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Grammy Nominee Falu Shah’s Band Karyshma Invoke Nostalgia With New EP ‘Someday’

The US-based quartet comprising Indian-born musicians experiment with folk, sufi and Indian classical music on their latest offering

Rolling Stone India Sep 23, 2020

Karyshma’s new EP ‘Someday’ is a collection of five diverse compositions that find a common sentiment in nostalgia and longing. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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In music, there’s often talk about discovering yourself as an artist – be it your unique sound, sensibilities or values. However, the route to discovering yourself almost always remains foggy. If one were to borrow a leaf from Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Falu Shah’s band Karyshma, the most definite way to finding your true identity comes from the willingness to take chances. “The unique voice we seek can arise if we embrace what lies outside of our own comfort zone and musical traditions,” says Sandeep Swadia, the band’s co-founder and tabla player/percussionist. Boston-based Karyshma also features Soumya Chatterji on guitar, mandolin and vocals, and Gaurav Shah on flute, harmonium and vocals. Before you jump to any fusion-leaning conclusions, the band disclaims on its website: “We aren’t bringing Indian music to the West. We missed that chance by about three generations.”

Karyshma’s new EP ‘Someday’ is a collection of five diverse compositions that find a common sentiment in nostalgia and longing. The opening track “Yara” is a novel take on the familiar Lata Mangeshkar-Gulzar-Hridaynath Mangeshkar classic from Rudaali (1993),  “Yara Sili Sili.” Lovers of classical music will dig “Bheegi,” a fine composition that shows off Falu’s delicate, moving vocals. The singer, who secured a Grammy nomination in 2019 in the Best Children’s Album category for her record Falu’s Bazaar, holds her own effortlessly on the new EP amidst a challenging sonic landscape.  Says Swadia, “In Karyshma, the four of us are fortunate to have each other. To us, our music is a mere excuse to spend time together. These are lifelong friendships. There’s a beautiful Urdu word humsafar, a co-traveler. In times of trouble, leaning in on your humsafar who can elevate you is crucial.”

In this interview, the Boston-based band share their lockdown experiences and how their new record came about:

Congrats on ‘Someday’. I am curious why you kept the title English while the songs are in Hindi/Hindi dialects. Tell us more!

Thank you! This is such a unique and subtle observation. 🙂 

In order to explain the rationale behind the name Someday, we need to first share two backdrops.

From its genesis, the band Karyshma has always written multilingual music. Two band members, Soumya and Gaurav, grew up in Texas and have deep roots in Western classical and American music. The other two, Falu and Sandeep, spent their first two decades in Mumbai learning Indian classical music before immigrating to the US. (Both of them came to the US in order to chase their love interest, but that’s a story for another day.) When a chance meeting at a train station in Boston started Karyshma, these diverse musical influences of its four musicians led the band to write and sing in English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Gujarati. “People’s Music” is remarkably similar across cultures and continents. Karyshma plays in that fertile soil between the rivers. Music is humanity’s first language.

In fact, the four of us were working on Karyshma’s next album of original songs when Covid abruptly halted our world. One late night on a call, we were just bitching about the frustration of not being able to make music together when the idea of Someday spontaneously came about: why not reimagine the Indian songs from our vault of nostalgic memories? For instance, Falu remembered learning “Bheegi” as a young child from her teacher Kaumudi Munshi, Gaurav remembered sitting next to the great Ustad Sultan Khan singing “Nadi” in the middle of the night at a New York City Dhaba, Sandeep remembered his guru, Ustad Zakir Hussain tapping on his shoulders and reciting old tabla compositions (which gave rise to “Barjori”).  

During the recording process, we found that a country guitar riff could effortlessly start a thumri or a Gambian West African mandolin pattern could commingle naturally with a Hindi classic. Without any grand deliberate design, the album had gravitated toward the universal themes of love and loss, of connection and separation, going beyond a particular spoken language. That led us to choose the name Someday to project the universal emotions that go beyond words. We also wanted to stay hopeful. Yes, the world is engulfed in a depressing darkness. But, someday, the morning will come. Someday, life as we know it will get back to its old human rhythms. Someday, we’ll all realize that we’re the same. Complex, yet connected. The album name struck a chord.


The overall mood of ‘Someday’ is that of nostalgia, anticipation, and a bit of melancholy. How was the creative process of putting together the songs?

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If a man loves a woman and she loves him back, that’s life. If he loves her and she loves someone else, that’s a song. 🙂  In Someday, Karyshma wanted to point to the harmony that exists between such seemingly contradictory emotions of love and longing, merriment and melancholy. The calm that arises from seeing a deeper connection between such opposites is precious in our precarious times.

The creative process was burdened with enormous logistical hurdles! This was a true COVID era production. The four band members live in four cities across two coasts. From the first zoom call to final mastering, it took 31 days (and many all-nighters) to finish. All instruments were recorded in two home studios on each coast (in New York and in Seattle). Sandeep in NY first laid down the foundation tracks by playing and recording all Tabla, drums, percussion, and even a few pots and pans. He also added programming layers and arranged and edited the final cuts of the songs. Soumya in Seattle added guitars, strings, violins, and mandolins in his home studio. Falu and Gaurav put the vocals in a pro studio in Woodstock (yes, that Woodstock). Gaurav also found a way to insert flutes at the tail end of the production cycle by going to another pro studio late at night. The band relied heavily on cloud technology to create and share countless versions of the songs and collaborated in real time for hours until that final version we all loved was born. Given the vision of universal themes and past memories, we used analog recording gear.

