ahluwalia was kind enough to answer our questions about her creative journey. You can read more of this interview here.
Do you remember when you first heard desert blues?
My very first conscious experience of listening to Desert Blues was at Harbourfront in Toronto. I’d gone to a concert at a certain venue with a huge room. Halfway through the concert I wasn’t really feeling it, so I left. I’d read that there was going to be some interesting music at Harbourfront, so I went there with my husband, Rez.
We heard only the last three songs of the legendary group Tinariwen, and right away we were both struck by the trance-like quality. I remember the simplicity of it all. It was only like three notes that they were doing at the time, but they were somehow the right three notes. It was the same repetitive groove, but oh, my— it was the right groove, and the right tempo. The simplicity of it all just entered our hearts.
I didn’t think anything of it, and I didn’t buy their CD. I just thought “that was really good,” and then I found myself going back to what they’d been playing on stage and humming it.
So, then I decided that I would buy one of their CD’s. I listened to it once, listened to it twice . . . It was very, very slowly that I literally fell in love with that kind of music.
So then I started to explore what they were and where they came from. I explored other bands in that tradition, and then I composed a song for my fourth CD, Wanderlust, a song influenced by Tuareg desert blues. I recorded that song, and there’s a video of it on YouTube.
Then I was on tour in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I happened to meet the producer of those Tinariwen records. I told him how much I loved them, and his work, and that I continued to compose for my Indian group but composed under the influence of Tuareg music.
He wanted to hear it, so when I got back home I sent him the CD. He called back and said, “You know what? You should do something with Tinariwen and another group.” I thought that that would be absolutely fabulous, and then I did the collaboration with Tinariwen and Terakaft in France.
That music stayed with me! I’ve collaborated with a lot of musicians, but this time it was as though the music never really left me. It wasn’t like doing a final collaboration and moving on to something else.
I went to Mali to be with more Malian musicians to perform in the desert. Since then I’ve performed with other Tuareg groups.
I continue to compose, listening to a lot of Tuareg, but also a bit of Gnawa , a bit of desert blues and desert music from Morocco, and now the broader spectrum of West African Malian music, as well.
You know, if I hadn’t been familiar with desert music, then I wouldn’t have remarked that this was a musical syncretism. I wouldn’t have noticed that there was a blend because the blend with Indian music is just so perfect.
Thank you! Did you know that that was what I was doing before you came to the concert, or did you pick that up at the concert?
When I was there listening, I said, “Okay, here’s somebody who’s been listening to desert music.” But then later when I researched you and read the term “Ind0-Saharan” I said, “Okay, she’s actually made it official.”
Okay, well that’s nice to hear that you heard it right off the bat, without any description.
You have an MBA, am I correct?
What gave you the personal courage to pursue a career as a singer and a composer? From what I can see, it’s still largely a man’s world out there.
I’d been learning music since I was a child and then before the MBA I was a full-time music student in India, so it was very much a part of my life, and after I completed my MBA in finance I was on Bay Street trading bonds, and I just simply hated it and left.
After I left, I met a dancer who’d heard that I wasn’t working, and she hired me for a national tour. That was a part of it, but I think that the turning point was my going to work in the cultural industry after I left trading bonds. I worked for CBC Radio, and then I was working in San Francisco at a world music record label called Putumayo World Music.
That’s a fantastic label. What did you do there?
At that time, I was their touring manager. They closed up their San Francisco shop; it was the beginning of the recession. They stopped doing CDs of single artists— they did only compilations. They stopped the touring of these single artists that they’d been promoting. So, my job was finished.
Instead of staying in the United States I came back to Canada at that point. In 2000 I recorded my first CD. I didn’t want to go back to India at that time, because I wanted to do something with everything I’d learned. So then when I recorded the first CD, I thought, “Okay, I’ll get it recorded, get it manufactured, and distribute it, and then I’ll start looking for a job.” Once I got the CD and people heard it I got a manager, and then I got an agent, and then the agent started getting me gigs.
Sounds like the world was just ready for you.
I thought at that point, “Well maybe I can take another one-year sabbatical, and maybe I don’t have to go to work right away.” That one year just kept rolling over and over, and now it’s been 16 years. It was never really a conscious decision, like, “This is what I’m going to do in my life.” I was just going project-by-project.
What conditions do you require in your life in order to nurture your creativity? Do you need quiet? Do you need busy-ness? Are you a consumer of art?
Definitely all of the above. I need to be a little busy, but at the same, when I’m creating I need time just for myself. Not to do administrative things for the next tour, but time to myself to go away and write. When I say “go away” it can be just walking to the park, or sitting outdoors on the patio, either with a coffee or wine or beer or whatever. Also, I definitely go see a lot of music and visual art myself. I go to see interesting movies, not so much Hollywood, but other types of movies. I read books as well, and am really influenced by them.
Whose books are you reading these days?
Right now I’m reading books by an Indian author by the name of R.K. Narayan. He won the Nobel Prize. I’m reading a thin little book of his right now. I’ve got a whole bunch of thin books of his from the last time I was India. Probably six or seven of them.
Those little talks at the concert, explaining each song, suggested that you may be a bit of an old soul. I remember you talking about the inner voice that sabotages you. You seem to have a very loving, compassionate kind of attitude, and I’m wondering if you think that it’s good for artists to have that, or should artists just be concerned only about their work?
Well, firstly, I think that all human beings should be compassionate and loving, not just artists. In art, there is really no “should,” I think. Artists should do whatever speaks to them. There is a Punjabi folk music that is all about being joyous and happy and dancing, and has a strong beat. It doesn’t really concern itself with suffering, but it elevates the listener.
It does relieve suffering, though.
Yes, it does. It elevates you to a joyous place and just puts a smile on your face whether you’re listening to it, dancing to it, watching it, or whatever.
Are you speaking of Bangra?
Yeah, exactly, Bangra.
Do you cultivate any kind of spirituality yourself?
I was born a Sikh. I call myself a Sikh, and I find peace when I go to the Sikh temple. I have a love-hate relationship with God, a maybe-you-exist, maybe-you-don’t kind of a relationship. I believe that we’re connected. We can’t ignore something horrible that’s happening to a group of people without having it come back to affect us negatively. Even though I’m a Sikh, I agree with a lot of the Buddhist philosophy says.
What really touches me in the Buddhist philosophy is that “Life is suffering,” which I agree with. I am a pessimist. I also agree with “There is a way out of suffering.”
I’ve written a bit about desert blues, more specifically, Tuareg and the Gnawa music, seeing the historical connection between that and the music of the northern Mississippi. I don’t know if you’re very familiar with R.L. Burnside or Jessie Mae Hemphill (they’ve both passed away). It’s very different from the traditional 12-bar blues that you hear in most blues songs. It’s a very modal blues, like desert blues.
How are the Mississippi musicians related to the Tuareg?
The slaves that arrived in that area during a certain period came from that West African desert blues tradition.
So, not specifically the Tuareg?
Nobody knows, but they do know that there were slaves from the desert area of Africa. The real evidence can be heard in the music. There’s a kind of blues in rural northern Mississippi in which you can hear similarities with desert blues.
Please send me those names!
I will; I think you’d find it fascinating.