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Review: FALU: A JOURNEY THROUGH INDIA at Kennedy Center

The latest in the virtual Performances for Young Audiences series

Review: FALU: A JOURNEY THROUGH INDIA  at Kennedy Center

The third of the Kennedy Center's six online Performances for Young Audiences this spring is a musical one - and one that can be enjoyed by a much wider age range.

"Falu: A Journey through India" is a performance of the inventive musical outfit that blends traditional Indian music with more familiar Western sounds. Falu is the name of both the band and its charismatic lead singer, also known as Falguni Shah, who leads the 30-minute performance with a handful of songs from her homeland, given a new verve and sparkle from her masked and socially distanced three-man band, assembled in a Brooklyn studio where the incense is burning to help set the scene.

"Can you say Indie Hindi?" she asks her virtual audience as she explains both the song's meanings and the places where they originated. It results in a kind of travelogue, complete with helpful map, and provides cultural insight as well, as she informs her audience that India is home to more than two dozen languages and, without bragging, she knows at least six of them. "How many do you know?" she asks an American audience that probably feels bad about the answer.

While she is a compelling performer, whose hands wave and point to her notes as if to manually track the glissandos she calls ornamentation, the visual presentation also includes cuts to colorful Indian scenes of markets, textiles, candles set out on waterways, and life in India.

While the concert begins with drummer Deep Singh playing tabla and guitarist Bryan Vargas maintaining a drone sound on the electric guitar on a Rajasthani prayer called "Poojan," the more familiar rock backing emerges on the Sufi song that follows, "O Lal Meri," in which Falu invites the audience to join in with Qawwali clapping - fingers apart, slapping palms.

She uses her original song "Rabba" to demonstrate the full range of her vocal ornamentation - not so different from the way Mariah Carey might vocally oscillate on a song, as Singh moves to a traditional Western drum set for the first time.

The bright colors of the spring festival Hori are shown as she sings a song from Uttar Pradesh province that celebrates the occasion.

It's the Indian version of the pitch names "do re mi" that begins the 3,000 year old "Eastbound," a classical Indian raga that almost sounds like scat.

They close with "Ghumar," a song celebrating the coming of age of women in Rajasthan, much like a bat mitzvah in Jewish culture. And we see a photo from young Falu's own ceremony, helping to further connect with Kennedy Center's young audience.

"Music is universal," Falu told me when I interviewed her in 2016 for The Washington Post. "So no matter what I'm talking about, if they understand the language, great. If they don't, they still feel the emotion. I've never really faced an audience that was not connected to me because of my language."

"Falu: A Journey Through India" will also make that connection, despite the limitations of the streaming presentation. More than 1,200 schools are signed up to stream the production for free; families at home can also watch on demand for a subscription fee.

The remaining performances are the animated "Super Cello: Hero Practice" April 19, Grammy-nominated singer Maimouna Youssef May 3 and Mo Willems' "In the Moment: A Drawing Dance" May 24.

Running time: 33 minutes.

Photo credit: Kennedy Center

"Falu: A Journey Through India," which premiered April 5, is available for on-demand streaming with the other programs, through June 27. Subscriptions are available here.

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