Friday, November 6, 2009

Falu's video interview from VOAWorldMusic

Falu, a.k.a. Falguni Shah, was kind enough to give me a television interview last year when she was in Washington as the opening act for the Pakistani supergroup Junoon (see my last posting, which promoed her 1 October concert at Joe's Pub in New York), and at that time my colleague Ravi Khanna produced a fine brief video feature based on my interview, with a short excerpt of "Copper Can", one of her most compelling songs.

Now that I've developed the necessary video editing ability, I'm happy to offer more extended portions of the interview, videotaped by the ever-capable Ilyas Khan of VOA's Urdu Service.

I began the interview by asking Falu who her first music teacher was:

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In the course of her answer, after crediting her mother, Kishori Dalal, for her initial training, she refers to her next teacher, Ustad Sultan Khan. (The term "ustad", on one level, is roughly equivalent to "maestro" among Muslim musicians, and is used on another level to describe one's honored teacher, equivalent to "guru" among Hindu musicians.) She also appends the honorific "Sahib" after his name, again as a sign of respect. You may notice her touching her ear when she says his name--this, too, is a customary indication of humility when speaking of one's ustad or guru, or of some great musical figure of the past. (The gesture is distantly related to the practice in South Asia of having naughty children cross their arms and pull both ears, sometimes while bouncing up and down as though sitting on their heels, as penance for bad behavior. . . .)

Ustad Sultan Khan is one of the world's leading masters of the sarangi, a fiendishly difficult box fiddle with a skin head, four main strings, and up to 40 sympathetic strings, with a haunting sound and expressiveness close to that of the human voice--which accounts for the fact that it historically has been used to accompany classical vocalists, mimicking almost exactly their improvisations after a split second.

Falu next mentions that she studied singing in the purely classical style with Vandana Katti, a disciple (the customary word for lifetime student) of Kishori Amonkar, one of the greatest vocalists in the Hindustani (Northern South Asian) style of classical music. She represents the Jaipur gharana, or musical/hereditary tradition associated with the princely Indian city of Jaipur. (I'll have more to say on the phenomenon of gharana in a later post.)

Next I asked Falu whether she remembered her first lesson, playful or formal:

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Demonstrating how she was taught as a baby being fed by her mother, she sings (very quickly) the seven basic notes of the basic musical scale, or sargam, prevalent in South Asia (the same basic musical system exists in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, but in common parlance--and hereafter in this blog--the music is generally referred to as "Indian" music.). The word sargam is formed from the first three of the seven basic notes, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni (Sa), which correspond roughly to the western Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti (Do). Click here for my more detailed description of the Indian sargam.)

She then sings the sargam--in a scale corresponding to the western major scale--shifted up one tone, in a musical process called modulation (key or chord change) in the west, but keeping the same names for the notes, since there is no absolute pitch in Indian music.

Then she changes the scale to that based on another mode or raga, Bhairav, with a flatted second (flat Re/Re) and sixth (flat Dha/La) and the rest of the notes natural. A raga is the format for the basic melodic structure in Indian music; click here for my brief definition of raga.

When I asked her what brought her to the U.S., she replied that while she felt extremely loyal to her classical Indian roots, she was attracted by western music and its various genres: jazz, blues, rock and pop, and the opportunities they offered her for innovation:

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Knowing that improvisation is an integral part of Indian classical music, I was curious as to what circumstances led to her writing her first song. Her answer was immediate!

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The next logical question was: "What was that first original song?"

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Toward the end of her answer, I couldn't suppress a brief off-mike reference to "Both Sides Now", the seminal song by the legendary Joni Mitchell, and she agreed: "Yes, blame the clouds!"

She notes that the song was based on a classical raga, Bairagi Bhairav, a pentatonic (five-tone) raga, with the scale Sa Reb Ma Pa Nib (Sa) (Do Reb Fa Sol Tib (Do)--the "b" indicating the flat interval. In the course of the song, for a brief passage she actually sings the sargam of the scale, with the names of the notes as the words! (If I may be permitted a comment in my capacity of ethnomusicologist: the blending of Indian elements--including the raga--with a western pop sensibility and instrumental idiom in "Hey Baby" is stunningly effective, to the extend that no western listener is likely to hear anything foreign in the song, while at the same time someone familiar with South Asian classical music will most probably recognize immediately, at least subconsciously, the modal structure.)

Here is a brief audio example (used with permission) from "Hey Baby", in which she is actually singing the names of the notes--a common technique in a performance in the classical vocal style, khayal:



Finally, I referred to one reviewer's description of her as the happiest singer he had ever heard. Her response:

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