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From India with love

Kiran Ahluwalia’s songs a link to another time, another place

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Who: Kiran Ahluwalia

What: MY Place/Whistler Arts Council Performance Series

Where: MY (Millennium) Place

When: Saturday, Nov. 13

Tickets: $17, $20

It’s tempting to employ the well-worn cliché "east meets west" to describe Indo-Canadian musician Kiran Ahluwalia.

Arguably it applies to the artist herself – a native of the Punjab region of India who moved to Canada at age nine, returned to India to study music in the 1990s, and currently resides in Toronto, describing the city as "home."

However, the artist points out, to describe her music as "east meets west" implies some sort of fusion. And a fusion artist she is not. Ahluwalia may be Canadian but her music is eastern to the core.

The lands of her ancestors are inspiring current sonic trends of ethnic-hop and yoga-tronica. But Ahluwalia goes beyond sampling, her crystal clear voice alternating between plaintive and soaring in her contemporary compositions of ghazals (pronounced "guzzles"), a thousand-year-old genre of Indian love poetry set to music.

Dating back to the Persian Empire circa 1000 AD, specifically the Indian subcontinent that is now India and Pakistan, ghazals were created as expressions of love, a metaphorical, contemplative flipside of the physical and visceral love portrayed by the Kama Sutra.

In addition to the ghazals the artist also regularly performs Punjabi folk songs. Says Ahluwalia: "My music is contemporary Indian music. Not traditional but not fusion either."

To put her ghazals in a western context, consider a working musician composing a contemporary Gregorian chant paying homage to the form and subject matter, but using modern language and original music.

Ahluwalia grew up listening to and performing music within the tight knit indo-community in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s, a community that often held cultural events in private homes, promoted through word of mouth. It was at these events she has said that she "got the itch."

A career in music was put on hold to attend and graduate from the University of Toronto. She then went to India to study music, first in Bombay, and later in the region of Hyderabad, where she was accepted as a pupil by the renowned Vithal Rao. The teacher is described as "one of the last living court musicians of the Nizam (King) of Hyderabad," and "a living link to the centuries old ghazal tradition."

Ahluwalia returned to Canada and since 2000 has devoted herself to recording and performing. She has released two albums: Kashish — Attraction, (2001) which was nominated for a Juno Award in the global music category, and Beyond Boundaries (2003), which took home the Best Global Recording honours in 2004. She has performed at world music festivals and other cultural showcases throughout Canada, India, and all over the world.

In March of 2002, Ahluwalia and her three-person ensemble were invited to perform in Lahore, Pakistan. Ten days before they were to leave kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl was executed by Pakistani terrorists. The region in turmoil, Ahluwalia and her supporting musicians were forced to re-evaluate whether or not they should risk performing in the country. In the end, Ahluwalia rallied her bandmates and convinced them that the show should go on.

"As Indians it’s very, very rare to be able to get a Pakistani visa, and vice versa," Ahluwalia said, mentioning continuing political unrest between the two countries since the partition following World War II. "So there’s that allure for the Indian performers, that if they didn’t go now they may never get to go."

As it turned out, Ahluwalia was received warmly by the Pakistani audience, though her nationality inspired some confusion. She wasn’t Pakistani, obviously. But she wasn’t Indian. She was... Canadian?

It was particularly interesting to see the audience respond to certain compositions that featured lyrics written by Pakistani Canadians.

"It was really exciting for me to present that work in Pakistan, to show them that this art form of ghazal is evolving outside the boundaries of their homeland," she said. "It doesn’t die when someone leaves Pakistan, in fact, it evolves."

Canadian grade school kids learn early on by rote that their country is a "cultural mosaic" as opposed to a "melting pot" like our neighbours to the south. Colourful language but what does it mean exactly?

Shining examples don’t come any brighter than Kiran Ahluwalia.

"I think I have evolved with Canada and evolved with India," Ahluwalia muses. "I’ve followed that cliché ‘take the best of both worlds.’ I take what I like of Indian contemporary culture and Indian art and I take what I like of Canadian culture. A lot of that is social etiquette; a lot of that is a view of the world.

"I take both sensibilities and I’m pretty happy with the blend that I have."

Accompanying Ahluwalia at MY Place next Saturday will be Rez Abbasi on acoustic guitar, Ashok Bidaye on harmonium and Ravi Naimpally on tabla. Local Indian restaurant Tandoori Grill will provide appetizers at the intermission.

The show begins at 8 p.m. For more information contact MY Place at 604-935-8410.

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