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Verve People
January 11, 2017

How Musician Shivani Ahlowalia Found Her True Calling

Text by Simone Louis. Photograph by Jamil GS

Bold and bewitching, she believes her nomadic way of living has helped in developing her creative abilities

Born in Chicago shortly after her parents moved there from India and presently living in Copenhagen, this Punjabi bass queen is a wanderer at heart, describing her most comfortable state as a nomadic one. A couple of years ago, the rapper teamed up with Danish duo Copia Doble Systema to create a new sound that employed a host of global influences, and Alo Wala was born. Translating as ‘the light vendor’ in a melange of Hindi and Bengali, Alo Wala quickly rose to the forefront of the international dance music movement with their mashups of classical Indian sounds, South American rhythms, hip-hop, trap and often political vocals. Their intensely popular collaboration with MC Zulu and Nucleya called Little Lotto was followed by their equally successful debut EP Cityboy. Today, Shivani Ahlowalia is a woman on a mission — working on Alo Wala 2.0 while touring the world and visiting home.

Dual existence
“I grew up in a true Punjabi household — my grandparents lived with us and we had a strong network of friends that kept India alive. I realise now how good we had it, waking up to fresh parathas and homemade achar. But when I stepped out of the house, I was in America. Being a first-generation Indian American, and the oldest of two, meant that I had to explain everything to my parents. They are extremely smart, but they hadn’t grown up in the country the same way my brother and I did, so they couldn’t fully relate to our experiences. America is a place between worlds and we defined our existence there together, as a family and community.”

Fluid self
“My blood is Indian. My passport is American. I have a temporary residence in Denmark. I started an NGO in West Africa and travel more than most of the people I know. My sense of identity is all jacked up. My generation was the first to access the world in this way…nowadays we can do what we do from absolutely anywhere. And trust me, I milked that reality. I identify with so many places and cultures – while that’s a blessing, my lifestyle has created a dispersed reality, and since we can’t actually be omnipresent, it involves a lot of compromise.”

Inimitable hurdles
“I am proud to be a woman of South Asian descent on the global platform. I cannot claim the experience of all such women, but I imagine many of us have faced similar struggles. My parents definitely expected I would be a doctor or lawyer…something professional and understandable; I was groomed for that. So when I chose to focus on music, I was met with a lot resistance from the people closest to me. The good news is they came around, and my family is now a huge support system for me. But that was work. Another peculiarity is that I’m always being compared to MIA. Even my own father references her! I get it. She was one of the first South Asian women to break through and she did it so well. I remember when I heard Kala in 2007 I was floored. She paved an important path, and for that I can only give her respect. The thing is, though, I’m not her — I’m me.”

Undisputable roots
“Trying to be present everywhere also keeps me from being where I am. I don’t really want to live that way, always somewhere else. I live in Copenhagen now and, honestly, I feel like an alien here most of the time. That’s when I have to remind myself that we are all human. I identify with being Indian because I was raised with certain values and aspects of the culture. I’ve also developed my own relationship with the country as an adult, travelling there every year for as long as I can remember. It’s been vital for me to keep the link. It was also the first place outside Denmark that I toured. It was really important for me to do it that way and the fact that Alo Wala was so well received gave us the motivation to work our way around the world. India was and always will be a great source of inspiration for me.”

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