Grammy or no Grammy, this desi mother will always sing from her heart

Falu Shah

The Grammy may not have come her way ultimately, but India-born Falguni Shah’s journey is a remarkable one.

Popular by her stage name Falu, she walked the red carpet at the Staples Center in Los Angeles today (Feb. 11) after being nominated for the music world’s most coveted award in the children’s music category. The nomination was for her debut album, Falu’s Bazaar, which takes families on a musical trip of south Asia. But the award was finally bagged by Lucy Kalantari and The Jazz Cats for All the Sounds.

Thirty-nine-year-old Falu grew up in Mumbai before moving to the US in 2000 to work as a visiting lecturer at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “When my little son turned four and started school, he came home with questions like, ‘Ma, why is our food yellow? Why do we speak a different language at home versus school? Why do we count our numbers differently?’ I thought the best way to answer his questions was through music,” Falu told Quartz in an email interview.

“So, I decided to make this album to give him, and all children who come from diverse backgrounds, a sense of identity.”

Over the last two decades, Falu has collaborated with high-profile musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, Wyclef Jean, Philip Glass, Ricky Martin, Blues Traveler, and AR Rahman. She has even performed for Barack Obama during his time at the White House.

Here are the edited excerpts of Quartz’s interview with Falu, done prior to the 61st Grammy awards:

How did you get into music?

My mother and my grandmother sang. So music was always in my family. When I was three years old, my mom enrolled me in a formal music class with my first teacher Kaumudi Munshi and later I studied with Uday Mazumdar, Ustad Sultan Khan, and Kishori Amonkar. My training was super intense, sometimes practicing for 16 hours a day for at least 10 years. I learned all styles of music—classical, semi-classical, folk, ghazal, and devotional.

Did you expect Falu’s Bazaar to succeed so much?

I wasn’t expecting any of this. I made music that was straight from a mother’s heart—to show and teach my son his roots. Also in the US, there is no children’s music that crosses Indian and US culture. I am proud just to have achieved this. Whatever has come is beyond all my expectation. But, of course, I am happy with the response. It is difficult to be an Indian musician in the US. 

Is it difficult to be an Indian musician in the US, given the current political climate in the country?

Yes, it is hard in the current political climate, the changes in the music industry, and given the little knowledge about India or Indian music. But I can also say that there is a big appetite for diversity in the US. Who would have thought that a mother singing an old children’s lullaby from India would get such a response from parents in America? It just shows the common bonds we all share regardless of being Indian or not.

I hope to continue to evolve and bring the power of Indian classical music and instruments to bear.

Who’s your inspiration or mentor in the music industry?

I have many inspirations. My teachers include Lata Mangeshkar ji, the late Jagjit Singh, Bono from U2, Paul Simon, The Beatles, and many more. Linda Carbone is one of my mentors in the music world along with John Popper from Blues Traveler.

What is next for you in your career? Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

Who knows? I am excited about the future, including both in the US and India. In five to 10 years, I really want to bring a new sound leveraging Indian classical (music) to the world. We have so much richness in Indian music as well as a history of collaboration. Bringing the intricate and joyous aspect of our Indian sounds is what I hope to bring together with sounds from outside the culture.

And lastly, did you expect to win the Grammy?

I expected to have the best of the best times and enjoy myself fully at the Grammy!

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