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Subcontinental Melodies: Two South Asian American Women Make History Winning Their Maiden Grammys

Subcontinental Melodies: Two South Asian American Women Make History Winning Their Maiden Grammys

  • Indian American Falu (Falguni Shah) won the award for Best Children's Album for “A Colorful World,” while Pakistani American Arooj Aftab won the coveted trophy in the Best Global Music Performance category for her song “Mohabbat.”

Two New York-based musicians made history by winning their first Grammy today (April 3) at the 64th edition of the annual awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Indian American musician Falu (Falguni Shah) won a Grammy for Best Children’s Album for “A Colorful World,” while Pakistani American Arooj Aftab won the coveted trophy in the Best Global Music Performance category for her song “Mohabbat.” The 36-year-old who became the first Pakistani woman to win a Grammy was also nominated in the Best New Artist category but lost to singer-songwriter and actress Olivia Rodrigo.

Falu’s fellow nominees included“Actívate” (123 Andrés); “All One Tribe” (1 Tribe Collective); “Black To The Future” (Pierce Freelon) and “Crayon Kids” (Lucky Diaz And The Family Jam Band). Aftab edged past “Do Yourself” − Angélique Kidjo and Burna Boy; Pà Pá Pà” − Femi Kuti; “Blewu” − Yo-Yo Ma and Angélique Kidjo, and Essence” − Wizkid featuring Tems.

Meanwhile, North Carolina-born, Bangalore-based music composer Ricky Kej won his second Grammy in the Best New Age Album category for “Devine Tides,” along with Stewart Copeland.

“Filled with gratitude and love this living-legend standing with me – @copelandmusic,” Kej tweeted. “My second Grammy and Stewart’s 6th. Thank you to everyone who ever collaborated, hired, or listened to my music. I exist because of you.” 

Kej won his first Grammy in 2015 for his album “Winds of Samsara” in the Best New Age Album category.

Aftab, in her acceptance speech, said: “I think I’m gonna faint.” Acknowledging her fellow nominees, she wondered if the category should be called ‘yacht party category,’ instead of Best World Music Performance. “But, anyway, thank you so much to everyone who helped me make this record, all my incredible collaborators, for following me and making this music I made about everything that broke me and put me back together,” she continued. “Thank you for listening to it and making it yours.”

In a Facebook post after winning the award, Falu wrote: “I have no words to describe today’s magic. What an honor to perform for the opening number of today’s GRAMMY Premiere Ceremony, and then take home a statue on behalf of all the incredible people who worked on ‘A Colorful World.’ We are humbled and thank the Recording Academy for this tremendous recognition. Thank you to the entire team who helped make this album and thank you to the children who contributed so fabulously to this album.”

Falu told BBC Radio before the April 3 Grammy Awards that as a “brown South Asian woman,” she liked that she was able “to bring the message of unity, inclusiveness and love and positivity and the upliftment through music.” Talking about her album, she said: ”It’s a very diverse and a very colorful team that made this colorful album. I feel like we are all like colors, crayons, staying in a box united happily with each other, but also have our own voices and emotions. And that’s what a colorful world is all about.”

This is Falu’s first Grammy and second nomination. She was nominated in 2018 in the same category for her children’s album “Falu’s Bazaar,” a trilingual album is sung in English, Hindi, and Gujarati, with traditional instrumentation.

Originally from Mumbai, Falu moved to the U.S. in 2000 and was appointed as a visiting lecturer at Tufts University. Her subsequent career here has led to a series of high-profile collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Wyclef Jean, Philip Glass, Ricky Martin, Blues Traveler and A. R. Rahman amongst others. 

She was appointed Carnegie Hall’s ambassador of Indian Music in 2006 and has performed for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. She was a featured performer at the Time-100 gala in 2009. Her first album “Falu” was featured in Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit as representative of the voice of Indian American trendsetting artists.

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She currently performs and writes with her band, Falu & Karyshma, an internationally recognized supergroup known for its ability to weave together the intensity of rock, the improvisation of jazz, and the intricacies of India’s deepest musical traditions.

Born to Pakistani parents in Saudi Arabia, Aftab spent her teenage years in Lahore before relocating to Boston in 2005 to study music production and engineering at the prestigious Berklee School of Music. She prefers to sing in Urdu and blends minimalist jazz and neo-Sufi sounds. 

She is an “entirely self-taught female soloist and guitarist in a culture where opportunities for music study—especially for women—are severely limited,” according to her profile on the Berklee College of Music. Now she uses her music to speak openly about social issues in Pakistan and around the world. As a student at Berklee, she and three others started the Berklee Peace Institute, a group of musicians working together as social activists, motivating people with music and instigating them to make positive changes.

Her debut album “Bird Under Water” (2015) and her sophomore album “Siren Islands” (2018) “are both early attempts at melding the worlds she grew up in, plating qawwali and Urdu lyrics with jazz instrumentation and ambient electronica respectively,” according to Pitchfork. She released her third studio album “Vulture Prince” to critical acclaim and gained even more attention after former US President Barack Obama included the track “Mohabbat” on his 2021 summer favorites list. 

Currently, she is working on her next album and beginning research into the 18th century Urdu poetry of Chanda Bai, as well as readying the release of a jazz trio project with the pianist Vijay Iyer, “Love in Exile,” and a repressing of Vulture Prince featuring a new track with British-Indian artist Anoushka Shankar.

However, Nora Jones, daughter of legendary Indian sitarist and composer Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was nominated for the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for “Til We Meet Again (Live)” lost out to jazz singer Tony Bennett, 95, who became the second-oldest winner of a Grammy Award. Bennett, together with pop superstar Lady Gaga, won the Grammy for the traditional pop vocal album for “Love for Sale,” their collection of Cole Porter standards.

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