One in Seven Billion: Kiran Ahluwalia Launches LOVEFest, an Ecstatic Evening of Sikh and Islam-Inspired Art Designed to Spark Cross-Cultural Connection
Kiran Ahluwalia sat down one day and wrote a song, “Saat.” Its title, the number seven, reflected the seven billion quirky, distinct individuals on our shared planet. It tackled the nature of our widespread intolerance of one another. “The earth now holds seven billion people; for me this means there are seven billion unique ways of interpreting things,” she explains.
The song resonated. It was powerful. (It appears on her upcoming album.) But the two-time Juno-winning Indian-Canadian singer and composer wasn’t ready to stop there. “Having written the song, I still felt helpless about doing something about it. I wanted to bring about change, to reach out with the opposite of hatred,” says Ahluwalia. “I wanted to do more than sing about it. I wanted to bring music and dance from ‘outside’ in, and spark curiosity and connection.”
Ahluwalia created LOVEfest, a direct musical response to the ignorance and animosity many visible minorities and faith communities face. She brings together two performers closely tied to tradition and faith practice, both rarely enjoyed outside of their home communities, a Shabad Kirtan (Sikh Spirituals) ensemble (Bhai Kabal Singh Group, heard for the very first time on the concert stage) and an Egyptian dervish (Yasser Darwish, performing tanoura, a dance practice tied to Sufi ritual). To present other, more contemporary voices in broadening counterpoint, Ahluwalia performs her own music, originals based on Indian and Malian styles, and Western blues and rock, many from her new album Seven Billion (out May 4, 2018 on Six Degrees). She also invites elegant, arresting Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi to share her highly regarded perspective.
The seeds of LOVEfest grew from Ahluwalia’s own experiences as an Indian-born Canadian growing up in a complex cultural context. “As an immigrant child, the hardships we faced were touted as temporary, but the effects were permanent. On the one hand, I developed a wonderful double culture, two sets of wardrobe and multiple languages to think in. On the other, I developed conflicting etiquettes and ways of doing things that were neither ‘fully’ Indian nor ‘fully’ Canadian,” muses Ahluwalia.
Her struggles, she grasped, were not just her own: “Wherever we live, the majority’s way of doing things becomes the norm, and whatever is different and foreign can easily be mistrusted. The consequence in a large immigrant-based population in countries like Canada and the US can be cultural intolerance and difficulty in embracing newness.” Sometimes this suspicion erupts into full-blown violence and violation, as the rising numbers of hate crimes aimed at Sikhs and Muslims across North America post-9/11 demonstrate.
Newness bursts from the precisely timed swirling of Darwish’s vivid skirts, from the rich voices that usually only ring out inside the gurdwara (Sikh temple). It is framed by more familiar, but still fresh perspectives from two powerful women artists whose music acknowledges their heritage, yet departs from it in intriguing, relatable ways.
In the end, for all the external novelty of the performances, LOVEfest suggests that there are universal elements and themes that resound throughout these songs and movements. “Souad and I sing of the human condition, our personal stories as women and the stories of our communities in turmoil,” notes Ahluwalia. “This humanity runs through the work of all the other participants of LOVEfest as well.”
Ahluwalia is accustomed to uniting seemingly disparate sounds and unexpected groups, an alchemist of cross-cultural collaboration. She created an entire album exploring how the bittersweet world of Portuguese fado can converse with Indian sounds, and she embraced the stark grooves of Saharan blues with friends Tinariwen, to dive into qawwali gems. Her work, like many of the poems and forms that inspire her, speaks simultaneously to earthly desires and lofty calls of the divine, the feel of R&B, rock and the nuance of jazz with the Punjabi folk and Indian classical music that formed the basis of her extensive vocal training.
Ahluwalia longed to focus the love into one compelling evening, a tribute to the short but powerful festivals she often saw in India and places like the Apollo Theater, where several performers of different styles or regions would all share a stage for a night. “We think of festivals as long outdoor summer happenings,” says Ahluwalia. “But I have seen this kind of festival atmosphere concentrated in a single night. As an audience member, I loved that festival environment inside a theater. I had it in my mind that I wanted to do something like that one day.”
When the ideas came together as LOVEfest, Ahluwalia turned to performers she had a strong personal connection to. Strongest was to Bhai Kabal Singh, whose kirtan singing had moved her since she was a young girl attending Sikh services with her family. Ahluwalia longed to share this more broadly, as well as introduce North Americans to Islamic dance and movement traditions. She had long admired Massi and, after months of attempting to track the singer down, finally heard that Massi had been following Ahluwalia’s work as well.
“The arts, and these artists in particular, are perfectly poised to create positive appreciation of Sikh and Islamic arts. It’s key that the traditional performers are juxtaposed with more modern artists who have evolved with Western influence, to show that we’re all addressing the world and changing in our own individual ways,” says Ahluwalia. “That we are all one in seven billion, all strangers in need of welcome. That’s what LOVEfest is all about.”
Ahluwalia is busy honing a transnational sound as fresh as tomorrow.
Her crystal clear voice arched superbly above rhythms that coursed through the audience…an evening of fascinating, newly revealed music.
She has a voice destined to enchant more than one generation.
Ahluwalia’s real musical connection exists on a deeper, metaphysical level.
A powerful woman who has a depth of character in her wonderfully pliable, expressive voice.