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.