Singer and songwriter Falu Shah forged her reputation with what she calls “Indie Hindi,” a unique meld of Indian classical and contemporary sounds. She’s worked with musicians from a variety of genres — including A.R. Rahman, Wyclef Jean, Philip Glass and Blues Traveler. But right now, the high-energy Shah forcefully belts out Dolly Parton’s country classic “Jolene” over the phone to me from India. We had been talking country music and favorite songs, which inspired her to start singing. It wasn’t the first time she’d done so during the conversation. “Jolene, jolene, jolene, jolene,” she purrs throatily, “I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.”
Not many singers can pull off “Jolene,” but Shah’s not your everyday performer. She’s been training in Hindustanic classical music since she was a two-year old in India. She neatly sings a few more bars before switching over to a raga. “Right now I’m very obsessed with Emmylou Harris’s ‘Michaelangelo’ and of course this song,” she explains. “I’m trying to experiment with putting a raga in ‘Jolene.’”
Thumri-inspired ‘Foras Road’ has an array of styles & sounds
If anyone could do that, it would be Falu. Just listen to Foras Road, Shah’s latest album. It features lyrics in seven South Asian languages and instruments ranging from the shehnai to the dobro. “I recorded half the album in India and half in the United States,” says Shah. “Most of the percussion and the foundation of the album was laid out in India because nobody in here plays some of the tribal instruments we used.” And much like her earlier albums, “Foras Road” features a variety of musicians from around the world, including jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Under other musicians, such an array of styles could come off as dizzying, but Shah manages to achieve an inviting, seamless sound.
The album itself drew inspiration from thumri, a style of music often sung by Indian courtesans, a rapidly-disappearing culture. “I went to the courtesan section of Foras Road, the road that runs through the oldest and largest red-light district in Mumbai and I was able to learn a 5,000-year old thumri directly from the disciple of a courtesan,” recalls Shah. “It’s a secret society,” she tells me lowering her voice. “Only the very rich are able to support courtesans and their arts — and the patrons are getting to be in the double digits now. But I was able to penetrate the courtesans’ gated compound. ”
Thumri music itself can only be described as “seductive.” Or as Shah puts it, “a sensual way of inviting love without being overtly sexy.” Just listen to the dulcet tones of “Savan,” one of Shah’s favorite songs on the album. Even a casual listener cannot escape the eroticism the song evokes. And like others, it conjures up images of a heavy-lidded Rekha performing in Umrao Jaan, a film that also inspired Shah’s album.
When she’s not focusing on Foras Road, Shah keeps busy with a multitude of other tasks. She’s been songwriting, both for herself and others, including Hindi lyrics for a Jay Sean song. But right now she’s in India, at the beck and call of legendary classical guru Kishori Amonkar. “All of these gurus have passed away and she’s one of the last ones alive,” says Shah, who sometimes visits Amonkar up to twice a day, only at the guru-ji’s request, of course. “She’s very temperamental,” Shah says with a hint of mischief. “Sometimes I’ll get ready and she won’t call me. Other days she’ll keep me singing for half a day.”
Her dedication to improving her art inspires Shah to remain a perpetual student. “You don’t want your art to get saturated,” she explains. “You want to be challenged.”
A musical transition from student to teacher
When I interviewed Shah three years ago, plans for Foras Road had just begun. Additionally, she and her husband, Gaurav Shah, who also performs in her band, had begun preparing for their first child. I ask her how things have changed since we last talked. “I had difficulties adjusting to motherhood,” she says, “ But it has been the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me.”
After the birth of her son, Shah transitioned from music student to teacher. “In New York City, there’s always peer pressure to enroll very young children in classes. It’s a fashion thing.” She laughs. “I fell into that trap and went to a few music classes with my son. But I realized right away that giving children a few instruments is not the same as teaching children.”
So Shah channeled her musical energy in a new direction and promptly made up her own syllabus as an “experiment.” She invited all of her friends with children to come to her apartment and began teaching them the scales in Hindi, incorporating additional aspects of Indian culture and music along the way. “It really picked up,” she says. She now has plans to expand the program to other cities. “Young children pick up songs so easily. It’s so uncomfortable to hear sexy Bollywood lyrics from the mouth of a two-year old,” she says, singing a few bars of a Hindi item song. “Why not teach them an appropriate song?” Why not, indeed.