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Photograph by George Whiteside
Time Traveler: Kiran Ahluwalia brings her mastery of the contemporary ghazal to Cayuga Vault on Thursday.

Kiran Ahluwalia's Artistic Revisionism

The singer of contemporary ghazals heads to Cayuga Vault.

By Andrew Gilbert

Devotion to an ancient, rule-bound art form doesn't mean a musician can't create a vibrant 21st-century sound, at least not if the artist in question is Kiran Ahluwalia. As one of North America's premier interpreters of ghazals, a love-besotted Persian poetic form dating back to the 11th century that flourishes today in India and Pakistan, Ahluwalia has developed a repertoire of new songs by seeking out Urdu poets in the Indian diaspora and setting their lyrics to her original music.

"I really hate it when people think I'm singing traditional music," says Ahluwalia, who performs on Thursday at Cayuga Vault in a concert presented by Zookbeat. "I think I'm singing contemporary music, music that is written and composed today. I'm using contemporary arrangements and instruments. A lot of people who are strict lovers of Indian music think that the introduction of guitar in my music is a fusion, but the guitar has been used in India for the last 30 years. I've just given it a more prominent voice in my arrangements."

While Ahluwalia has gained a fair amount of renown in Canada—her 2003 CD Beyond Boundaries won a Juno award for Best World Music Album, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy—in recent years she's become an international force with her startlingly beautiful repertoire of incantatory ghazals and flirtatious Punjabi folk songs that she delivers in her pure, undulating, girlish voice. For her West Coast tour, she's performing with jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi (to whom she's married), Gurpreet Chana on tabla and djembe, Ashok Bidaye on harmonium and Saadi Zain on bass.

Born into a Punjabi family in the north Indian state of Bihar, raised in Canada and now living in New York City, Ahluwalia grew up attending ghazal concerts with her parents. A rigorous poetic form that usually consists of a series of couplets laced together by a precise rhyme scheme, ghazals (pronounced "ghuzzels") originated in Persia and spread to India around the 15th century. The term means "to talk to women" in Arabic, and not surprisingly the topic of most ghazals is unrequited love, though there are also many that explore mystical themes (the great 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi was one of the early masters of the form).

On her recent album Wanderlust, Ahluwalia has ingeniously expanded her sonic palette by making several intuitive emotional leaps. Most profoundly, she's found inspiration in Portuguese fado, another art form preoccupied with heartache and loss. On "Haal-e Dil" she sings a couplet that could just have easily been delivered by legendary fadista Amalia Rodrigues (albeit in Urdu). "Now the suffocation will not subside/ by talking about the condition of my heart; the pain increases, as I try to bury it." Joined by the great fado accompanists Jose Manuel Neto and Ricardo Cruz, Ahluwalia creates music that's essentially Indian, but wide open to sounds traveling the trade winds.

KIRAN AHLUWALIA Thursday, Oct. 8, at 8pm at Cayuga Vault, 1100 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $18 adv/$22 door; 831.421.9471.

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