“Growing up in India I would listen to Indian film songs (Bollywood) on the radio. When a song came on that I liked, I would run and get my mother. She would write down the lyrics for me and I’d sing along to try and memorise the melody. After five or six times of singing along to the song whenever it came on the radio, I’d be able to sing it for my parents’ friends. I was also formally learning music in India and continued when we emigrated to Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto I returned to India to learn music full time. After a decade, I was back in Canada and on my first tour of summer folk music festivals.
“Since my lyrics were in Urdu and Punjabi, I wasn’t really sure if it was even viable to make a living singing in foreign languages in front of the majority non-Indian crowds at the Canadian folk festivals. At the Winnipeg Folk Festival, I was put on the main stage as an ‘in-between’ act. That meant that I would be singing while the main artists sound-checked behind me. I started singing my Punjabi folk song and all I heard from my monitor in front of me was the band sound-checking behind me and playing notes in a completely different key. It was so hard to follow my own melody and I was so embarrassed and depressed that I might be singing out of tune in front of such an enormously big crowd. Somehow I got through the song. I was getting ready to pack up and leave but the band behind me still needed more time – my ‘in-betweener’ needed to be extended. In a completely defeated mode I dragged out the words and asked the audience – ‘Would you like to hear another Punjabi folk song?’ 11,000 people said, ‘YES’.
“The next day in the paper there was a mention of many main stage performers and one special ‘in- betweener’. The enthusiasm of 11,000 people and those two lines in the paper helped me get through my initial touring. That was ten years ago and since then I’ve had the pleasure of playing many outdoor festivals for many Indians and non-Indians. It doesn’t matter if people don’t understand the language. It’s the music – the melody, the phrases, the notes, the timbre, the rhythm, the way it all comes together – that enters people’s hearts. I’m reminded that as a young girl of seven, when I was learning those Bollywood songs off the radio – many of the lyrics were beyond the grasp of a child. But the music spoke to me in many ways.”
Thanks to Kiran Ahluwalia for the latest in our series of artist blogs. Kiran’s latest album Aam Zameen/ Common Ground is out now on Avokado.