A Frequency of Her Own: Kiran Ahluwalia Synthesizes the Sonic World on 7 Billion

Kiran Ahluwalia had a small epiphany as she wrote what eventually became the title track for her latest album: The eruptions of intolerance and violence plaguing societies around the world had to be directly countered. Yet the focus on divisions and difference neglected a central fact, that we are all united in our difference and uniqueness. “There are seven billion of us now on Earth and every person has their own unique perspective and set of experiences,” she reflects. “We each have our own way of dealing with things, of hearing things, of moving through life.”
 
Ahluwalia, with over nearly two decades of music making that took her from Punjabi folk and Indian classical music to refreshingly original borderless songs, has found her own way on 7 Billion. (Six Degrees: May 4, 2018) Touching on the need for tolerance and boldness, the songs on 7 Billion encompass all Ahluwalia’s myriad musical fascinations: the guitar twang of Mali, the heavy heartbeat of Southern soul, the gorgeous nuance of Subcontinental sounds.
 
“I’ve taken aesthetics I love such as blues, Malian styles, and of course Indian forms and mashed them together in my own way,” explains Ahluwalia.
 
Ahluwalia will celebrate this album’s release with a spring US/Canadian tour, including several dates of her new live project LOVEfest, which bring spiritual performances from the Sikh and Sufi traditions together with contemporary sets by Algeria’s Souad Massi and Ahluwalia.
 
7 Billion pulls together songs that map out many of Ahluwalia’s interests and sonic loves. “Jhoomo (Sway)” was written to charm a shy lover in a steamy seduction scene in an as-yet unreleased film. “We Sinful Women” commissioned and composed for a dance company’s new work was based on a radical Pakistani feminist’s stirring poem. Yet most of Ahluwalia’s pieces are sparked by the diverse sounds she hears rolling around in her head. They often emerge in conversation with her life and musical partner, the highly acclaimed guitarist Rez Abbasi.
 
“I translate thought and emotion into sound in a very intuitive way,” says Ahluwalia. “I sometimes develop songs with Rez as we sit on the couch, either referencing tracks that are inspiring me or working on specific ideas that I’ve been living with. If we come up with something magical, I’ll record it on my phone and listen to it later. That’s how songs often start.”
 
That’s not where they end. Ahluwalia will continue to refine and rethink the songs, adding layers of instruments. On 7 Billion, these layers built on Ahluwalia’s past explorations–Malian and desert blues, Portuguese fado, North American rock, Indian forms–for a sometimes raucous and raw sound that includes a soulful sweep of organ and glittering, growling guitars.
 
The music of “Khafa,” an impassioned call to set aside the religious strictures and orthodoxies that blind us to one another’s humanity, was inspired by West African styles. “I came up with the melodic idea and would hum it around the house. Rez said, ‘Hey, that sounds great.’ I had all these phrases all over the place, then I decided to develop it more to find meaning for the melody, which lent itself very well to talking about anger against the man made rules of religion.”
 
Ahluwalia brought similar intensity to “We Sinful Women,” rethinking it for the album. It was no easy feat to set the poem to music for a dance company’s performance, as its Urdu lines simply did not conform to usual song styles accompanying Urdu poetry. Ahluwalia did not let that faze her, and came up with a unique approach that resonated powerfully with audiences.
 
Yet after the dance piece premiered, the song stuck with her. She longed to hear it slightly differently: “I liked it but wanted to make it less polite and dainty, into a very militant and activist song, a strident battle cry,” she explains. “When I arranged it for the dance piece it had flute, sax, sarangi, and tabla. It was not traditional but softer in treatment. For my own record, I wanted to match the gritty activist nature of it in the arrangement and tonality. I asked Rez, and we spent a lot of time figuring out the heavy, gritty amp sound for the guitar.”
 
Grit also runs through “Kuch Aur (Something Else),” a bluesy examination of regret and sorrow that came to Ahluwalia after she got into Southern blues rock. A first for the songwriter, Ahluwalia came up with some English-language lyrics, only to translate them into Urdu because they just worked better that way.
 
The way Ahluwalia flows between seemingly farflung genres is no accident. It’s the natural progression of her exploration of what appeals to her; her refusal to see her Indian heritage as her defining characteristic. “I think of my music as creating a genre that’s on its own, one that benefits greatly from being in the diaspora,” she muses. “This isn’t the way Indian music is in any other part of the world. I hesitate to even call it Indian. We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. It’s an organic hybrid that’s reflective of so many personal and lived influences.” Ahluwalia is an artist and songwriter first and foremost, whose global ear catches frequencies that are hers alone.

Quotes

7 Billion
We Sinful Woman // 7 Billion
  1. We Sinful Woman // 7 Billion
  2. Khafa // 7 Billion
  3. Saat // 7 Billion