Kiran Ahluwalia – Aam Zameen: Common Ground

January 01, 1970



Ahluwalia is an upper class Punjabi who grew up mostly in Toronto, fascinated at an early age with the
ghazal, a form of poetry (and singing) fascinated with love and loss, but
couched in sophisticated, literary written language. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, by
contrast, grew up in the deserts of Northern Mali,
watched his father killed by rebels at the age of 4, drifted in and out of
refugee camps, fought for Quaddafi’s Libyan army as a young man and broke
finally out of the most abject poverty into international stardom with the
desert blues band Tinariwen. You could hardly imagine two life stories more
different, and yet, the two meet here in sinuous hand-drummed rhythms and
droning, hypnotic textures. Aam Zameen:
Common Ground
finds an unlikely meeting place between Malian proto-blues
and Indian classical traditions.


The two
art forms connect most successfully in a cover of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s
“Mustt Mustt,” itself a cross-cultural collaboration between the famed Qawwali
singer and Canadian producer Michael Brook, which was later remixed by Massive
Attack. The song is performed three times over the course of the album, first
and most dramatically, in a slow, bass-thumping, hand-clapping,
caravan-rhythmed interpretation that blends the call and response chants of Africa with the shadowy tonal variations of Ahluwalia’s
ghazal singing. It’s a stunning transposition, one that works equally well
whether you approach it from a “How is this different from Tinariwen?” or a
“What exactly is not South Asian about this?” standpoint. The song sits in an
imaginary no-man’s land at the non-existent borders between North India and the
Sahara, but it works very well all the same. It
comes again six songs later in a slightly more sparse and somber guise,
Ahluwalia’s voice sliding and fluttering over a darker backing of electric
bass, keyboard and some sort of sustained keyboard sound, and yet again, in a
longer, again African-tinged version at the close of the album.


between, Ahluwalia continues to play the syncretist. Her song “Safra,” layers
traditional, keening vocals with indie rock guitars, and fits very traditional
ghazal poetry (written by friend and sometime collaborator Khalil Sohail) over
breezy, new age optimism. “Rabba Ru” brings together multiple stringed
instruments, like guitars but maybe not exactly guitars, together in a song
that is part desert drone, part subcontinental lament and part (a very small
part) Cajun and country blues. Ahluwalia makes it work because she and her
fellow musicians – not just members of Tinariwen but also Terakaft – seek
genuine points of contact. Their connection comes not just in similar drum sounds,
or a proclivity for bent vocal notes, but in seeking the real emotional center
of these sounds, the sense of suffering, persistence and overcoming that
pervades many kinds of traditional music.


a lot more polish and sheen on this album than you’ll  hear on the typical Tinariwen or Terakaft
solo effort, and a few sounds veer past smoothness into the realm of slick. Yet
for the most part, Ahluwalia cleans up traditional sounds only enough to allow
them to shine, crosses culture only to show their basic commonalities.


DOWNLOAD: “Mustt Mustt” (any of


See also at BLURT: Tinariwen album review (Tassili) and feature (An Extraordinary Life).

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