Out of India, Via Canada: 'Kiran Ahluwalia'

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Kiran Ahluwalia

Kiran Ahluwalia, shown in a detail from her self-titled CD. hide caption

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Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia's self-titled CD celebrates traditional Indian songs called ghazals. Ahluwalia left India as a girl. She tells Scott Simon she never imagined she could make a living with Indian music in the West.


Ghazals are poetic love songs invented in Persia a thousand years ago. They've later spread to India and remain one of the most popular types of music in the whole subcontinent. Singer and composer Kiran Ahluwalia grew up listening to Ghazals even after her family emigrated from India to Canada. Not long ago, she met some Pakistani expatriates in Toronto, who, when they were not working as cab drivers or car mechanics, were writing poems in the Ghazal tradition. Ms. Ahluwalia began collaborating with them, and the result is the first known recording of Ghazals written in North America. Her new CD is "Kiran Ahluwalia" and she joins us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. KIRAN AHLUWALIA (Singer and Composer): Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: And just tell us how this began with you, how you--you were in Toronto. Were you a bond trader?

Ms. AHLUWALIA: I was. You know, when I was growing up in Toronto, I didn't think that I could make a living at singing Indian music. And I had studied Indian music part-time along with school and university my whole life. And so one of the things I got along the way was an MBA in finance, which led me to trade bonds in Toronto on Bay Street, which is our Wall Street. And I just wasn't happy doing that. And so I left that and sort of fell into the life of being a full-time musician doing Indian music.

SIMON: Let's listen to a lit--this is track eight on your CD. Your music and the words of the poet Rasheed Nadeem.


(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AHLUWALIA: (Foreign language sung)

SIMON: Help us out a little bit on these lyrics. What's the song about?

Ms. AHLUWALIA: Sure. Well, the lyrics are talking about someone who is unable to get close to this being, and he's saying that no matter how hard I try, the distance between us remains vast. And so our love song, our Ghazal remains unsung. And Rasheed Nadeem, the poet, is a taxi cab driver and has written these lyrics in the Sufi mystic tradition which is all about getting closer to your spiritual leader, to God. But, of course, I'm much more of a romantic than that, so I always think of this as being a song about a shy guy who's just having trouble saying those famous three words to his beloved.

SIMON: And those famous three words are...

Ms. AHLUWALIA: I need coffee.

SIMON: Oh, yeah. I'm a little shy about that one myself, as a matter of fact.

Ms. AHLUWALIA: `I love you,' that's what he's trying to say.

SIMON: I figured. And I'm fond of you as well. What makes (laughter)...

Ms. AHLUWALIA: Thank you.

SIMON: What--do you think the Ghazal has something to say to us today?

Ms. AHLUWALIA: Oh, definitely. They are about the most universal topic there is, which is love and passion, be that for a human being or for God or for another goal. But I think that the reason why I have been able to tour in North America singing in the foreign languages of Urdu and Panjabi is because more than words, I think it's really the melody and the music that I hope and that I think are connecting with people. I think the emotion is contained in the melody and the arrangement and the way people are playing so that when you hear a sort of lilting, slow ballad, you feel the restlessness or the melancholy of the words. And the genre itself is ancient, but what I'm doing are contemporary songs. They're written by people living today, and I've composed the music and I'm living today.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AHLUWALIA: (Foreign language sung)

SIMON: Let's listen to the second cut on the CD. Now this is a song called "Yeh Nahin" " and the lyrics are by Rafi Raza.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AHLUWALIA: (Foreign language sung)

This is one of my favorite poems. In this poem, the writer is describing a journey and you could--of course, once a poem is written, it's open to interpretation. And you could say that this is his journey from his native Pakistan to his adopted homeland Canada. And in this poem, after describing this journey, he's saying--he's explaining himself to someone. And for me, it's as if he's at the doorstep of his beloved, and it's as if he's saying, `You know, I know my soul seems tarnished and stained, but you don't know how far I've traveled and how hard I've been trying to shake off the dust from my soul. So please won't you take the time to understand me, and please won't you take the time to look beyond the dust?'

SIMON: Does this music help provide a kind of sense of cohesion among people from the subcontinent who are living in Canada?

Ms. AHLUWALIA: Well, I imagine all kinds of South Asian arts provide some sort of cohesion for the South Asian community in North America. And I lump together Canada and America because in both countries, the South Asian community is just coming of age. And so you've got, for the first time, lots of millionaires that are South Asians.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. AHLUWALIA: ...and South Asians whose parents were born in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, but they, the kids are born here.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. AHLUWALIA: And so we need definition for ourselves. We're a hybrid person. There are two cultures within us--America and India, or Canada and India or Pakistan. And there's no definition out there. And so that's the larger thing, trying to define the balance of their hybrid culture.

SIMON: I want to ask you about another song on this CD, track three. It's called "Jhanjra." It's Panjabi song and I think our listeners will pick up an unexpected twist.

(Soundbite of "Jhanjra")

SIMON: That's Natalie MacMaster, the Cape Breton fiddler.

Ms. AHLUWALIA: Yes, the fiddler is Natalie MacMaster.

(Soundbite of "Jhanjra")

Ms. AHLUWALIA: (Foreign language sung)

SIMON: This song's about ankle bells?

Ms. AHLUWALIA: Yes. `Jhanjra' means ankle bells, and it's a song that is in a very lighthearted way just warning a young girl to not be too flamboyant with the sound of her ankle bells so as not to attract jealous or envious looks.

SIMON: Good advice still, I'd say, in this day and age. When you were a bond trader, how unhappy were you? What was--I mean, a lot of people do very well trading bonds, and it's not just the money, although I think a lot of it's the money. But, I mean, there's a real kind of velocity of excitement in that.

Ms. AHLUWALIA: There's a lot of excitement. And till this day, I find finance very exciting. I mean, I studied it for two years when I was getting my MBA, and it would have been impossible to do that if I didn't find it exciting. And I remember coming home one day after work, and I would be at work at 6 AM, which meant I had to pretty much wake up at 4 AM. And then I would leave work at 6 PM and get home around 7 PM and I just remember I came home to my parents' house and I remember just saying that, `You know what? I just don't like my life.'

SIMON: Now I'm guessing they might have had some apprehension about you leaving a promising career in stocks and bond trading for something as speculative as, you know, singing, particularly when you said, `Oh, I want to sing the Indian music, the music of our ancestry, here in North America.'

Ms. AHLUWALIA: They did have apprehensions, but when they realized that I'm going to pursue music no matter what, they're quite reasonable. I hope I can be a parent like them because they came around really fast. And even though they were totally dead-set against the idea at first, they soon became one of the major reasons why I was able to have a career. They supported me emotionally, financially and just every which way.

SIMON: Must have been very proud when--What was it?--your second CD won the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy.

Ms. AHLUWALIA: Yes. It's called a Juno, and they were very, very proud. I remember getting my Juno in the mail. My dad was so proud, you know, we got the UPS truck delivering it, and he just--he didn't even give me the box. He was opening it with such care. He put the box on his lap and he got these scissors, opening up the tape, and I just couldn't stop him because, you know, really it was for him.

SIMON: Ms. Ahluwalia, congratulations. Good luck.

Ms. AHLUWALIA: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Kiran Ahluwalia speaking with us from New York. Her new CD is called "Kiran Ahluwalia."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AHLUWALIA: (Foreign language sung)



SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

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