When Kiran Ahluwalia’s family moved to Toronto from India, she was nine years old. Not only was she experiencing culture shock, but even the adults she looked to for help were also grappling with a new culture, and a new life. Ahluwalia, however, found solace in Hindustani classical music, which she had been learning in India since the age of five. With a meshing of cultural influences while growing up in Canada, music has always given her solace, stirred her soul, and allowed an emotional release.
After having visions of a life without music as an adult, she decided to quit her job and move to India to dedicate herself to learning classical music. She did this off and on for 10 years before moving back to North America. While her first album had a very traditional Indian classical flavor, her style has morphed to encompass a variety of influences.
“My sense was to have my music be a reflection of my own character. I am Indian, I am also a Western person, and I want that to be reflected in my music,” she said.
Ahluwalia sees herself as a citizen of the world and loves to collaborate with musicians from other cultural traditions. It may be easy to call is fusion, but she prefers to characterize her music as a mix – modern Indian music serenaded by jazz and West African Blues. She will be playing this Sunday at The Triple Door. The Seattle Globalist had a chance to speak with Ahluwalia about her life and work. This interview has been modified for clarity.
Kamna Shastri: Your music is very South Asian influenced – was there ever a pressure to let go of the traditional influences while being a musician in the West?
Kiran Ahluwalia: Only an internal desire I would say. I had studied Indian music since the age of five and then I quit my job and went to Bombay and Hyderabad to study music. I’ve got to be pretty crazy to do that. My life revolved around music, Indian music. It had a hold on me, it was not going to let me go. And then I just wanted my music … to reflect my own character so that desire for it to be more a true reflection of who I am, that is why I chose to modernize my own writing. I started writing lyrics myself. I started composing for Western instruments, guitar and drum kit.
Shastri: When you decided to leave your job and go back to India to study music, what compelled you to do that? What did your family say?
Ahluwalia: I had been working for a year and I just got these kind of awake dreams and I would think about myself being 90 and on my deathbed. To be able to see the future so clearly if I continued on this path scared me because that is not the future I wanted. So the decision was really to go to India for one year to be a music student. So that was really the decision and my mom said I was stupid, my dad was angry. There was a lot of yelling a lot of crying. And I myself the night before going to India was not able to sleep because even after I had fought my parents and they finally agree to help me, even after all that, I myself was thinking am I making a mistake, because I had been fighting so many people telling me it was a mistake.
Shastri: What kinds of themes do you like to grapple with in your lyrics and your music?
Ahluwalia: Well my latest album, 7 Billion, the title song is called “Saat” and that is a song about cultural intolerance among the seven billion of us on the planet today. There are seven billion ways of doing things, all of them relevant for each of us, each with their own questions, each with their own answers, their own peculiarities. The goal is the same though, to be happy.
My themes are about the human condition. Equality. Freedom. A lot of my songs are about throwing away the rules, throwing away the societal prerequisites that women should have shame. So throwing away society’s rules, the rules of religion, the rules of society and freeing yourself from those stale relationships.
Shastri: When you write songs whether in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, or English, your lyrics are so lush and bring up a lot of imagery. What is the process of writing lyrics like for you?
Ahluwalia: I basically can switch into different languages pretty easily. Sometimes I am inspired by an issue, like with Saat. It had hit me, the cultural intolerance amongst us. So I thought through that one issue, the song was born. Other times, the melody comes to me first. And then there is always emotional stuff in your head anyways so you just sing the melody first and then the words will come out after that.
Shastri: Where did your interest in West African Blues comes from?
Ahluwalia: I listen to a lot of world music and all of the music I listened to and loved and I wanted to collaborate with them. I listened to this group called Tinariwen, from Mali and I wanted to collaborate with them. And once I collaborated with them, it just never left me. I really fell in love with the music from that region and basically from all over West Africa and Mali. And the jazz element is mostly from my husband who is also the musical director of my band, Rez Abbasi.
Shastri: Would you characterize it as fusion music?
Ahluwalia: I like the word hybrid. I would say the biggest marketing hurdle is how to describe my music. Its modern Indian music but when I say that there is no aural image that comes to your mind. No one can hear what that would sound like. So then really its something you have to listen to except people won’t listen to something unless you categorize it and give it a name. I say it is modern Indian songs influenced by West African blues and jazz. It’s a mouthful. But it’s a new genre that I am inventing on my own for myself and I don’t have a name for this genre.
Shastri: What is at the core of your music?
Ahluwalia: It’s an emotional outlet for me. When I am singing it for an audience, my goal is to have an emotional connection with the audience. Sometimes you can’t release your emotions with a set of words or by doing anything but a certain pattern of notes or a certain rhythm can help you release that emotion, whether it be happiness or melancholy.
Kiran Ahluwalia and her band will be performing on Sunday, December 8 at The Triple Door. Tickets: https://tickets.thetripledoor.net/eventperformances.asp?evt=1715
Listen to more of her music at www.kiranmusic.com.