Two Indians – Falguni Shah and Ricky Kej – win big at the 64th Grammys

In the early hours of Monday morning, when the announcement was made for legendary drummer Stewart Copeland and Ricky Kej to receive the Grammy for Divine Tides (Lahiri Music) for the Best New Age Album, life for the Bengaluru musician seemed to have come full circle. Dressed in a navy blue bandhgala, Kej bent down on stage to touch Copeland’s feet and expressed gratitude to have joined him on his “musical journey”. “I grew up with his (Copeland’s) posters on my wall and today I have won a Grammy along with him. It’s amazing,” said 40-year-old Kej on stage. “In India, we have a saying – Vasudev Kutumbhkam – the world is one family… living in peace with the human species, and also with all entities on this planet. Divine Tides is about that co-existence,” added Kej.

This is the second Grammy for the Indian musician. His first had come at the 57th Grammy ceremony in 2015 for Winds of Samsara – a collaboration with South African flautist Wouter Kellerman. The 14-song album began with tributes to their respective fathers of the nation – Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and went on to explore other aspects of Indian and African music.

Born in the US, Kej grew up in Bengaluru as his family moved to India when he was eight. He went to the famous Bishop Cotton Boys’ school, where he taught himself how to play the keys and guitar. He was studying to be a dentist in college when he decided that music was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Though Kej’s parents weren’t interested in the idea, he decided to formally learn Hindustani classical music and western music — a lot of it by imbibing music from Pakistani musician Ut Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and British vocalist Peter Gabriel. For a brief period of time, he was the keyboardist for Angel Dust, a Bengaluru-based progressive rock band. He began his career with jingles and has composed a plethora of them, for brands such as Google, IBM, McDonald’s, Pepsi and Air India, among others. It was while working on advertising jingles that Kej was fascinated by the idea of merging new age music with world music, which touched upon classical, jazz, electronic or a mix of it all. Divine Tides uses the sitar and flute along with varied drum arrangements by Copeland and gentle vocals. The result is a nine-track album that is a tribute to the natural world, the album is presented through a diverse soundscape and ambient textures.

Another Indian who brought the hallowed gramophone home is New York-based Falguni Shah aka Falu, who won the Best Children’s album for A Colourful World (El Cerrito Records). The album stemmed from her struggles to explain racial equity to her child, who is brown and studies with kids from varying ethnicities. “So we made a song about being brown or what our real identity is. The story was simple – the crayons are all of different colours but they live in one box together, peacefully. I wanted to show him that being brown is alright. And music gets through kids in a much easier way. When you talk to your kids through songs and happiness, it easily penetrates into their minds as compared to lectures,” said Falu to The Indian Express in an earlier interview about the album, which includes 11 songs, such as Happy, Rainbow, Kite, A Visit to the Farm and The Elephant Stomp, among others.

Falu beat Mexican duo Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band (Crayon Kids), Spanish musicians 123 Andrés (Actívate), 1 Tribe Collective (All One Tribe) that features 26 artistes from a black family, and American politician, musician and academic Pierce Freelon (Black to the Future) to win the award. She walked up the stage in a red brocade and embroidered gown along with her son and two other kids who are a part of the album. In 2019, Falu was nominated for Falu’s Bazaar, also an attempt to reassure her son of his roots and identity.

Early last year — the Grammys 2020 — the best children’s music category got caught in a controversy, a rarity for a simple category such as this. Three of the five nominees in the category refused to accept the nomination because the five nominees were “all-white”, including themselves. This was in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, where racial equity in America was questioned. Musician Alistair Moock, and the acts Dog on Fleas and the Okee Dokee Brothers didn’t want to be nominated at the Grammys. Conversations that followed led to policy changes by the Academy, resulting in a very different kind of nomination list this time – five artistes of colour had been nominated, including Falu. “A lot of people felt that some fields in music just do not have enough colourful representation and declining the nomination was their way to say that,” said Falu, adding that the Recording Academy also changed the way it chose a winner. Under the new policy, nominees in non-craft categories, such as children’s music, will be chosen through votes – a landmark change from the lack of transparency that has existed in the system. Falu’s own album has a list of diverse musicians and producers on board. “We are from all backgrounds, but music united us,” she said.

Growing up in Mumbai, Falu would listen to her mother, a musician at All India Radio, humming a variety of ragas. After a few years, she would cock her ears to RD Burman hits and The Beatles. Her interest in music led to training in music, first under musicians Kaumudi Munshi and Uday Mazumdar, who taught her Gujarati folk music, ghazal and other genres that were not purely classical, followed by Hindustani classical training under sarangi maestro Sultan Khan and later under Jaipur-Atrauli doyenne Kishori Amonkar.

Her moment in the sun came with a performance for the Obamas at the White House alongside AR Rahman for the President’s first state dinner in 2009. Since then Falu has collaborated with the likes of ace cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Silk Road Project), iconic American composer Philip Glass, and Latin popstar Ricky Martin apart from creating a bunch of albums. In A Colourful World, Falu sings in English but with her glides from classical music in place. “I am glad my producers kept it,” Falu had said about the album that was entirely produced during COVID. “This award is also for Ukraine.. And for women,” she said in her acceptance speech.

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