Triloka/Artemis 82055
label website | artist website

Vithal Rao who lived in the King of Hyderabad's palace as a boy is said to be one of the last surviving maestros of ghazal. This Indian art form of sung romantic poetry originated in Persia 1000 years ago and gave rise to the courtly language of Urdu. Punjabi native and Canadian immigrant Kiran Ahluwalia studied with Rao in Hyderabad as well as classical Indian music in Bombay. She may now be the only Canadian singer to be fully fluent in this ancient art. She is supported in these endeavors by a Toronto poets' group called Punjabi Kalma da Kafla - Caravan of Punjabi Pens. Its members Rasheed Nadeem, Rafia Raza and Tahira Masood write ghazal-style contemporary poetry which Kiran then sets to song. She's earned a 2004 Juno Award, Canada's Grammy equivalent, for her artistry. On her self-titled debut release, Cape Breton Celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster sits in on two tracks, signaling Kiran's comfort with serving as a bridge between two cultures.

Alternating between uptempo and downtempo numbers, Kiran Ahluwalia's reliance on a percussion kit beyond the traditional tablas plus bass and guitars next to harmonium, sarangi and flute makes for a fetchingly modern sound. Kiran explains ghazal's many moods of love -- from unrequited to ecstatic, from divine to despondent -- to her audiences in equally modern terms: as a highly literate pick-up line. Music as graduate-level come-hither seduction. Meanwhile the flavor and stylistic conventions of ghazal as practiced by Ghulam Ali for example are fully realized. They show up in the vocal embellishments and clever melodic shifts between major and minor modes to create that peculiar amorphous mood of suspension in the slower wistful ballads like "Rabh Da Roop | Image of Heaven".

Kiran's familiarity with Punjabi folk songs and the bhangra club scene serves her more spirited exploits perfectly well but the true diamonds of this album hide in the even-numbered slow tunes. Those carry with them the melancholic heaviness of romantic obsession, the duality of pain and pleasure, its circular singlemindedness and ongoing readiness to be burnt over and over again. Lithe and slinky, pure and vibratoless, Ahluwalia's nimble voice weaves like tendrils around the serpentine melodies while the drums establish gently swaying rhythms. Unlike her British compatriot Najma, Kiran completely avoids electronica and any questionable attempts at Goth. Her music is happy to remain anchored in the ancient traditions but renews them with updated and very tasteful instrumentation. This album is a wonderful debut from a very gifted singer/composer. Here's to many happy returns.