The first I ever heard of Kiran Ahluwalia was her stunning rendition of the qawwali standard “Mustt-Mustt” backed by Tinariwen on a recording from what turned out to be the final Festival au Desert. Ahluwalia was born in India, raised in Canada and currently living in New York City. She is a student and practitioner of traditional singing of India and Pakistan, which she uses as a starting point in her own music. As she did in that Festival in the Desert performance, she embraces the desert blues of Mali, but she also incorporates Western idioms like the blues, rock, R & B and even a little jazz, into her own new hybrid artform.
On her seventh release 7 Billion she’s backed by electric guitar, accordion, organ, tabla and drum kit, and every one of the six tracks mixes her influences in slightly different ways. The songs address civil war (both real and metaphoric), female desire and shame, and themes of love and desire, as well as a certain rage at the world’s power structures.
The album opens on that topic with “Khafa,” which has a definite Malian feel to it including a circular pattern played on a clean electric guitar. Ahluwalia says the song, whose title means “Up In Arms,” is a call to set aside the religious strictures and orthodoxies that blind us to one another’s humanity.
It closes with a galloping song whose lyrics are a Pakistani Urdu feminist poem from the 1990s called “We Sinful Women.” It was originally developed for a dance performance and featured flute, sax, sarangi and tabla, but here she’s rearranged it as a gritty rocker with a sinuous organ line, Malian-style guitars and driving beat from tabla and traps.
The topper for me is “Saat,” or “Seven,” a reference to the planet’s seven billion inhabitants that supplies the album with its title. The prominently featured accordion echoes Ahluwalia’s sinuous vocal style on this song that explores cultural intolerance.
“It is a theme close to my personal experience,” she says. “As an immigrant child the hardships we faced were touted as temporary – the effects were permanent. On the one hand, I developed a wonderful double culture – two sets of wardrobe and multiple languages to think in. On the other, I developed conflicting etiquettes and ways of doing things that were neither ‘fully’ Indian nor ‘fully’ Canadian.
“The earth now holds seven billion people; for me this means there are seven billion unique ways of interpreting things,” she says. “Yet wherever we live, the majority’s way of doing things becomes the norm; and whatever is different and foreign can be easily mistrusted. The consequence in a large immigrant based population such as ours is cultural intolerance and difficulty in embracing newness.”
To which I say “amen.” Embrace some cultural newness with Kiran Ahluwalia’s 7 Billion.
(Six Degrees, 2018)