India, by way of Africa, by way of Europe. And it works.
Indian-born Kiran Ahluwalia possesses a fine, husky voice, and she's proven herself unafraid of using it in unconventional ways: Previous records have seen her dabbling with Celtic fiddle tunes and Portuguese fado in addition to her traditional subcontinental sound. Common Ground is her fifth album, and the innovation and cross-pollination show no signs of abating. This time around, Ahluwalia has again teamed up with a range of musicians, among them desert-blues superstars Tinariwen and Terakaft. The result is an innovative, unfamiliar, and thoroughly enjoyable set of tunes that transcend easy labels like "world music".
Opener "Mustt Mustt" is a subcontinental qawwali tune, the kind of trance-inducing devotional music made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Generally sung to the accompaniment of harmonium, tabla, and handclaps, the song is disorientingly transformed here courtesy of Tuareg guitar nomads Tinariwen, who pump it up — but gently — with guitar licks and bass (plus a few handclaps of their own). The effect is to reinvent the song to such an extent that even listeners familiar with it will be taken by surprise. It's a wonderful rendition, the more so because of Ahluwalia's sultry, smoky voice.
One of the few criticisms of this album is that it milks the tune for all it's worth and then some. Besides the opening track, Ahluwalia offers a "Mustt Mustt Redux", which dispenses with Tinariwen and slows the tempo; there is also extended version that brings back the Tuaregs and adds a long, slow intro. The three versions are engaging enough but undermine, ever so slightly, the integrity of the album as a whole. Why not include the extended version as the ambum opener, add "Redux" at the end and make room for another song?
Anyway, this is a quibble. The record quickly moves to "Rabba Ru", which sees the singer teaming up with Terakaft, another desert blues outfit originally founded by ex-Tinariwen members. The tune, which was penned by Ahluwalia, has the timeless feel of Indian traditional music. Follow-up "Raqba" is even more powerful, with the singer's elastic voice front and center in the mix. With a seamless blend of calabash, harmonium, guitar, and trumpet laying the groundwork, with Ahluwalia's voice soaring over it all, the track is a standout. Tabla and hand percussion lend a propulsive drive to it that is irresistible. Ibrahim Maalouf's trumpet, which could so easily have been a harsh misstep, is instead smooth and liquid in the mix.
With most songs here topping five minutes, there is plenty of time for tunes to develop and stretch, and for the singer to stretch with them. "Saffar" approaches six minutes and "Matdajem – Waris Shah," checks in at nearly seven. "Saffar" sounds more like Hindi filmi music than anything traditional, as it floats along on a bed of strummed acoustic guitar, graced with cello accents from Andrew Downing — Hey, why not? Neither of these songs rely on great structural complexity to fill out their running time: like most of the tunes on this record, they establish a groove early on, then ride it for the duration.
The inventiveness on display throughout this album is impressive. Even more impressive is the way this masala of sounds has been blended into something genuinely tasty and unique. It's one of the finest world music albums released all year. Common ground? Indeed.