All four of us are opinionated musicians (well, some more than others)! Fortunately, we have been together for 15+ years and have been the closest friends. Someday’s creative debates were often fairly heated, but always ended up making a song or a phrase or an idea a tad better. Hard to say if the final outcome was good or bad, but we can surely say that it’s better than what any one of us would have been able to produce on our own.

 

What are your creative goals with the new EP — in these gloomy times, what would you like your listeners to take away from the songs?

We wish we had some life-changing, profound insight hidden in one of the songs here, but we don’t! 🙂

We have provided approximate interpretations of the lyrics for listeners who don’t understand Hindi so they know where the song lives. How it manifests within the listener is not something we can regulate. Music is a subjective experience and every one of us hears and connects with the same song in a uniquely individual way. Even the four of us would have four different takeaways from each of the five songs we picked. That said, these songs as a collection, when heard in the sequence we chose, strive to tell a story that’s from hopelessness to redemption. If even a fraction of a song helps the listener connect with his or her cherished memories and hope, that would be terrific.

In normal times, one might have gone on a tour after releasing an EP. With regular gigs and concerts yet to resume, how do you plan to keep your fans engaged in the near future? You must miss the stage too! Tell us more.

Karyshma has lived on stage for almost all of our musical lives together. For us, the band is the audience. Each one of us plays to seek that “vaah” from the other three (it comes rarely but it’s well-earned). The Karyshma fans come to watch the chemistry of the foursome. At times, in the top tier music clubs, we’ve extemporaneously decided to throw away the set and sit on the floor in a “mehfil” style and just do the acoustic set. So yes indeed, we miss all that risk-taking.

That said, once we’re on the other side of the post-release promotion cycle, we intend to do live and pre-taped concerts online on YouTube and other destinations. We’re in fact in the midst of figuring out how to record live “unplugged” versions of some songs from Someday in the coming weeks. We’ll share those online.

 

Which was the most creatively challenging song on the EP and why?

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To paraphrase the famed director Ron Howard, every creative process ultimately finds its way to break your heart 🙂 Each song had its own Achilles’ Heel. because we wanted to fully preserve each song’s original flavor while bringing something fresh to it. We knew from day one that our toughest song to pull off would be “Barjori”. We were right. Falu and Sandeep worked on the two-part song for days to construct and reconstruct the song structure, but the other two band members kept vetoing it. (Karyshma rule #1: A song works only when all four of us say it works.) 

We can geek out on the technical aspects of the song, but let’s just focus on the three challenges for “Barjori.” First, the song had to find its musical arc by moving gracefully from the first part (the feeling of the flirtatious infatuation of a young couple–Krishna and Radha in this case) to the second part (the acceptance of life’s pathos and the redemption through letting go). Second, while we chose the song’s groove to be in a 16 beat cycle, we wanted the Tabla compositions to be only 14 and three quarters long, while maintaining the rhythmic symmetry. Third, this was the last song on the album, so we wanted to bring all of our favorite instruments together: from North Indian and South Indian drums, from harmonium to electric guitars, and from violins to sarangi.  

Like many things in life, we kept stumbling forward and eventually found the right recipe. Managing the rich rhythmic and melodic palette without our ability to be in the same room together were all challenging aspects. Danny Blume, our Grammy Award-winning mixing engineer and producer, lovingly refers to “Barjori” as ‘The Beast’ because of all the craziness we had thrown at him. The song morphed into something entirely different than what we had initially imagined, but that’s the fun part about making music.

 

Do you listen to a lot of contemporary classical/fusion musicians from India? Who are your favorites?

Ironically, we are a bit old-fashioned. Ustad Amir Khan, Kishori Amonkar, Ustad Sultan Khan, Ustad Rashid Khan are our favorites. Jagjit Singh and Shankar Mahadevan stop us in our tracks every time. And of course, Ustad Zakir Hussain– we believe he might have superhuman powers! 🙂 

 

What is your message to budding musicians who want to make a career in classical music?

We are nowhere worthy of imparting words of wisdom to anyone. We’re still looking for answers ourselves, seekers and students looking for that one perfect note to sing before we are done.

However, we can share one practical insight that we gleaned from our own journey together as a band. Karyshma arrived at its weird genre-warping crossroad by no deliberate design. Half of the band was trained in Indian classical/folk and the other half in Western/American. Such serendipitous cross-hatching, led each of us to evolve as a musician by integrating the non-familiar. Falu learned incredible breathing techniques from a Western opera singer, Sandeep spent years playing with Jazz drummers and bass players from Berklee School of Music in Boston, Soumya learned the intricacies of not only Bach but also of Bageshri, Gaurav played Bansuri and sang ghazals as easily as he constructed stacked harmonies.

Most serious music students understand the ‘excellence before success’ ethos. It is fairly clear that if you want to make a career in music, you have to find your unique ‘voice.’ What’s not clear is that, even after dedicating thousands of hours in honing the craft, you’ll hear that nagging narrative in your head that will keep telling you it’s not good enough. The irony here is that at times what we all search for is right in front of us. The unique voice we seek can arise if we embrace what lies outside of our own comfort zone and musical traditions. When you open up your aperture to allow for other tangential musical paths to intermingle with yours, your own path becomes more well-rounded, your own voice more well-defined. It may feel like you’re meandering and lost in the woods. But have faith. In the end, you do end up with a sum of the parts that is greater than the whole. Don’t be threatened by that negative narrative in your head that seeks to constrain you. Be free. 

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