When singer Kiran Ahluwalia calls out the opening lines of the ghazal “Yeh Nahin,” penned by lyricist Rafi Raza, it’s easy to interpret them as a veiled reference to Raza’s sojourn from his birthplace of Pakistan to his adopted homeland of Canada. It’s a classic émigré’s lament, and one that the Indo-Canadian ghazalgo Ahluwalia explores fully (with help from Raza and other collaborators) on her new, self-titled CD (Triloka/Artemis).
On it, Ahluwalia sings ghazals and Punjabi folk songs gloriously, having been weaned on both as a youngster. These songs—called ghazalsshe—cultivate imagery and rely on metaphor, and their lyrics often have layers of hidden meaning. Ghazal is an Arabic word literally meaning “to talk to women,” and while the erudite intent is to explore facets of love, it’s really about being deemed “highly-literate pick-up lines.” These love songs blossomed in 10th century Persia before surfacing in India four centuries later. Considerably further on, Kiran Ahluwalia was born in Patna, Bihar in Northern India to Punjabi parents. The mobile family jumped from India to New Zealand and back again before landing in Toronto, Canada.
Unbeknownst to many Canadians, there are lively South Asian literary scenes in Canadian urban centers, where Indian and Pakistani poets write and read. Those, with attendance of sponsored concerts, plus dad’s reel-to-reel tapes of Indian music, would counteract a general lack of recordings in the area. While kids Ahluwalia’s age were doing things kids her age did, the seven-year-old was studying classical Indian music and (thanks to mom) learning lyrics from Bollywood radio shows.
Her musically-supportive parental units were happier still when Ahluwalia earned an MBA and became a bond trader in Toronto, but the call of ghazal triumphed and Ahluwalia quit her lucrative gig, much to her parents’ door-slamming dismay. Back to India she went, continuing her studies. Huddled in a phone booth during monsoon season in Bombay, Ahluwalia tracked down septuagenarian ghazal maestro Vithal Rao and convinced him to take her on. As a boy, Rao served the Nizam (King) of Hyderabad, prior to Indian independence when court musicians were employed to compose music for poetry.
As a student, Ahluwalia did not disappoint. She also visited her native Punjab, a rather large region shared by India and Pakistan, soaking up local songs to augment her repertoire. Once re-ensconced in Canada, Ahluwalia put in two years as Assistant General Manager of Putumayo World Music. Her debut album Kashish (Attraction) was released in the spring of 2001, and listeners began to notice. Her subsequent release Beyond Boundaries won the 2004 Juno Award for Best World Music Recording, and the transient Ahluwalia bagged the 2004 Canadian Arts Presenters Touring Artist of the Year.
Kiran Ahluwalia is her latest collection of ghazal and Punjabi favorites, and marks her true international debut. While Ahluwalia’s vocal and tanpura work is decidedly Indian, she honors her Canadian upbringing on two previously-unreleased collaborations with Cape Breton Celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster. Previous Indo-Celt merging has proven successful, and this is no exception. Guitar, harmonium, tabla and percussion accompany Ahluwalia’s sensual vocals in both Urdu and Punjabi. Established fans will be pleased to hear Ahluwalia classics: opener “Vo Kuch,” the pro-Punjabi-nose-ring “Koka” and the aforementioned rumination “Yeh Nahin.”
Lyricist Rasheed Nadeem wrote “Rahb da Roop” and, according to Ahluwalia, “It The can be about carnal or spiritual love. One interpretation is that they are about finally gaining enlightenment and losing one’s self, one’s ego, to discover only God.” Maestro Rao composed “Yaar,” which features lyrics by Bahadur Shah Zafa—a seminal ghazal by the last Emperor of Delhi, who was blamed by the B