RAINY SEASON RAGAS. Aashish Khan, Zakir Hussain. Chhanda Dhara Records. Both available at the Ali Akbar College Store, 215 West End Ave, San Rafael, CA 94901. www.aacm.org. (800) 748-2252. Fax (415) 454-9396.
The final concert at the all day musical celebration of Ali Akbar Khan’s 80th birthday celebration was a sarod jugalbandi (duet) performed by his sons Aashish and Alam. It was the first time the two had performed together publicly, although both had frequently performed with their father. And it was a fitting climax for the celebration, for they each embodied, in very different ways, their father’s unique legacy as a teacher. The two brothers are almost half-a-century apart in age, and both their lives as musicians combine Indian and Western influences. But for Alam, the combination was harmonious and blessed, and for Aashish it has been stormy and conflicted.
Thanks to the encouragement of Alam’s American mother, Mary Khan, music has always been a part of his life. My first tape of an Ali Akbar class has Alam’s three-year-old voice singing taranas exuberantly as he sat on his mother’s lap in the back of the classroom. But he was spared the enforced 12-hours-a-day practice regime which Ali Akbar received from the age of 3. Alam had a relatively normal Marin county boyhood, playing music with his mother and siblings, and then in Rock bands with his adolescent friends. It was this supportive environment that gave him both the desire and the confidence to voluntarily devote himself to his Indian heritage. And although his practice regime is now as rigorous as any traditional Hindustani musician’s, it is made easier by the previous years of subconsciously absorbing the music literally at his parent’s knees, his own devoted commitment, and his father’s eagerness to cultivate a musical heir.
Ali Akbar and Alam play together almost all the time now, and these concerts combine the best elements of familial love and great artistry. Each one is clearly feeding the creativity of the other. Ali Akbar’s playing has a new freshness and enthusiasm that seems to make him young again; Alam matures with growing confidence at every concert. Ali Akbar proudly says of Alam “he’s got my touch,” and this new album from Alam Medina demonstrates this dramatically. Most of the time it is impossible to tell who is playing when. In the “question and answer” sections (where the teacher traditionally plays first), we can hear that sometimes Alam’s touch is a bit more delicate than his father’s. But time and time again, he comes forcefully forward to give the old man a run for his money, revealing both power and imagination. And of course, nothing could delight Ali Akbar more. At the age of 18, Alam is producing music that is worth listening to, and clearly he is already on the road to greatness.
While Alam went from an American childhood to traditional Indian music training, Aashish had a traditional Indian musical childhood of the strictest sort, and then acquired a familiarity with Western music as an adult. His grandfather, Allaudin Khan, began Aashish’s musical education when he was five. Allauddin was a stern disciplinarian, and this period of Aashish’s life could not have been easy. Nevertheless, Allauddin was pleased enough with Aashish’s progress to perform with him on All India Radio when he was only 13, and Allauddin, Ali Akbar, and Aashish all performed together that same year at the Tansen Music Conference in Calcutta. Aashish was also one of the very few musicians who studied with his famously reclusive aunt, the great surbahar player, Annapurna Devi.
Aashish is universally accepted as a colleague by the Hindustani music community, performing regularly with such greats as Zakir Hussain, Sultan Khan, and Ravi Shankar. And yet, there is a haunted quality to Aashish, which seems to come from having lived for so long in the shadow of giants. Perhaps he received conflicting messages from his aunt, father, and grandfather, as to what standards he should measure himself by.
As I listen repeatedly to Aashish’s recordings, I am constantly reminded of George Ruckert’s remark that Aashish sounds more like his grandfather than any other living musician. Both Aashish and Allauddin have a muscular athletic sound that makes Ali Akbar sound lyrical in comparison. Perhaps his attempt to sound like both teachers made it impossible for him to please either of them completely. However, I think that the most likely cause of his insecurity was that when Aashish needed encouragement the most, his father was not in the right frame of mind to see potential greatness in a young and developing musician. Many years later, when Alam came along, Ali Akbar felt a stronger need for an heir, and was thus eager to give the kind of encouragement that a young artist must have to mature with confidence. And that, I believe, is the fundamental difference between the older son and the younger: Alam was the winner in the game of birth-order roulette, and Aashish was not.
However, one is reminded very much of the heroic struggles of Aashish’s grandfather when we see how (to change the gambling metaphor only slightly) Aashish played the hand that was dealt him. He was always determined to make his own mark on the music world, and he succeeded. He formed the world fusion group Shanti with Zakir Hussain, years before John McLaughlin had even thought of the group Shakti. He has received grants from several regional American arts councils to teach Indian music to promising students, and runs his own Indian music school in Chicago. He has provided music for many great films, including Gandhi, The Man Who Would Be King, and Passage to India. He has played on fusion albums with numerous Rock and Roll and jazz stars, and was the first person to write a sarod concerto for symphony orchestra. And he has developed a notation system that makes it possible to write harmonies using traditional Indian sheet music.
This exposure to a variety of influences has also given a creativity to his classical Hindustani playing without compromising its essence. He plays certain tihai patterns which I have never heard anyone else use, which, I am sure, result from careful analysis and recombination of the fundamental principles of his family tradition. He often revives obscure and difficult ragas and talas, sometimes from the Karnatik tradition. And although his family heritage is still clearly his strongest influence, he makes decisions about when and how to uses these elements that are uniquely his.
Is there any real point in comparing him to his father and grandfather? I would argue that there are no other musicians, alive or dead, in or out of India, who would prevail in such a comparison. No one is bothered by the fact that Ravi Shankar is not as great a musician as Ali Akbar Khan, nor should they be. Pandit Shankar is a great artist, and his music is a blessing to all who are fortunate enough to hear it. Aashish Khan’s music has also blessed the world, and his father has good reason to be proud of him.
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.