Kiran Ahluwalia
Parc de l'Imaginaire, Gatineau (Aylmer sector)
Wednesday, August 10, 2016 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Haunting melodies and circling rhythms filled Parc de l'Imaginaire Wednesday, as Kiran Ahluwalia brought her cross-cultural music to Aylmer.

Kiran Ahluwalia's varied vocal style drew the audience in and kept them interested  ©Brett Delmage, 2016
Kiran Ahluwalia's varied vocal style drew the audience in and kept them interested ©Brett Delmage, 2016

The Indo-Canadian vocalist sings Indian ghazals (a song form based on Urdu poetry) and Punjabi folk songs. In the last decade, however, she's combined these with jazz and Saharan blues – in particular, the Tuareg music of the Sahara desert. Her most recent album, Sanata : Stillness [2014], is a hybrid of Indo-Saharan music.

Originally from India, Ahluwalia was raised in Canada and was well into her career before moving to New York City. She has won two Juno Awards, including for her 2011 CD, Aam Zameen: Common Ground.

It wasn't your standard vocal concert – Ahluwalia wasn't singing in either English or French, so that few in the crowd likely understood the words in the songs. The effect was to make her voice part of the instrumental mix – which was enhanced by her occasionally adding in wordless vocals.

And it was a fine instrumental mix – with Rez Abbasi on electric guitar, Louis Simão on accordion, and Nitin Mitta on tablas. Simão and Abbasi both have strong jazz credentials – Ottawa audiences would have seen Simão last at the 2015 Chamberfest in Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project; Abbasi has appeared previously at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. Ahluwalia is married to Abbasi, and both he and Mitta have played regularly with her for years, including on her albums.

Mitta had four tablas in front of him, plus other percussion instruments. He played on two at a time, one deeper and more resonant, one higher and sharper-edged, but would quickly switch tablas in and out to get different tones. His tabla rhythms set the pace of the concert, providing a consistent forward momentum. But they were more than just rhythmic: his playing varied from delicate to intense, with the different pitches and harmonics of the tablas contributing melodic interest as well.

Abbasi was a consistent presence, with guitar riffs introducing several songs. His strong solos, occasionally almost funky, other times hard-edged, added considerable jazz interest to the music and created accents and contrast to Ahluwalia's vocals.

Simão provided a strong base for the music with his accordion, adding other-worldly circling lines and compelling melodies. In “Jhanjra”, he contributed what sounded almost like a jig, while Ahluwalia danced and sang an amusing song about how to properly walk with ankle bells so as to avoid jealous looks – “down to earth, in a Gatineau-Ottawa kind of way”.

Ahluwalia frequently let her voice ring out in long lines which echoed through the park, with the other instruments filling in space below. She has a clear voice that easily transmits emotion, and is compelling even without understanding the words. In several songs (for example “Sanata”), she created a potently hypnotic effect through singing words with little inflection and repeating words and vocal phrases. Ahluwalia's varied vocal style drew the audience in, and kept them interested.

I particularly like “Jaag na Jaag”, a powerful song warning about becoming enlightened, which opened with accordion lines over strong tabla rhythms. Ahluwalia kept building up the energy by repeating vocal riffs, alone and with the tablas and guitar – and even scatting. At one point, Mitta's hands were moving so fast on the tablas that they seemed to be vibrating, before the energy finally died down and the song faded out, to strong applause.

It was followed by “Jaane Na”, a song about trying and self-sabotage, and “the civil war in myself”. It began with Abbasi singing wordlessly and then Ahluwalia adding fast vocals over him. This was an intense piece, with rapid tabla rhythms and atmospheric accordion under her anthemic vocals. I particularly liked when Abbasi and Mitta started trading 4's, with alternating short phrases that built on each other. Very jazzy – and totally fitting.

The songs ranged from light-hearted to serious, with subjects ranging from immigration, to love songs (happy and sad), to having a conversation with the divine. Ahluwalia introduced them in both official languages. She did her best to speak French to the Gatineau audience – a point that was clearly much appreciated by the audience, who responded encouragingly whenever she made the effort.

The park took longer than usual to fill, probably because of the oppressive heat and humidity – among the worst this summer. But once the crowd did arrive, they were their usual intent listeners. The instrumental solos frequently inspired applause.

The concert closed with “Meri Gori Gori”, which began with an extended and wide-ranging tabla solo, featuring complex rhythms, in which Mitta changed tablas in mid-rhythm. Ahluwalia sang wordless vocals over his rhythms, sometimes dancing to them, and gradually making her vocals more rhythmic, building up the energy. The audience greeted the abrupt end with strong applause, and then, after a moment, a standing ovation.

The Gatineau concert was part of an Ontario-Quebec mini-tour for Ahluwalia, which also featured shows in Toronto, Montreal, Sherbrooke, and Gaspé.

– Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

  • Hayat
  • Yaar Naal
  • Jhoom
  • Jaag na Jaag
  • Jaane Na
  • Mustt Mustt
  • Jhanjra
  • Tumba
  • Sanata
  • Meri Gori Gori

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