Kiran Ahluwalia @ Joe's Pub

Sometimes my life is just one endless debate over hybridity/fusion. Last night was the latest chapter, with Kiran Ahluwalia's CD release performance at Joe's Pub in New York.

Ahluwalia sings Ghazals and Punjabi folk songs, mainly in a traditional style. (According to her website, she studied the art of Ghazal for several years in Hyderabad with a teacher named Vithal Rao, "one of the last living court musicians of the Nizam (King) of Hyderabad.") She has a remarkable, strong, unique voice. For that alone, I strongly recommend her music.

The difference -- and perhaps, the controversy -- is in her band, which includes western guitar and bass, and has a bit of a jazz sensibility. There is also just a hint of jazz in Ahluwalia's voice in some tracks. Nothing too obvious, but it's there in her live rendition of songs like "Rabh da Roop" (the CD version is a little different -- more "asli"). A traditional Punjabi version might really play up the melodrama of the song ("My friend, I have found my love/ but lost myself./ The intoxication of my passion/ overwhelmed me/ and I lost myself."). But in Ahluwalia's rendition it still comes across as just a little playful.

I have to admit that I like the lightness. I have a few ghazal CDs -- mainly Jagjit & Chitra and Pankaj Udhas -- but I don't listen to them often anymore. Ghazals can be heavy, and slow -- lugubrious, even. While a cynic might say that Ahluwalia has a jazz guitarist because it makes the music more legible to Americans and ABCDs, one could just as easily say that it brings the rhythm up, and makes things more lively. (And while I'm at it, I should point out there's plenty of fusion happening in India itself right now -- listen, for instance, to the great debut CD from Rabbi Sher-Gil.)

Not everyone likes what Ahluwalia is doing. I ran into a couple of old friends at the show -- both ABCDs. They said they didn't especially like the fusion elements; somehow it made the music seem a little light. One quip that stuck in my mind was their sense that the fusion wasn't "necessary," and I can see what they mean. You could sing ghazals the way Jagjit & Chitra do it, or do Punjabi songs the way someone like Abida Parveen sings them (or indeed, the way Jagjit & Chitra did, on occasion). In traditional renditions, you hear strong emotion, and voices straining with longing at every note. But Ahluwalia never quite goes there. She sings her songs the way western folk singers might sing their songs -- with feeling, but with a certain restraint that comes, I suspect, from a commitment to technical precision: it's more important that I hit every note just right, than it is that you believe that I'm really feeling the emotion of this song right now.

My friends might have a point about the "necessity" of fusion in the formal sense. But in a more practical sense, they're definitely wrong. Without the fusion element, there is no to arrange a CD debut performance at an elite venue like Joe's Pub. Without fusion, also, you don't get a major record contract with a prominent World Music label, and you don't get a room full of sophisticated New Yorkers (half of the audience was non-Indian) loving your music. To put it quite directly, without fusion, there is no way Kiran Ahluwalia and her band could get paid like professional musicians at an early phase in their career.

I myself only heard of Kiran Ahluwalia on Tuesday, listening to WNYC's "Soundcheck" as I was driving somewhere. You can listen to the show here. (She comes in at 26:30; the first half of the show is a Canadian band called The Dears.)

[Incidentally, I had a similar debate with my cousin last year, when we went to see Vishal Vaid at the same venue. See that post here]