A Resonant Spirit

Don Heckman writes about jazz and world music for The Times

Ali Akbar Khan is jet-lagged.

And with good reason. It’s been less than a day since he arrived back home after a 27-hour flight from Calcutta, a journey crossing 13 time zones.

But the legendary Indian sarod player is a trouper. At 76, he has traveled around the world often enough not to be overly impeded by the glaze of global touring. In fact, he will be on the road again in a few days, for a performance with tabla player Zakir Hussain at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

Still, as he sits on a raised platform in the performance room of his Ali Akbar College of Music, the man identified by the government of India as a National Living Treasure, the first Indian musician to receive a MacArthur Foundation grant, the artist described by Yehudi Menuhin as “an absolute genius . . . the greatest musician in the world,” looks somewhat fatigued.

Small and compact, wearing a casual outfit of pants, shirt and sleeveless sweater, he dutifully poses for a photographer, not quite managing to hide his weariness with the process. Finally, when the formal photos are taken and he can enjoy a cigarette and a cup of tea, Khan--referred to by the affectionate title of Khansahib by his students and associates--smiles and relaxes.

Seated in a comfortable chair in another area of the performance room, several of his students stationed around the floor in front of him listening attentively, he brightens considerably as a conversation about the ancient music of India begins to unfold.


“Our music is not just for making money, or making a name, or for entertaining,” he says. “It is another way to reach to God, another way to make the mind and the brain disappear, and make your soul strong, and bring you peace. Peace and love--to everyone. No fighting, no ego. The music is like a prayer, in which you can go to church every day.”

His description calls up resonances with yoga and other meditative disciplines that share the goal of reaching past the conscious mind into the universal soul. And Khan’s quest for that path has been intrinsic to his work as an artist and an educator for his entire life.

Asked about his continuing dedication to the journey, he smiles before responding in his characteristically soft-spoken voice.

“Every day I’m finding some new energy,” he explains, “better ideas. The music gets younger as the body gets older. And one life is not enough to understand it all. My father used to say you have to be born 10 times to get the music.”


Khan’s birth into his present life took place April 14, 1922, in Shivpur in what is now known as Bangladesh. His life as a musician began almost immediately thereafter when his musician father, Allauddin Khan, set up a rigorous training program that would last for decades.

Although the young Khan was trained on other instruments, his father decided he should concentrate on the sarod. The 25-stringed instrument is similar to, and perhaps descended from, the Middle Eastern oud. Its fretless steel fingerboard provides the player with the flexibility to produce arching, almost vocalized melody lines. Like the better-known sitar, it is one of the principal solo voices in the basic Indian classical music ensemble. And combined with percussion instruments like the two-headed drum called the tabla, it creates the intricate patterns of melody and rhythm that define a 4,000-year-old tradition.

“You know,” says Khan, “I started to learn this music at the same time I began to talk. So it is as natural to me as speaking. It’s not something I have to think about, any more than I have to think about the words I’m saying.”

He acknowledges, however, that the early years with his much-revered father (he played more than 200 instruments) were difficult, and not dissimilar from the traditional guru-disciple method common to Indian classical music for centuries. His schedule, for example, called for as much as 18 hours a day of practice, often supplemented with beatings when his father detected what he believed to be insufficient dedication.

“Every second he would be with me,” Khan recalls. “Sometimes I used to hate music. And sometimes I used to hate my father, too. But he always listened, every second. And then, after many years, it became only every minute, and after a long time, perhaps every half hour. And that was when I used to think, ‘Maybe my father has gone out,’ and I would stop and relax. But then I would immediately hear his voice shouting, ‘Why do you stop?’ ”

Khan made his debut when he was 13 and, in his early 20s, became the court musician for the maharajah of Jodhpur. A brief flirtation with the Indian film industry resulted in scores for films by Satyajit Ray and the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, among others.

He came to the U.S. for the first time in 1956 at the invitation of violinist Menuhin. Ravi Shankar, another student of Allauddin Khan (and, for a while, Ali Akbar Khan’s brother-in-law), was also scheduled to make the trip but canceled at the last minute.

Initially, Khan wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about making the journey. He says he literally had to be pushed on to the plane.

“I didn’t want to come at all,” he says. “I wanted to open a college in Calcutta [which he did later that year]. And when I came here people didn’t have any idea that India had some kind of classical music. Many people--like Stokowski, for example--asked me, ‘How can you play music there when you have so many tigers and snakes and elephants?’ But I played and I liked the audiences, and I think they like me.”

Khan made the first ever LP recording of Indian music in the mid-'50s, as well as a pioneering television appearance during the same period on Alistair Cooke’s “Omnibus.” Both were greeted with critical acclaim, but it was not until the Beatles discovered Indian music in the mid-'60s that Khan’s name gradually became familiar to a wider Western audience. Ironically, his most far-reaching visibility undoubtedly came as a result of participating with Shankar in George Harrison’s 1971 “Concert for Bangladesh,” an event he now scorns as superficial.

“It was a monkey show, that’s all,” he says. “But I was asked to go and play by someone who was my friend at the time and I couldn’t say no.”

What attracted the likes of Menuhin and the Beatles, and what has made Khan into a National Living Treasure, is his legendary intensity. Khan’s explorations of ragas--the combination scale, melody and musical mode fundamental to Indian music--are famous for their mesmerizing effect, an ability to transcend the usual bounds of musical performance and reach toward a meditative state.

Reviewing a 1997 performance, New York Times critic Jon Pareles noted the manner in which Khan’s “knowledge of tradition and technical mastery are subsumed in pensive, graceful melodies,” adding that, “even in its most exuberant moments, the music kept a reflective undertone.” Another critic called his playing “so exquisitely pure, so serene, so painfully human or more than human, and so beautiful.”

