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Review: Kiran Ahluwalia at the Mint

November 15, 2011 |  2:34 pm

Kiran Alhuwalia

With just a few notes and melodies, music has the ability to transport listeners across the world. At Indo-Canadian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia’s Monday performance at the Mint, she stoked up fiery wanderlust with sounds of Portugal, North Africa and India, enveloping the audience in the currents of her cross-cultural style.

Ahluwalia presented flavors of updated Indian folk songs and Sufi poetry, singing in the playful cadences of Urdu and Punjabi. She also dished out the pulsing rhythms of North African tuareg music found on her latest album, "Aam Zameen," which features collaborations with Saharan bands Terakaft and Tinariwen. Her transcontinental sound is powered by a four-piece band of bass, guitar, tabla and the harmonium, a hand-pumped organ. But at the center of the slightly jazzy, hybridized music is Ahluwalia’s voice.

Ahluwalia stood center stage with eyes closed, her right hand slowly rising to the rafters as if to drop rose petals or sprinkle sand, while her voice soared and swooped. On “Soch Ka,” her voice tiptoed and dashed across musical scales, as the droning notes of harmonium player Kiran Thakrar created textures with each exhale of the organ. Ahluwalia’s voice climbed high then lilted downward, warbling and wavering with melismic flourishes. Her carefully crafted vocals shifted from deliberate dissonance to harmony, oscillating between disorder and order, shoring beauty and discord upon each other. When her voice grew quiet, the sounds of the room became clear -- the bartenders scooping ice, cash registers printing receipts, busboys clinking plates -- but the audience was silently captivated by Ahluwalia’s siren songs.

Ahluwalia was born in India, but raised in Toronto. After earning her MBA, she decided to leave behind the business world to study music in India. For the next decade, she learned the craft of classical Indian singing. Her songs are fables and Punjabi poems called ghazals. Onstage, Ahluwalia embraced the role as storyteller. Before the incendiary tabla solo of virtuosic player Nitin Mitta that opens “Meri Gori Gori,” Ahluwalia explained the song’s meaning. “This is a song about a woman who looks down at her wrist, and realizes that it is bare,” she said, “and she wants her lover to put some bangles on it. She says yellow bangles, but she really wants some 24-karat ones.”

Before performing “Yaar Naal,” a breezy number backed with strumming guitar played by Ahluwalia’s husband, Rez Abbasi, she revealed the story behind the Sufi-style love song. “It’s a song about people who really like to drink,” she said, getting a cheer from the bar, “and just like drinkers can never quench their thirst, so too am I intoxicated with my beloved.”

When she announced the song “Mustt Mustt (Lost In His Work),” the audience gave a simultaneous coo of excitement and slight awe. It takes courage to attempt the song by Pakistani musical icon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but Ahluwalia delivered her most powerful performance with her take on the Qawwali classic, which intermixed lurching North African rhythms with her own soulful vocal acrobatics.

For another upbeat Saharan-inspired song driven by handclaps, “Raqba,” Ahluwalia said the song “takes stock of your life, when you’ve been walking along a path, and it looks like you’ve only been kicking up dust.” But for Ahluwalia, who endures an intercontinental tour schedule to satisfy a global thirst for her soul-stirring voice, a little dust is all part of the journey.


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Photo: Kiran Alhuwalia with her band. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times