The India-born, New York-based vocalist and songwriter Falu has made a name for herself blending Hindustani classical music with pop -- both on her own and with collaborators like Yo Yo Ma, Phillip Glass and Wyclef Jean. In the past she's called her genre-blending sound "indie Hindi," and the sound that she makes is a hybridized one with a multitude of influences. But perhaps the most important influence on her work is one that she began learning from the age of three: the tradition of Indian classical music.
"It was a golden period in my life -- I was immersed in music and nothing else for years," Falu says of a time when she would practice scales for hours on end. "My throat used to hurt and sometimes bleed -- but it was not agony -- it was bliss."
Now, she's turned to another tradition for her sophomore album, Foras Road (out May 28) -- that of courtesan culture. The story of India's courtesans is a long one, full of cultural customs and complicated transactional histories. It is also a story which includes a very rich musical practice -- one that is in some ways endangered.
"Originally courtesans were court singers and entertainers for kings and nobles -- in fact much of this music was immortalized in this way over centuries," says Falu. "During this time the women entertainers were called baijis -- with the coming of British rule they went underground and the movement continued for decades in the back alleys of cultural centers such as Lucknow, Benares, Calcutta and Bombay, where they can still be found."
Foras Road takes its name from one place where they can be found today -- the road that runs through the oldest red light district in the city of Mumbai, and a place Falu visited before beginning work on the album.
The style most often heard in places like Foras Road, and which Falu sings, is the thumri style -- a style of Indian semi-classical music that Falu says "takes more liberty with ragas than formal Indian classical music styles such as Khayal. The themes are centered around an intense love and longing for the 'beloved' who can represent either a person or a divine spirit. What draws me personally to thumri is the different passions and emotions evoked -- thumri awakens in me a thirst to be in love forever."
I asked Falu to tell me a bit more about the making of Foras Road:
You've mentioned that you inherited some of this music from your teacher who was a disciple of a courtesan – was she a courtesan herself?
My teacher was not one, but her teacher was a true courtesan, the legendary Siddheshwari Devi (a baiji from Benares). I’m the seventh generation successor of her thumri style.
One of the songs you say you inherited was “Savan”? Can you describe the song a bit?
This Hindi song is a thumri in which a woman’s beloved has been away in a foreign land for years. She really misses him and wants him to come home and be with her, in a romantic and sensuous way. Savan and Badra are the best representative types of songs that are traditionally performed at Foras Road.
The album has seven languages. What are they?
The languages are Hindi, Gujarati, Awadhi, Urdu, Rajasthani, Sanskrit and Persian-derived syllables in the song Tarana. My co-singer, Gaurav Shah, and I speak Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu and know Sanskrit. The languages were not planned - we simply chose these songs from a larger repertoire of songs we love and added some original songs – and they happened to be in seven different languages.
Did any songs on the album present a challenge? If so, what happened?
The song Bahaar is a classical song I wrote with string arrangement written by Mark Tewarson. It is set in a 13-beat rhythm cycle – not easy to improvise in especially since it was recorded live -- but I’m fortunate to have worked with amazing musicians on this album such as John Medeski and Chris Wood (from Medeski, Martin and Wood). So with the help of our brilliant producer Danny Blume, the challenge was no obstacle..
Quick! Without thinking too much…what are the last three songs that you listened to?
Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Emmylou Harris’s “Michelangelo” and a Raga by Ustad Amir Khan called “Yaman”