Head Explodes: Mahler, Kiran Ahluwalia and Tinariwen

By Rob Packer

The true sign of a great book, whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction, is that it changes your perspective, that it influences you for weeks after you put it down, that it opens your eyes to the new, or makes you remember what you didn’t realize you’d forgotten. Open City by Teju Cole (my thoughts on it here) is turning into one of those books and it’s not giving too much away to say that a Mahler symphony appears at a key moment towards the end of the book (beautifully described, by the way). I didn’t realize, though, that Open City had left a subtle itch on the Mahler part of my brain. Last Sunday, I had to scratch it and decided to listen to Mahler’s symphonies one by one.

I queued all ten of them up on Spotify and when I do this a “listening project” like this, I usually put another track between the albums or symphonies like the lemon sorbet you sometimes find between your starter and main course at posh dinners. And with something like Mahler’s symphonies with their different emotional calibrations, a track by TV on the Radio, Hot Chip or Rihanna works perfectly to know it’s time to move onto the next symphony or to turn it off and go to bed. It doesn’t always.

I first came across Kiran Ahluwalia, an Indian-Canadian musician, last year after I heard an interview with her on the PRI’s The World: Global Hit podcast about a collaboration she’d done with Tinariwen, the Tuareg band (their most recent album, Tassili, also includes, slightly circularly vocals by Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio). Back then, no-one had any idea that the Festival of the Desert, which the podcast was about might be the last for the foreseeable future after northern Mali fell to MNLA and Ansar Dine a month later. The track ‘Mustt Mustt’, a cover of Pakistani singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, is a beautiful combination of Tinariwen’s desert blues and Ahluwalia’s background in Indian ghazals. It’s also one of my favourite songs of the year:

Pretty amazing, right? But not all cross-continental music works together. I had Mustt Mustt queued up as a palate cleanser after Mahler’s Third, but my head full of counterpoint, these rhythms sounded not just different, but strange, unfamiliar, unpleasant and I had to turn the music off. It was as if I’d given myself cognitive dissonance of some kind.

All was resolved a couple of hours later when my head was full of numbers and logistics and I listened again to Mustt Mustt (there was more Mahler later). I loved it again, but remained fascinated by my reaction to the track post-Mahler.

I’d often heard it said that European music differs from Middle Eastern or Indian music in its use of counterpoint, but I’d always dismissed it as an example of Said’s Orientalism. But to continue on the Orientalist path for a moment, there are plenty of examples of “East-West” mixings that do work (there are also plenty that a nothing more than novelty tracks). Take this combination of Mozart’s Concerto #23 with Egyptian oud, for example.

Perhaps it was the difference in emotions or tensions between Mahler and Ahluwalia. Maybe it really is the counterpoint argument. Who knows? But after all that, I still do love Mahler, Kiran Ahluwalia and Tinariwen—just maybe not all at the same time.

Has anyone else felt or seen this? Are there two things—music, literature, food, etc.—that you love separately but have an inexplicable reaction to when they’re put together?

Kiran Ahluwalia’s website: http://www.kiranmusic.com
Tinariwen’s website: http://www.tinariwen.com



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