Kiran Ahluwalia Brings Her Entrancingly Fun Mix of Punjabi and African Sounds to Joe’s Pub

by delarue

From singer Kiran Ahluwalia‘s albums of raptly hypnotic, mysttically poetic mashups of Pakistani ghazals, Punjabi pop and Malian desert rock, you might not expect her to be as fun onstage as she is. It’s hard to believe that the unselfconsciously captivating bandleader’s most recent New York show was at Madison Square Park last summer. Out in front of a jangly, purposefully propulsive four-piece band, she spun and lept and got a sleepy afterwork crowd on their feet. “I can always tell when there are Punjabis in the audience,” she grinned, feeding off the energy of the dancers as much as they were feeding off hers. She’s bringing her mix of thoughtful, paradigm-shifting originals and reinventions of centuries-old material to Joe’s Pub on May 6 at 7 PM; adv tix are $20.

She opened that summer show with Sanata: Stillness, the title track to her latest album, a showcase for her strikingly direct vocals as well as her husband Rez Abbasi’s command of slinky Malian desert rock guitar, with a hypnotically circling accordion solo from Will Holshouser over the clip-clop rhythm section. It’s her Uncomfortably Numb: stillness can be emptiness, a feeling she emphatically did not want to revisit, personally or artistically, she said. The group followed a joyous clave bounce on the catchy number afterward, Abbasi playing bright upper-register clusters that were part soukous, part Mike Bloomfiield.

Ahluwalia’s melismatic leaps and bounds gave extra spice to a rhythmically tricky one-chord vamp. Jaane Na (Nobody Knows), the lickety-split number after that, was part uneasy ghazal, part psychedelic soul, an exorcism of personal demons, Abbasi’s rapidfire, bluesy lines bringing to mind Jerry Garcia circa Terrapin Station (i.e., good). Then they pounced their way through a shapeshifting, epically catchy take of the classic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan hit Mustt Mustt, adding a loping, resilient Tinariwen edge.

Aluwahlia brought things down with a pensive ballad that began with a moody solo vocal intro, then went back to catchy, upbeat, major-key melismatics. She teased with meters, sliced and diced choruses in her meticulously modulated voice, airing out her spun-steel, reflecting-pool lower register as the band pulsed and sparkled behind her. After a detour into wary, grey-sky south Asian jazz, she closed the set with a joyously jumping Punjabi pop hit and encored with a swaying number that built from an opiated Moonlight Mile strum to an anthemic intensity. It’s a good bet that she’ll do a lot of this at Joe’s Pub.