Kiran Ahluwalia / Extra Golden
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Kiran Ahluwalia
Times Square

Extra Golden
Thrill Jockey

In America, where we have a near-riot of cultures, where we worship the new, tradition is a slippery concept. Tradition is handed down, fed to us with our bialye, naan or injera. But in America our cultural carb-loading is cosmopolitan. So it's not surprising that musicians playing "traditional" music, particularly here in the U.S., are not slaves to the past. How old-fashioned would that be?

Kiran Ahluwalia was raised in Toronto by Indian-born parents who passed on their love of Indian music. Ahluwalia eventually became a bond trader, but then decided to pursue a career in music. Now living in New York City, she has released Wanderlust, principally singing love poems called ghazals.

While the ghazal tradition is strong, Ahluwalia said it has always encompassed a range of styles. On Wanderlust, Ahluwalia incorporates instrumentation from Portuguese fado on three songs. She said that despite some stark differences between fado and ghazals, both genres were "music of longing. Very, very emotional types of music...very deep-rooted passion." Another tune remakes the trance grooves of Saharan music.

"When I hear something I like," she said, "I want to explore it, experience it and [find] how I can fit it into my music."

When her husband, guitarist and arranger Res Abbasi, booked a tour of Portugal, they reached out to several musicians there, started an intercontinental dialogue, then recorded in Portugal. The result is a lovely blend of sounds, though Ahluwalia's vocals keep the music closer to India than Portugal. Still, the amalgam is so tastefully done that it sounds organic and natural, despite its uniqueness.

Ahluwalia said her innovations are part of the "flexibility" of the long ghazal tradition. She said tradition itself is an "ambiguous" word: Is a traditional musician one who plays ghazals from years ago? Decades ago? Centuries ago?

"Ghazals are a tradition that has evolved over six centuries," she noted. "And I am part of that evolution."

New York native Alex Minoff helped form a different kind of hybrid music. A doctoral student in ethnomusicology, Minoff went to Kenya to research music there, including the popular form called benga. Minoff also had played in a U.S. rock band, and when his band mate, Ian Eagleson, visited Kenya, they decided to record an album with two benga musicians. Combining the names of the two groups they had played with previously, they called themselves Extra Golden.

In a tragic turn of events, the group's lead singer, Otieno Jagwasi, died after they recorded their first album, Ok-Oyot. The group has reformed with a new Kenyan singer for its forthcoming sophomore effort, Hera Ma Nono (Thrill Jockey).

Extra Golden's music is not strictly benga nor rock. Both genres use the same basic instrumentation, Minoff noted, so combining them was not too problematic.

Living a half a world apart has made it difficult to tour and record as a group. Minoff said when he performed with benga musicians at gigs in Nairobi, the audience reaction was "disbelief, [and] hilarious, but not looking down on you." He said that since benga is essentially good-time music, his incongruous appearance was just added entertainment.

Extra Golden's music is not a stretch for American listeners. At times, the group's shimmering guitars move from sounding like Congolese soukous to American jam band. Overall, its midtempo rhythms are suited for swaying tropical dancing, not head-banging.

These artists, as well as a rising crop of others, are making life tough for CD retailers who like putting new arrivals in tidy, distinct bins - usually arranged by country, not groove. But artists are a messy lot, spilling over expectations and sloshing across boundaries.

Artists are just the most obvious examples of what is true for each of us: we are forged by our heritage, but we spend our lives expanding what that means, twisting that formative metal into some fantastic new shapes. - Marty Lipp

Listen to Extra Golden's "Nyajondere"
You can hear some samples of Kiran Ahluwalia

CDs available from cdRoots

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