It could be a question on Jeopardy! It's definitely a category that Nick Hornby would think up: "Top three women singers with roots in India who've made it in the West." Sheila Chandra would top the list. Susheela Raman would also be there. And then there'd be Kiran Ahluwalia, a relative newcomer who, with each new album, solidifies her position as one of world music's most formidable voices.
On Aam Zameen: Common Ground, released three weeks ago, Ahluwalia collaborates with two "desert blues" bands from Mali to produce something magical: an Indian/West African hybrid that also pays homage to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the late Pakistani superstar who, in the 1990s, redefined the boundaries of East-West collaboration. Aam Zameen, then, is a three-for-one -- a must-have album for world-music habitués and the kind of release that newcomers would hear and say, "Holy $%#*@#$ -- who is that?"
On Wednesday, Bay Area audiences get to see Ahluwalia firsthand when she performs at Yoshi's in Oakland as part of a nationwide tour. Tinariwen and Terakaft, the two bands that Alhuwalia worked with on Aam Zameen, won't be at Yoshi's, but Alhuwalia is playing with a formidable lineup that includes her husband, guitarist Rez Abbasi. Ahluwalia alone is worth hearing. Her voice resonates with the high pitches of classical Indian music, a distinctive sound that takes on new meaning as Ahluwalia applies it to Portuguese Fado, Celtic music, Punjabi folk songs, or whatever else has suited her fancy on previous albums. To me, her work with Tinariwen and Terakaft is the best of her career. See her video with Tinariwen performing the Nusrat standard "Mustt Mustt," and you see why one music critic called Ahluwalia's new album "transcendent."
Ahluwalia's Paris recording with Tinariwen came six years after she attended their concert in Toronto and fell in love with their music. Ahluwalia admits she became "obsessed" with Tinariwen, a group whose pop resume includes opening concerts for the Rolling Stones. How obsessed was Ahluwalia? She put their CDs in her alarm-clock system so that the first thing she heard waking up was Tinariwen. She also sent one of her CDs to them in Mali, and fortunately for Ahluwalia, Tinariwen liked what they heard. The "Mustt Mustt" video captures the first moments of their 2010 Paris confab, when they began performing without rehearsals even though they'd never previously met.
"I just remember this moment when we all shook hands, and said 'Salaam Alaikum,' and 'Walaikum Salaam' (the Arabic greeting for "Peace Be Upon You") -- and said our hellos to the engineers-- and I sat down and thought, 'OK. What now?'" Ahluwalia said in a recent phone interview from her home in New York. "And Abdallah (Ag Alhousseini, one of Tinariwen's lead singers) started singing in Tamashek, and I started singing along with him, improvising one of their songs, and I know they appreciated that. The session was for them to enter my music, and here I was coming out and entering theirs. Now, when Abdallah and I meet, whenever Tinariwen is in New York, we always sing together and hang out backstage for hours. But that was the start of it. It unraveled and unfolded itself like a gift."
Thanks to her collaboration with Tinariwen and Terakaft, Ahluwalia will perform at the Festival in the Desert, the annual event that takes place in the sands outside Timbuktu, Mali in January. For a cross-cultural singer and adventurous traveler like Ahluwalia -- someone who was born into the Sikh tradition in India, raised in Canada, and married a man born in Pakistan -- performing at the festival is a dream come true. But Ahluwalia let me in on a kind of secret: though many of her albums, including her newest one, are about bridging disparate music traditions, she could have easily come up with another title for Aam Zameen: Common Ground.
"There's definitely common ground in music, but really -- even though I named the CD Common Ground, because it's a nice title, what I'm interested in is the different ground," Ahluwalia says. "It's the different ground that is going to bring something new to my music, and not give me a bunch of CDs that are 'Kiran Ahluwalia, Volume I,' 'Kiran Ahluwalia, Volume II,' 'Kiran Ahluwalia, Volume III' -- but give me something that reflects my own evolution as a person and a musician and where I've gone musically; to help me find a different way to say something. You kind of want to use the common ground to lay a wonderful bed and a basis in which the differences can come out, so that one can hear this CD and say, 'Wow. This is a different direction but it's the same roots of her last CD. But 'Different Ground' doesn't make for a good title."
Ahluwalia laughs as she says that. You can see her and members of Tinariwen laughing on their video to "Mustt Mustt," a song that offers praise above for the life we have on Earth.
Kiran Ahluwalia performs Wednesday, November 16, 8pm at Yoshi's in Oakland. For tickets and information visit yoshis.com.