Shivani Ahlowalia of Alo Wala (Photo by Jamil GS)
Consider Alo Wala the new ambassadors for today’s thriving global bass scene. I don’t mean “global” as in, “Let’s stick some sitars in here and call it a day.” But more, “Here’s a Punjabi-Indian rapper from Chicago who linked up with a Danish production duo and makes dancehall songs about New York City.” It’s like a United Colors of Benetton dream.
Maybe the reason why Alo Wala—which means “the light vendor” in a mix of Bengali and Hindi—hits so hard is because they effortlessly throw juke, dancehall, reggae, trap, and classical Indian instruments into a head-scrambling stew. Or maybe it’s because they sound a lot like M.I.A. at her peak—when she was the most political. Alo Wala just signed to Enchufada—the Portuguese label run by Buraka Som Sistema’s João Barbosa (AKA Branko), and their debut EP Cityboy comes out on November 10.
Check out “Cityboy,” a track featuring dancehall vocalist Jahdan Blakkamoore. The song's about that special breed of guys who live in New York City, and its blend of Jamaican and Indian swagger is the perfect example for why Alo Wala is so hype.
The best thing about Alo Wala is that—unlike many other bands that make fun songs to dance to—they aren’t skittish about being political. Lead vocalist Shivani Ahlowalia isn’t just a rapper. She’s also a dedicated activist. After following a punk band to Guinea Bissau, West Africa (um... it happens), Ahlowalia co-founded an NGO. Her mission: raising social confidence amongst local youth during times of political turmoil. “Locals Bissau groups like Torres Gemeos and FBMJ represented for me what hip-hop was when it first came about—this raw expression based out of the unjust, with the aim to do something about it,” she says. After building the country’s first recording studio and working with local rappers, she became a sort of West African hip-hop magnet—and that’s how she discovered her own flow.
“It is vital for me that music has a purpose,” says Ahlowalia. “This music is absolutely political, but the approach isn’t marked by anger or calling out everything that doesn’t work in this world. It speaks to the same, but from a space of optimism and happy-bass.
Shivani Ahlowalia and Copia Doble Systema (Copyflex and Julius Sylvest) (Photo by Flemming Bo Jensen)
Political circumstances forced her to return to Copenhagen, where Ahlowalia linked up with the Danish production duo Copia Doble Systema and VJ Mad Es to form Alo Wala. Continuing the theme of using music as a social tool, another song off their EP was inspired by the resilience of people in Pondicherry after a massive cyclone hit the Indian city where Ahlowalia was doing an artist residency. “I was amazed by my host who said that the storm gave him ‘an opportunity to rebuild better,’” Ahlowalia recalls. Inspired to change her life path, she decided to commit to a career as an artist—and out came “Bend Yuh Backbone,” a song about creating new realities in the face of destruction.
After a stint in New York City, where she got connected to Brooklyn’s Dutty Artz fam and wrote “Cityboy,” Ahlowalia is now back in Copenhagen with her crew. But she says that her globe-hopping, nomadic lifestyle is where she learned her most important lesson: “the difference between being able to sing, and having a voice—perspective.”
Alo Wala's Cityboy EP is out November 10 on Enchufada
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor of THUMP - @MichelleLhooq