A Characteristically Rapturous Album and a Rare Outdoor Show by Magical Singer Kiran Ahluwalia
Singer Kiran Ahluwalia is one of the world’s great musical individualists. Her cool, clear, lustrous vocals are distinctive, blending the soaring peaks and hairpin-turn melismas of Indian music with the introspection of Pakistani ghazals. She’s carved out a niche for herself as a cross-pollinator, a woman of Indian extraction singing Pakistani and Malian melodies. Her latest album, Sanata: Stillness is streaming at Spotify, and she has a rare outdoor show on July 22 at 7 PM at Madison Square Park.
Ahluwalia’s not-so-secret weapon on the new album is her husband, guitarist Rez Abbasi, who does a one-man Tinariwen impersonation with his bristling pull-offs and spark-shedding, minutely nuanced, reverbtoned rhythm. That should come as no surprise, since Abbasi’s playing can be as protean as his wife’s vocals – and also because Ahluwalia featured Tinariwen on her previous album. The opening track sets the stage perfectly, an undulating, mystical Saharan groove, Ahluwalia’s Punjabi vocals sailing over her bandmates’ practically sinister low harmonies. Throughout the album, Nikku Nayar and Rich Brown take turns on bass, each contributing tersely tasteful low end. Nitin Mitta plays tabla, Mark Duggan alternates between vibraphone and percussion and Kiran Thakrar adds color with his harmonium.
Jaane Na – meaning “Nobody Knows” – is a scrambling, scurrying, funk-tinged number, a metaphorically-charged contemplation of personal demons and how to conquer them; it’s a lot closer to Abbasi’s brand of spiky guitar jazz than anything Ahluwalia has done up to this point. The guitarist’s meticulous multitracks give the the anthemic, subtly crescendoing title track – a wistful breakup ballad – a slow simmer. He grounds Tamana – an anthem for living with impunity – in nebulously jazz-tinged chords, matching Ahluwalia’s wary midrange and gentle melismatics.
Ahluwalia sings vocalese on Hum Dono, a minimalist progressive jazz sketch. The first of the two covers here is Jhoom, a qawwali drinking anthem reinvented as duskcore; the other is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Lament, done as a psychedelic epic, part 90s trip-hop, part Pink Floyd.
Taskeen opens with a swirly harmonium improvisation and builds slowly and carefully, with judiciously biting Middle Eastern tings; it’s an original setting of a poem about not being jealous of your significant other’s past lovers. The last of the originals is the enigmatically fluttering, folk-rock tinged Qaza:
The truth of the heart has many doors
Some open some don’t
Don’t get lost in them
Who is the audience for this? Anyone who likes to get lost in the mystical sound of ghazals or hypnotic Saharan guitar bands, and for that matter anyone looking for a moment of elegant sonic serenity.