Imagine being raised as a child with the narrow, cluttered stretches of a dark backstage as your playground; bright lights and waves of booming applause tick as steady as a metronome through my memories. I had two homes: the home where I ate my cereal each morning and the one where I sat in a crowd of cross-legged students, singing the songs of my family history each night. Aunts, uncles, cousins—my family tree was littered with hundreds of mismatched musicians, coming together in mutual love, passion, and devotion. I was a princess in a kingdom of artists and teachers—and my father was the quiet, steady king.
For as long as civilizations have walked this earth, there have existed places of worship. Holy places, some would say. Quiet spaces where one could reflect—connect to the world, to the energy surrounding them that hums under the surface of their skin without explanation. Temples, churches, mosques, forests, schools—institutions unto themselves; places of learning, of exploration, and of peace. Fifty years ago, one such institution was founded in the Bay Area: The Ali Akbar College of Music.
My father, the late Ali Akbar Khan, always told us that music was his religion. For a lifetime, I watched as students flocked to the school he founded—a house, that second home; not just for me but for all of us. Children whose parents brought them out of their own love for the classical music of India; twenty-somethings from small Midwest towns who bought a vinyl for a dollar and fell in love; adults who had been there since the beginning, in the 60s, brimming with stories of the days when they lived in communes and practiced together from sunrise to sunset. For 50 years, the Ali Akbar College of Music has existed to educate.
My father left India to bring the teachings of his father, the great Acharya Baba Allauddin Khan, to the West in 1965 in Berkeley, California. His father had told him to spread the music as far and wide as he could. In 50 years, his accomplishments of that dream have been endlessly vast—but there is a much quieter, softer success that I find to be the drumming heartbeat that has kept both this incredible school and tradition going.
At the Ali Akbar College of Music, you will find a family. For 50 years, we have housed more family members than one could ever hope to know in a lifetime. A community of like-minded, passionate individuals from every walk of life, every age, every culture, every background—united in excitement and energy about one of the oldest traditions of music in the world, tracing back thousands of years. His body may not sit before them any longer, but his legacy is tucked into every corner of that building. His wife, my beautiful mother, is still at the helm; my two older brothers are both teachers and employees. Current and former students form the Board of Directors, organize events, and volunteer endless amounts of energy and care. To this day—eight years after my father’s passing in 2009—still the future generations migrate to this place of worship, of refuge.
I am, perhaps, not the right person to tell this story. At 25 years old, the magic of this school, this ingrained culture built by hopefuls and dreamers and the endlessly driven, is only understood fully by a lifetime of stories. The students who, by day, would practice as if their own breath were a conditional of each note, each melody, each vibrating rhythm they created—these same students would leave the second home of our college to seek sanctuary in our family house at night. For hours I would lounge and play among them as they spoke with my father about life, the past, the measureless depth of this music they loved. All day they sat before him in classes, and yet at night they still came to sit and gain a different kind of connection and education. This is the foundation upon which this school stands, upon which my entire life was built: there is no nine-to-five for this type of love; the music brings people together in a way that is limitless.
Looking back now, I realize the true weight of the time in which the AACM was founded. 50 years ago, 1967—the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. It was the golden age, the years my generation drools over: Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane. Carlos Santana and The Grateful Dead, from just down the road, were greatly influenced by our school’s presence and practice. When the college was founded, the world was alight with that feeling—the beginning of something, a free-form approach to living in melody, in sound. It wasn’t a practice as much as it was a lifestyle. And my father came to America in the heat of that lifestyle, with not much more than his sarode (his 25-stringed, fret-less, acoustic instrument) and a lifetime of devotion on his back. In that hippy renaissance, an Indian man with a dream of teaching purely traditional, classical music was fortunately greeted with an open mind. What has always astonished me, and will continue to do so year after year, is that his dream—and his father’s before him—has sustained throughout it all.
It has been 50 years since that beautiful era. Too many of those musicians are no longer with us, including my father. But it is the history, the sense of community and energy, that can truly never die. Indian classical music is an art form that has been sustained by some of the greatest musicians of all time—and while it is ongoing, with the help of passionate and dedicated individuals the world over, it is also a practice that is rooted in lifelong and consistent study.
Wherever you come from, whatever it is that you believe in, there is a frequency in the world that we all have felt: a hum in the wind or in the cars on your street; in the heart beneath your rib cage and in the static of lights; in the rainfall and the murmurs of your own mind. The world is sound.
In 50 years of our school, this is the lesson I hold to my chest as I fall asleep at night—this is why we come together in worship, in community, in family, in love. My father has given us all a second home to harness that sound and build our passions around it; to grow in our convictions as well as in our daydreams.
The kingdom I was raised in belongs to us all, and I promise you it is a world worth losing yourself in.
Madina Khan is the youngest child of Mary and Ali Akbar Khan. She studied fine art painting at University of the Arts London and is now living in the Bay Area.