Wednesday, November 9
Better than: Wondering what Bollywood and Hollywood really have in common.
“I’m not sure, but I think the band that played here last night might have spilled beer or something,” pondered singer Kiran Ahluwalia, half-joking with the audience as she scanned the area of the stage around her feet at Drom last night. “My shoes are kinda sticking to the floor, which makes it difficult to dance… not that you’re missing anything—I’m not really such a great dancer.”
From the waist up, Ahluwalia clearly made up for any perceived lapse in dexterity. Of course, it’s also true that fleet choreography wasn’t high among the expectations of the assembled crowd of globalists, even though her four-piece band, which pairs guitar and electric bass with contenders for the title of world’s groovin’-est tabla percussionist and harmonium player, could get a roomful of cosmopolitans on the good-foot if asked. Ahluwalia is now a citizen of the world on the strength of five globetrotting ambitious albums, but both her voice and elaborate vocabulary of hand gestures are often pure Bollywood, carried intact from her birth country of India to the North American cities of Toronto (where she was raised) and New York (where she and her guitarist-musical director-husband Rez Abbasi now live).
Within the list of South Asian traditions that Ahluwalia calls her own—which also include Sufi Muslim and Persian music—a little metaphor can go quite a long way, much like Ahluwalia’s outstretched arms or the simple curl of her finger. The singer demonstrated the lengthy sweep of several tropes last night, but the one most resonant with club denizens came early in the set—and oddly enough, it also concerned beer. The tune was called “Yaar Naal”. As per the CD booklet of Ahluwalia’s latest disc, Aam Zameen (Common Ground), the first line translates from Punjabi as, “drunkards—they drink and lose themselves and remain unsatisfied.” The catch, however, is that “Yaar Naal” quickly turns into a love song, its visions of excess meant to signify the intoxication of falling head over heels. It was just one of the instances where Ahluwalia’s soprano proved as cagily improvisatory as it is powerful, swelling mightily atop Rez Abbasi’s gorgeous acoustic guitar or the squeezebox fills of harmonium man Babloo.
Yet again, her live band has the formidable task of fleshing out a singular studio collaboration without the guests on hand. For Aam Zameen, Ahluwalia brought in the North African desert blues bands Tinariwen and Terakaft, a match that found a dynamic haven in a plaintive array of Urdu chants and qawwali handclaps. Whenever Abbasi switched to electric guitar (especially on “Raqba” and the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan cover “Mustt Mustt”), it was a sign that the subtlest jazz-funk would chug its way on stage. For her part, Ahluwalia had no need to worry about not getting her shake on; there were folks in the audience who clearly understood what to do with the crossrhythms set up by Abbasi, bassist Nikku Nayyar and percussionist/secret weapon Nitin Mitta.
Critical bias: Been waiting for Ahluwalia’s unabashed “wanderlust” (that’s even one of her album titles) to break on through to the other side.
Random notebook dump: Vocals sound great at Drom, but for some reason its sonics can kinda close in on guitar bands.
Jaag Na Jaag