Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia wants her husband, Rez Abbasi, to get his artistic due. After last year’s release of her third album, Wanderlust, the media focused almost exclusively on the more exotic new elements in the music, such as the use of Portuguese fado musicians on three tracks and the trancelike Saharan groove of “Teray Darsan”. But they overlooked the contribution of her guitarist spouse, whose influence on the recording is everywhere.
“I think it’s because we didn’t really draw attention to it in the press release,” Ahluwalia says, speaking from her New York City home. “Rez did most of the arranging and plays on all cuts except one. If he hadn’t been on the project—as a jazz musician who also understands Indian music—the sound would have been very different, the harmonies would have been less complex. And because we spend so much time together, we hear and see what the other is doing from really close, so we can bring all of that to the mix. That’s why our music has one step in the eastern world and one in the west.”
When she comes to Christ Church Cathedral on Saturday (February 23), for a performance coproduced by Coastal Jazz & Blues and the Cultural Olympiad, Ahluwalia will bring along a five-piece band including Abbasi, with instrumentation featuring tablas, harmonium, and electric bass. Most of the songs they’ll perform are ghazals (short love poems set to music). The tradition arrived in India from Persia hundreds of years ago.
“It’s at once a literary and a popular art form,” Ahluwalia says. “The poem is made up of couplets and is lyrical, not narrative, so each couplet stands on its own. The poet and composer are always separate. It takes someone half their life to figure out how to write well in the style. Then someone who’s spent many years studying ghazal music composes for it and sings. It would be very rare to find someone with both talents. In this way, it’s not like the singer-songwriter tradition.”
The lyricists are many—ranging from 16th-century Indian poet Quli Qutub Shah to contemporary Toronto resident Rafi Raz—but almost all of the music on Wanderlust belongs to Ahluwalia. The musician is constantly expanding her approach to composing and arranging for ghazals, and refining her own definition of the genre.
“As I think of ghazals more and more, I make updates,” Ahluwalia says. “Currently I say that they’re songs of unrequited passion of any kind, carnal or otherwise. Everything is written in the romantic terminology of the lover and the beloved. The lover is either wooing or describing in different ways the pain and restlessness that he or she is feeling because the beloved is inaccessible. It’s this pain of unrequited love that’s the real star of the show in ghazals—they’re a celebration of that emotion.”