Photo of Kiran Ahluwalia
Kiran AhluwaliaPhoto by Sahiba Kaur Chawla

Worldwide Blues

Kiran Ahluwalia blends desert blues with the traditional music of India at Tsunami Books

The earliest musical memories of Indian-born, New York-based musician Kiran Ahluwalia involve Mother Goose, Sikh spirituals and sheep’s blood.

As a girl, Ahluwalia lived for a time in New Zealand, where her father was pursuing a Ph.D. studying the blood of sheep. While in New Zealand, Ahluwalia’s parents gave her a recording of Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

“I still have the LP,” she tells me from her home in New York, where she lives with her music and life partner Rez Abbasi, a Pakastani-born jazz guitarist, composer and record producer with whom Ahluwalia frequently collaborates.

After returning to India, Ahluwalia began a formal education in music, including an introduction to Sikh spirituals and Punjabi folk. Her path led to Canada and eventually to New York. 

Before devoting herself full-time to a career in music, Ahluwalia worked in the financial industry. She describes the decision to switch careers as less a distinct moment in time than a slow realization. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but when it came to working one more day at a bank, she knew it wouldn’t be that. 

“I putzed around for a year. It was a process,” she says. 

Ahluwalia didn’t start writing her own music until around the year 2000. Creating original music wasn’t easy for her, but she stuck with it. 

“It was a shedding of the skin,” she says. Now, one of those early songs remains among her favorite original compositions. “I just keep coming back to it,” she says.

A two-time JUNO award-winning musician, Ahluwalia brought out her last full-length, 7 Billion, in 2018. She’s currently working on new material but, for Ahluwalia, creativity comes in waves as she divides time between writing music and preparing for tours.

These days, Ahluwalia goes on the road with a five-piece, including electric guitar, accordion, organ, tabla and drum kit.

“Part of me is very much wanting to compose new material. I am always open to writing. Who knows what will inspire me on a day-to-day basis,” she says.

West African Tuareg music — sometimes called desert blues, an ancestor of America’s own blues tradition — has influenced Ahluwalia’s recent work, including the dry guitar figure from 7 Billion’s opening track, “Khafa (Up in Arms).” 

Ahluwalia’s introduction to desert blues came when she first heard Tinariwen, a Malian group that helped popularize the sound all over the world. Ahluwalia worked with Tinariwen on her 2011 album Aam Zameen: Common Ground. 

Upon first hearing desert blues, Ahluwalia was immediately drawn to the sound. “The day after I was still thinking about it,” she says. “I really got into it.”

It’s this mix of influence and styles — from traditional Indian music to desert blues, and even American blues and jazz — that makes Ahluwalia’s music so difficult to describe. 

“It’s modern Indian music. It’s not traditional. It’s not classical. It’s got heavy influences from all over the world,” she says.

“It’s not as simple as saying I’m a singer-songwriter or a classical musician backed by an orchestra,” she continues. “This is something new that I’m creating. It’s a hybrid music.”  ν

Kiran Ahluwalia plays 7:30 pm Monday, Dec. 9, at Tsunami Books; $22.50, all-ages.