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 also has released two albums with her band.
Trained in the Jaipur Gharana musical traditions 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, which she’ll perform Friday at the Barns at Wolf Trap, backed by an orchestra of Eastern and Western instruments.
We spoke with Falu recently from her home in New York about her approach.
Why choose the Bollywood sound after inaugurating Indie Hindi?
I come from Mumbai. When you grow up in Mumbai, you can’t escape Bollywood at all. 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 into the two South Asian generations that are here.
We have our parents’ generation, who immigrated in the ’60s and ’70s, and now their kids, who are second-generation South Asians who grew up here. In their houses, they heard Bollywood music all the time. What happened is, 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, which are classic, amazing, beautiful songs that have lived for more than 30 years, and we have treated them with today’s modern music. So the arrangements are a little bit different, more relevant to this time, versus the way things were recorded in the ’60s.
Do young South Asians remember the old songs?
They do. They will say, “Oh, my God, I have heard this song that my father used to play when I was 4 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 call their own, but it’s also something their fathers can call their own. In this way, we’re trying to bridge the gap between the two generations.
Is the older generation offended by this new approach?
No. Because for them, the arrangement doesn’t matter — the song matters. And we have kept the songs and melody evident. We did not change anything from there, but we have treated it differently and they actually like it, because it’s cool. It’s different.
Do you have a broad audience?
When we started, we didn’t really think of what kind of audience, South Asian or non-South Asian, would be attracted to this. But, to our surprise, 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 very curious to see what a Bollywood song can sound like when treated 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. So we orchestrated it in the traditional raga but bringing out the Western element as well.
And it’s cool because our string players have actually learned to do Indian ornamentations. These are string players from Carnegie Hall and Juilliard, so they are classical Western string players and members of those kinds of orchestras, but because they work with Bollywood and all the classical stuff that we do, even they are starting to incorporate the nuances and ornaments of South Asian culture. And it’s just the coolest thing. It’s kind of a bridge-crossing even there.
Are they learning new instruments as well?
No, they’re playing their own instruments. But they’re playing ornaments and microtones because we have 22 notes and Western music has 12 notes. So they’re actually learning how to play the 20th note or the 19th note on their cello.
That must be an unusual experience for them.
Yes, as I explain to them, “In this melodic scale raga, we actually do the 21st note, can you play that?” Then I sing and they try to copy that. The boundaries are crossing even 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 growing up. And whatever they did was so mind-blowing that there was no stopping, and no 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 love especially George Harrison, because he was more into the culture completely. 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 was something that really started this fire of doing 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, so we could hear 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’m like, “Sure.” When I go with them to study, I don’t mention anything, but I study pure ragas. Then I come out and they don’t really restrict me from doing anything, but when they teach, they’re very pure.
You speak and record in six languages. Does that set a barrier to reach those who aren’t as multilingual?
It’s not a barrier at all. Music is universal. So 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 first took office. It was the first state dinner, for the Indian prime minister. It was the most amazing and most beautiful and wonderful experience I’ve ever had in my life. President Obama and his amazing wife were so gracious and so down-to-earth, and they really, 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 big hit at the time. It was the finale song at the dinner, and when we started playing it I guess everybody in the audience, no matter what race, or color 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 got 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 honored, like, a young girl from Mumbai having no direction, just following her dreams and passions and not giving up. Life just sometimes goes on, and you go with the flow without interrupting it a lot.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
Falu’s Bollywood OrchestraFriday at 8 p.m. at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna. 703-255-1900. wolftrap.org. $22-$27.