Baba Allaudin Khan, who revolutionized Indian music in the early 20th century, was known to be a strict disciplinarian. But he was also capable of combining his high musical standards with acts of compassionate charity. His son, the great sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, tells a story of a beggar who was playing a drum on the streets of their hometown of Maihar. Allaudin Khan was equally appalled by the man’s poverty and his poor musicianship. He took the drum from the beggar, sat down in the dirt beside him, and proceeded to play it brilliantly. Whenever a passerby asked “Baba, what are you doing?” Khan said, “give me money for my playing.” After an hour or so, Khan had acquired a huge pile of rupee notes, which he gave to the beggar saying “Can you live on this money for a year?” “Yes, Baba,” said the beggar. “Then go somewhere and practice privately until you can play properly,” said Allaudin. “If I see you playing in public before then, I will break both your legs.”
Allaudin also adopted dozens of orphans after a plague swept Maihar, but was not content with only feeding and clothing them. He formed them into a unique Indian music orchestra, persuaded the Maharaja of Maihar to give salaries to all of them, and wrote and arranged over 150 compositions for them to perform. The impact of this orchestra was profound and varied. Today, only five out of the 28 members of the original group are alive, but the band continues with new talent under the guidance of Girdharilalji and Jhurra Maharaj of the surviving members. The revived band recently gave its first performance in Mumbai at the Tata Theater. And in 1969, Ali Akbar Khan followed his father’s example and started an ensemble in America called the New Maihar band, for which he composed over 30 pieces.
This ensemble featured his most devoted and accomplished students from the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, and it became a unique opportunity for them to blend American music with what they had learned from their guru. Although Ali Akbar Khan essentially wrote all of the melodies, the performers cooperatively created the arrangements with senior student George Ruckert providing the greatest creative input. Ruckert even arranged some compositions, which Ali Akbar had written as class exercises, transforming them into orchestral concert pieces. None of the parties involved conceived of this as a commercial venture. At the time, there was no Yanni, no Vollenweider, and Down Home Music near Berkeley was probably the only record store in the U.S. that sold what is now called World Music. Even the group Shakti had not yet come into existence. But now that the New Maihar Band album has been re-released as a CD, it is sure to be popular with anyone who has acquired the more cosmopolitan musical tastes of the new millennium.
Hearing this music today gives a sense of what so-called World Music could have become if it had not been vulgarized by marketing pressures. There is no attempt to reduce the songs to small enough sound bites to get radio airplay. The pieces unfold in a leisurely manner, building to the melodic and rhythmic complexity of the best Hindustani music in a way that suggests the Alap-Jor-Jhala format. Each piece is built around a single raga with a single tonal center; there is no attempt to cram a little of everything from everywhere onto the same plate. But instead of relying on the tonal colorations achievable by a single instrument, the raga unfolds by arranging the various instruments in different combinations of unisons, octaves, and occasional sparse harmonies, such as fifths and thirds. There are also occasional opportunities for improvisation, where individual musicians get to contribute their own unique personalities to the mix. Dallas Smith, who studied with both Ali Akbar and G.S. Sachdev, plays jazz influenced fills on Bansuri, and on one song even plays saxophone. And Max Rossmassler plays rhythmic guitar chords, tied together with occasional single-and double-note runs, which are both supportive and highly musical in their own right.
In recent years, Ali Akbar Khan has created some beautiful fusion music, for which he tightly supervised the arrangements, and put more emphasis on the Indian elements (especially in the vocals). For the New Maihar band, Ali Akbar appears to have been more of a benign presence than a hands-on director. In many ways, it was the greatest creative opportunity given to many of Ali Akbar’s most talented American students, who by and large have spent far more of their time studying Ali Akbar’s music than performing it. There was a truly unique creative voice that emerged from this ensemble, which was greater than the sum of its parts, and which both built on and extended beyond what Ali Akbar had brought to America. One hopes that this album is not merely a relic of the past, and there seem to be signs that this hope might be fulfilled.
The New Maihar Band was recently reunited to perform at Ali Akbar’s 80th birthday celebration, where the CD version of the music was available for the first time. The group performed not only concert pieces, but also accompaniments for Chitresh Das’ Chhandam Dance Company. It would be hard to imagine a more effective single demonstration of Ali Akbar Khan’s influence on the West: an orchestra of American musicians playing Indian music, accompanying a choreographed ensemble of mostly American dancers doing kathak, all in perfect synchrony, and indelibly stamped by the impact of years of careful study with their respective gurus. It is a sight I will never forget, and one that I hope many other people will be fortunate enough to see.
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.