Falu, New York’s indie Hindi queen, goes back to Bollywood

The singer trained in classical Indian traditions blends Indian film tunes with contemporary Western pop

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Indian-born singer-songwriter Falguni Shah is better known as Falu, an influential musician who has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma on his Silk Road project and with A.R. Rahman on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. She has also released two albums with her band.

Trained in the Jaipur Gharana musical tradition as a child, Falu, 37, is known for what she calls “indie Hindi”, a blend of classical Indian melodies and contemporary Western pop music. Now she has returned to the Bollywood music of her parents, backed by an orchestra of Eastern and Western instruments. Roger Catlin spoke to Falu from her home in New York.

Why choose the Bollywood sound after inaugurating “indie Hindi”?

I come from Mumbai. When you grow up in Mumbai, you can’t escape Bollywood. It’s ingrained. It’s a lifestyle. Radio has it. TV has it. Any cultural festival will have Bollywood music. So it’s always there in the back of your mind. And when I had a chance to perform with A.R. Rahman, he really made me fond of it. Sometimes you work with people and they instigate something really cool about that music that I or somebody else would not really think. That really started the process of: why don’t I do something? (Because I’m) living here in America and trying to bring this classic Bollywood music to the two South Asian generations that are here. We have our parents’ generation, who immigrated in the 1960s and ’70s, and now their kids, second-generation South Asians who grew up here. They heard Bollywood music all the time at home. Sometimes children do not think that whatever their parents are into is cool, so they rebel against it.

How did you bridge that?

In creating this orchestra, we have taken the old songs from the ’60s and ’70s and we have treated them with today’s modern music. So the arrangements are a little different and more relevant to now.

Do young South Asians remember the old songs?

They do. They will say, “Oh, my God, I heard this song that my father used to play when I was four years old!” They would hear the melody and the song, but the way we do it is very different. They really gravitate to it. It’s something they and their parents can call their own.

Is the older generation offended by this new approach?

No. Because for them, the arrangement doesn’t matter – it’s all about the song. And we have kept the songs and melody evident. We did not change anything there, but we have treated it differently and they like it, because it’s cool. It’s different.

Do you have a broad audience?

When we started, we didn’t really think about the kind of audience, South Asian or not, would be attracted to this. But we have seen a lot of non-South Asians coming to this, because they understand strings, they understand all the chord progressions and the treatment of these songs. They are curious to see what a Bollywood song sounds like with American or Western orchestration.

Can you give me an example of a Bollywood song and what you’ve done to it?

For instance, we have a classic song, Raina Beeti Jaye. It’s from a movie called Amar Prem in the ’60s. It’s very classical. It did not have very heavy orchestration or anything like that. So we took that song, which was pure raga – two melodic scales – and some Indian classical music, and then we wrote the strings and the arrangement according to those ragas but also incorporating the voices of a cello or a violin or a viola and with horn. We orchestrated it as traditional raga with Western element as well. And it’s cool because our string players have learned to do Indian ornamentations. These are string players from Carnegie Hall and Juilliard, classical Western string players and members of Western-style orchestras, but because they work with Bollywood and all the classical stuff that we do, they are starting to incorporate the nuances and ornaments of South Asian culture. It’s just the coolest thing.

That must be an unusual experience for them.

I tell them: “In this melodic scale raga, we actually do the 21st note, can you play that?” Then I sing and they try to copy. Boundaries are being crossed right there: how can we incorporate more notes in Western orchestration?

How did you get this idea of blending cultures and eras?

Obviously The Beatles were a big influence when I was growing up. And whatever they did was so mind-blowing that there was no stopping or looking back for me. If they can do it, Indian classical music can be a part of mainstream music in America. Here are these four guys from England who don’t know anything about sitars, don’t know anything about ragas, but just the way they had written songs, whatever they learned, was so real. I especially love George Harrison, because he was more into the culture. His thinking about the melodies, about how the two flats or how the one flat and one sharp can work, was brilliant. I’m not sure how the majority of Indian people reacted. But for me, it really got me fired up to do something.

Are there traditionalists who don’t approve of tampering with Indian music?

Yes, my own teachers. But some of them were very open-minded. Sultan Khan, who was my guru, my teacher, he actually toured with a Beatle, we heard all the stories of how George Harrison and Ravi Shankar worked. Then there are some teachers I learned from who were purists, who said you should only do ragas, and I was like, “Sure.” When I was with them, I didn’t say anything, I just studied pure ragas. They don’t really restrict me from doing anything, but when they teach, they’re very pure.

You speak and record in six languages. Isn’t that a barrier to reaching those who aren’t multilingual?

It’s not a barrier at all. Music is universal. No matter what I’m talking about, if they understand the language, great. If they don’t, they still feel the emotion. I’ve never really faced an audience that was not connected to me because of my language.

I understand your first performance in Washington was at the White House.

It was when President Obama took office. It was the first state dinner, for the Indian prime minister. It was the most amazing, most beautiful and wonderful experience I’ve ever had. President Obama and his amazing wife were so gracious and so down-to-earth, and they really took care of the artists. We had to perform two or three songs with the National Symphony Orchestra, and Jai Ho (from Slumdog Millionaire) was a big hit at the time. It was the finale at the dinner, and when we started playing it I guess everybody in the audience, no matter their race, colour or religion, they were all singing Jai Ho with us. It was so cool to see that.

Your music was also featured in the long-running “Beyond Bollywood” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

It was a big deal for us ... There are so many South Asian artists here in America, but not everybody gets this opportunity. I came here with the “indie Hindi” sound. That was my first album, and I was trying to do something, with no commercial aspect at all, and the Smithsonian really picked up on that album. ... I felt so proud and grateful and honoured, a young girl from Mumbai having no direction, just following her dreams and passions and not giving up.

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