India at the Grammys: Falu Shah talks music, vision and working with AR Rahman
Falu Shah thinks music is the best way to answer all questions, especially that of children. When her four-year-old son, Nishaad came to her with questions like ‘why is our food yellow?’ and ‘why do we speak a different language?’, the New York-based singer-songwriter knew what to do help him understand his culture and to also have an identity in the US as an Indian American child.
“My son's curiosity and his quest to find out about his own background and his culture inspired me to write and produce this album,” shares Falu, the only Indian nominee at the 61st Grammy Awards (to be held on 11th February 2019) about her album Falu’s Bazaar.
Commenting on being nominated at the Grammys, she says “I am honored to be representing not only India at the Grammys but also the millions of immigrants who have travelled to the US to achieve success. After immigrating in the US, one of my dreams was to win a Grammy Award, and it is surreal now to even be nominated for one. I hope that I can use this platform to motivate others to dream big and achieve their goals, whether it’s through music or any aspect of life.”
A 12-song album in English, Hindi and Gujarati, Falu’s Bazaar is nominated in the Best Children’s Music category. Ask her what makes her album stand out among other children’s albums and she says, “It’s the first south Asian album written for children in three languages - English, Hindi and Gujarati - showing them our culture and music in a very playful way. It is an educational and learning tool for kids - along with a way to have fun and be joyful.”
“I tried to draw from both Western and Indian music to the best of my ability. I think music has no boundaries at all and I poured my heart and soul into making this album, keeping all children in mind and especially my son for whom I wrote this album,” adds Falu, who has a distinct style of blending classical Indian melodies with western sounds.
Elaborating on how important it is for her to embrace her roots while creating music, she says, “I think my roots and culture are inseparable from me and we are very deeply connected. At this point, I don’t have to think of my roots and culture while creating music-they simply have become a part of me and are present every time I make music.”
Born and brought up in Mumbai, Falu began her journey in the field of music with formal training in the Jaipur musical tradition as well as the Benaras style of thumri. She further studied music under Ustad Sultan Khan, and Kishori Amonkar,(a leading Indian classical vocalist belonging to the Jaipur Gharana). Sharing how she developed an interest in music, Falu says, “My mother and grandmother both sang and that was my first introduction to music in my house which was always filled with music. My mom started my formal classical vocal training at the age of 3 with my first teacher Smt. Kaumudi Munshi, and later on I learned from Shri Uday Mazumdar, Ustad Sultan Khan, and Smt. Kishori Amonkar. My musical influences have been diverse from The Beatles to Lata Mangeshkar, Jagjit Singh, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and so many more!”
Falu’s Bazaar also features her husband, singer-songwriter Gaurav Shah, her mother, classical singer Kishori Dalal as well as her son. Talking further about the perks of coming from a musical family, she says, “It’s so beautiful to have three generations sing in your album. Having my mom there was like her blessing me all along. Having my child there was like seeing a glimpse of light in the tunnel. It reassured me that I might be able to pass on my music to my child – he would be the 12th generation of my gharana.”
After she moved to the New York in 2000, Falu joined the Boston-based Indo-American band Karyshma as a lead vocalist. After having hit the nationwide university, club as well as the festival circuits in less than a year, she formed her own band of the same name, with which she began performing at music venues throughout New York. Having garnered the attention of fans across the city, Falu then went on work with internationally celebrated musicians such as like Wyclef Jean, Philip Glass, Ricky Martin, Blues Traveler, Yo-Yo Ma, and AR Rahman.
“I loved working with everyone I collaborated with and if I can think of some amazing moments that stand out, they were when AR Rahman and I worked together for President Obama’s first State dinner for the previous Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The first few minutes of working with him at the white house showed me how humble he was and how focused he was in his music and art. To him it does not matter if he is singing for one person or 1000 people - he completely surrenders himself to a higher power,” she shares.
Journey so far
Falu’s only advice for aspiring musicians is to ‘never give up.’ “It’s been a long and complex journey where I have had my fair balance of successes and failures. I was always taught by my teachers that in music, the journey is what matters most, not the destination,” says Falu, who also works as a music teacher.
“I learn so much when I teach. It’s a time to reflect on my own understanding of music, and I end up revisiting things that I learned as a child that I now see with a fresh perspective. I believe in sticking to the essence of music, and I believe sometimes less is more in music. If you have a strong melody, great lyrics, and superb chord progression – these should convey a beautiful story.” she adds.
Talking about her future plans, she says, “My next big dream is to serve underserved communities all around the globe with the gift of music. If through my music I can help a child in this world go to sleep with a full stomach I will be super happy. That is my ultimate vision.”
And what’s cooking up in her studio right now? Falu answers, “A lot of ideas are swirling in my mind right now but I plan to make an album that draws from beautiful Urdu poetry (Ghalib and other ghazal/Sufi masters) and present these in a way that speaks to a 21st-century global audience. I love the complexity and depth of this poetry, and the comparisons with Shakespearean and other Western poetic styles is obvious. Let’s see where it all goes.”
Grammy Awards 2019 which will telecast on 11th February 2019 on Vh1 India at 7:30 am, with a primetime repeat telecast at 9 pm.