For his part, Khan sees himself less as a celebrated musician than as a “messenger” for the music handed him by his father.

“I always play my father’s compositions,” he says. “Composition means a raga, and there are thousands. But you can make new ones, too. The same raga, if you hear it today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, it will always change. It’s like the sun or the moon, they are not changing, but every day they are coming and going and every season they are different.”


Only a discreet sign advertises Khan’s presence in San Rafael. “Ali Akbar College of Music,” it says, mounted on the front of what was once a large house in this upscale San Francisco suburb. A stone’s throw from a Shell station, the structure’s modest appearance directly reflects Khan’s belief that it is the music that matters, not the bricks and mortar.

The numerous rooms are all in full use, but the college is suffused with the sense of serenity that Khan alludes to in all his conversations. The lower level is occupied by administrative offices and a large store, overflowing with Indian instruments, packed bookshelves and rows of Khan CDs; the upper level includes the large performance room, which doubles as Khan’s instructional area, a smaller classroom for tabla maestro Swapan Chaudhuri, several small practice rooms and a storage space filled with more Indian instruments. During four eight-week sessions of vocal and instrumental instruction, close to 100 students study here.

Khan found his way to Marin County by accident three decades ago.

“I like this place,” he says. “I’ve seen many places in Europe, America, Canada, Japan. In ’65, I came to California, and I liked Berkeley but I didn’t like the atmosphere, with so many things happening there.

“Then I discovered Marin County one day when my car stopped there and didn’t want to go. Just where my car stopped there was a house with a sign that said, ‘For Lease.’ The landlord was coming down from the second floor and I asked him, ‘Are you renting this?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘When can I get it?’ and he said ‘You can get it now.’ I rented a few places after that, before I found this house, but I knew right away that this was where I wanted to be.”

There are other Ali Akbar music schools run by his disciples, in Basel, Switzerland, and a sister campus to the San Rafael school in Fremont, Calif. He visits them for a week or two each year, but his focus is on the San Rafael school, founded in 1967. He is the primary instrumental teacher there, leading six classes a week for nine months of the year. The approach is vastly different, in structure, at least, from the stringent, guru-disciple method he experienced as a youth. But the essence of the information has not changed.

“I teach what I learned from my father,” Khan says. “The same system, with the same traditional purity. The same kind of devotion, the same love for music has to be built up. And that can only happen when it comes from the heart. Otherwise the music doesn’t last. It doesn’t stay. It’s like a medicine that doesn’t work.”

There’s little question that, under Khan’s direction, it works. Some students have been returning for decades.

“I’ve trained about 15,000 students,” he says. “They come for just for one week, and then they don’t want to leave, they want to stay for the next week. The same thing is true if they come for one day, or for one month; they want to stay for another day or another month. There are students still here from 22 years ago--26 years, 30 years.”

“Because once they get the real taste, the real juice,” he adds with a smile, “then you have to kick them out.”

Sitar player Steve Oda is one who has stayed for more than two decades. A former research engineer, his annual vacations were spent making trips from his home in Toronto to spend as much time at the school as possible. A year ago, he and his wife, who studies Indian dancing, decided to move to San Rafael in order to spend as much time as possible with the music.

“I guess you can say I decided to follow my bliss,” Oda says. “I had been a jazz guitarist in the late ‘60s, but when I heard this music, it offered a wonderful alternative of expressiveness within a strict discipline, which perfectly suited my feelings. And finally I just felt I had to be here, as close as I could be to the source of the music.”


All signs of jet lag having disappeared, Khan, more animated now, suggests that the conversation continue over lunch. His third wife, an American named Mary, gathers their children--Alam, 16; Manik, 13; and Madina, 7 (Khan has eight other living children by two previous wives)--and, accompanied by several students, the group moves to a large family-style table at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

The conversation is lighthearted, and Khan obviously enjoys his role as the paterfamilias, making sure everyone takes a sample from the many dishes crowding the big Lazy Susan on the center of the table, asking the waiter for additional items as they are needed.

If Khan is a quiet celebrity in San Rafael, Mary points out that that’s not the case in India. Persistent visitors attempt to see him whenever the family travels to Calcutta, she says. “The children are trying to learn enough Bengali enough to tell them, ‘No, you can’t see him. No, he’s sleeping.’ ”

Khan, with a smile, adds, “Yes, but then they’ll say, ‘It’s OK. I’ll wait until he wakes up.’ ”

He looks on benignly when his son Alam, who is now following in his father’s footsteps as a sarod artist, recalls that he originally started out playing guitar in a rock band.

“I used to have these rehearsals at the house and we’d crank up the amplifiers and jam. I worried a bit about what my father would think, but when I looked outside to see what he was doing, he was just listening.

“Finally he looked at me and said, ‘Practice.’ ”

It is obviously a very different generational transition from the one Khan experienced with his own father. But the family’s heritage--which traces to a 16th century musician in the court of Emperor Akbar--is definitely continuing. In addition to Alam, his eldest son Ashish is already an established sarod artist, and Manik and Madina are learning the tabla. Equally important, there are the college’s students who, he says, “are all like my children.”

After lunch, walking along a rainy San Rafael sidewalk, once again puffing on a cigarette, Khan adds a final thought.

“From the past masters this music flowed up to my father and through him to me,” Khan says. “I want to keep this stream flowing. I don’t want it to die. It must spread all over the world.”


Ali Akbar Khan, with tabla player Zakir Hussain, appears tonight at 7, Royce Hall, UCLA, $13-$35, (310) 825-2101. Khan and Hussain will also perform April 24, 8 p.m., at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. (562) 916-8501. $27-$42.