Melody of Ragas
United States-based singer Falguni Shah learnt music from Indian maestros such as Kishori Amonkar and Ustad Sultan Khan, and has collaborated with popular musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, Philip Glass, and AR Rahman.
The raw energy and subtle details that Falguni Shah’s voice carry are a reminder that Indian classical music cannot yet be declared a dying form of art amid the clamor of different genres flooding usual playlists.
The United States-based singer, popularly known as Falu, talks about her musical journey in the country and tells Little India about her current project, Falu’s Bazaar. The album, scheduled to be released this week, features her work with children.
“My current project is a South Asian album made for kids in three languages — Hindi, Gujarati and English. The need to come out with such an album stemmed from a gap in the market for a South Asian album for children,” says Shah.
She noticed the need only when she had a child. While looking for an album for kids, she felt the need of coming up with originals — songs that were well-suited for children to know their roots and culture. The album not only has Shah lending her voice to some melodious numbers, it also has children, who she teaches, crooning to some peppy songs. She adds that it was wonderful to be able to provide children the experience of singing for an album.
Shah’s melodious journey began at the age of two and a half, when her mother took began teaching her. “My mother and grandmother were both singers and when I was two and a half years old my mom heard me and realized I could sing so started training me right away,” she says.
Later she also learnt music from the eminent Indian classical vocalist Kishori Amonkar and from sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan. She reminisces that being taught by the legendary artistes was a divine experience that kept her grounded. “If she was teaching us, we had to follow every little detail that she sang. Messing up or not paying attention amounted to breaking her flow. Learning from guru Kishori Amonkar made me realize how little I knew of music and that there still a long way to go,” says Shah.
The singer, who grew up in Mumbai, moved to the United States in 2000 and subsequently collaborated with musicians from different genres, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Silk Road Project), rapper Wyclef Jean, popular Latin popstar Ricky Martin, iconic American composer Philip Glass, as well as Academy and Grammy Award winning Indian musician AR Rahman.
Working with Rahman, says Shah, was a life-altering experience. She was a part of the soundtrack in the Indian composer’s film Slumdog Millionaire, which also fetched him two Oscars. “Singing with AR Rahman was a very beautiful experience. He is a man of few words and the singers have to understand everything he wants from us for that particular song in that ambit,” she says. Shah adds that it is artistes like Rahman and Amonkar who have taught her the most valuable lessons — to lead life with humility.
Another feather in Shah’s cap was in 2009 when she performed alongside Rahman for former U.S. President Barack Obama’s first presidential dinner.
Shah has seldom veered off from her roots and tries to add a hint of Indian classical notes in all her productions and albums. “Even in Falu’s Bazaar, you will hear alap in a song. Another song in the album is set to taal Rupak. Classical music is what I breathe so everything I do has to have it in some format,” she explains.
Shah’s previous album Foras Road, produced by the Grammy Award-winning producer Danny Blume, was a tribute to her Indian roots. It was inspired from the stories of women of the infamous red-light area on Mumbai’s Foras Road. The album features an amalgam of different tones and comes alive with the taans and soulful rendition of many ragas by Shah.
The singer feels thankful for all the adulation and appreciation she has received for her music. “I have been very lucky to receive the same kind of love and admiration from both, fans in the United States and fans in India,” she says. “The appreciation and kindness are always similar from fans from both countries. Just the way they express is different.”