The calm resonance of Sufi music meets earthy vocals in Kiran Ahluwalia's performance. An MBA who gave up a nine-to-five job, strained her purse and drained her energy to pursue her musical passions in India, Ahluwalia has been gathering up a storm, winning accolades in Canada and over the world.
The Indo-Canadian artist is a believer in hybrid music. "I don't like the word 'fusion' as in America, people refer to the music of the '60s and '70s as 'fusion'. I was born in India, brought up in Canada and live in New York City; I consider myself a hybrid person and endeavour to create hybrid music as it reflects my personality and character," says Ahluwalia, who was in Mumbai for Canada's National Day on June 27. The performance saw a tabla keep tune to a guitar as the singer added life to the melodies with her vocals in numbers like Hayat and Mustt Mustt.
"Using my Indian traditions as a base, I combine it with Sub-Saharan music, jazz, Moroccan or Algerian music, among others. I am greatly influenced by the music of the Sahara desert," adds Ahluwalia, who was born in Patna, grew up in Delhi and moved to Toronto at the age of nine. She would initially sing traditional ghazals but soon wanted to make her own statement through her music.
"Apart from being an Indian, I am a citizen of the world and I want to my music to reflect that," she says. A firm believer in cultural and musical integration, Ahluwalia thinks it has something to do with the fact that she is "two cultures in one person".
Creating hybrid music is not easy. "We first work on the rhythm, build it and perfect it. I try to use music if I it touches my heart, be it music from Portugal or Algeria or any corner of the world," says the winner of Canada's JUNO Award.
The early days of Ahluwalia's musical career had sowed the seeds. "I used to participate at Canadian folk festivals during the summer. In these festivals, one is put on stage with four or five other bands and expected to jam with them. At first, I thought to myself, 'Oh my God! What is this going to sound like?' You have no time to prepare with the bands beforehand, and so it is all new to you. I asked myself, 'how do I fit into their music and how does their music fit into mine?'" Little did Ahluwalia know that she would one day be fusing Tuareg music with Indian ghazals.
Music might have been Ahluwalia's calling, but she only chanced upon it later in life. After completing an MBA, she worked as a human resource professional and was gearing up to climb the corporate ladder. "I had been working for two years and I could see my future down to every detail. I could see my house in the suburbs, imagine the colour of the carpeting, everything. This scared me no end and I asked myself, when I am 90 years old and lying on my deathbed, what would I have done with my life?"
The questions troubled Ahluwalia so greatly that she quit her job for a year and travelled to India to learn music. Doors were slammed, tears were shed, and Ahluwalia's parents stood against her decision; her boss also told her it was a wrong move. But when they realised that she could not be deterred, they gave in.
For 10 years, Ahluwalia flip-flopped between working and learning music. She would learn music for a year or two in India under the tutelage of her guru Vithal Rao and then go back to Canada and work. In 2000, Ahluwalia released her first commercial CD and started getting invites to perform at concerts. It's been 14 years since, and there's been no looking back.
Last year, she collaborated with the acclaimed band Tinariwen for the album Aam Zameen (Common Ground). Always up for a new challenge, Ahluwalia says, "I have never done Bollywood and would love to make music for Bollywood. I think music in Indian cinema is one of the best examples of fusion music. We take the best of things all over the world and then give it our own touch."