(Featured image: Zakir Hussain (left) and Ali Akbar Khan (right) in the 1970s)
It was May 29, 1970, at the Family Dog, a venue located at the edge of a deteriorating amusement park on San Francisco’s Great Highway, where a decidedly psychedelic crowd was spellbound by Indian music legends Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), 19-year-old Zakir Hussain (tabla), and Indranil Bhattacharya (sitar).
In the control booth, on the stage and wriggling through the crowd in constant movement was genius sound engineer and recorder Owsley Stanley, lovingly known as Bear. Owsley was an alchemist, a philosopher, a scientist famous for the sounds he amplified and the acid he created. He believed in the transformative power of Indian classical music and understood that mastery of it demanded the highest level of dedication and discipline. The night in question would satisfy a quest of Bear’s – to work with the great Ali Akbar Khan, an artist he fiercely respected.
Now, for the first time in 50 years, this sumptuous concert will be made available as the sixth release from Owsley’s storied archive, entitled Bear’s Sonic Journals: That Which Colors the Mind.
“This is a historical concert that gives a potent glimpse into the blending of cultures, energy, and magic that was made possible here in the Bay Area,” says son of Ali Akbar Khan, Alam Khan.
“The Family Dog was more of an enterprise than a place,” commented Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, a venture made real through the resolve of concert promoter Chet Helms and run on the fuel of great music, psychedelics, a cosmic light show, and the raw energy of its youthful audience. The Pied Piper behind both the sound and psychedelics was Owsley Stanley.
“I remember this short man,” shared Zakir Hussain, “wearing glasses with curly hair, running around the stage madly setting up microphone stands and cables while talking a hundred miles a minute about his concept of recording. I did not understand Bear Owsley at that time. What he was speaking did not make sense to me but I later came to realize he was one of the original audiophile recording engineers of his time. He set the bar.” Needless to say, Bear was in good company that night.
The 2-CD set, released in partnership with The Ali Akbar College of Music, includes frame-worthy original cover art by Chris Gallen, unpublished photographs, and an extensive 28-page booklet with notes featuring new interviews from Ali Akbar Khan’s family and colleagues.
All proceeds support the continued work of The Owsley Stanley Foundation, a 501c(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of “Bear’s Sonic Journals”, Owsley’s archive of more than 1,300 live concert soundboard recordings from the 1960s,1970s, and 1980s, including recordings by Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac, Janis Joplin, and more than 80 other artists across nearly every musical idiom.
Then and now, Ali Akbar Khan, or Khansahib, is considered one of the world’s greatest musicians. “He gave new direction to the instrumental interpretation of the ancient Indian ragas. He transformed the way sarod is played now and is singularly responsible for giving a new voice and an expansion of language to sarod. In my humble opinion,” stated Hussain, “he is without exception the most important Indian instrumentalist of the 20th century.” Hussain, who has himself been internationally recognized for his musical genius and heralded as one of India’s national treasures, points out his youth in this recording. “I was a young whippersnapper out to impress the hell out of the audience. The technique was all-important; playing fast, strong, and loud was the goal.”
Of Indranil Bhattacharya, Hussain expounded, “He was a dear friend and colleague in India, an exceptional sitarist, the student of Khansahib’s father Allaudin Khan and the son of one of the most well-known composers for theater and film in Kolkata.”
That Which Colors the Mind is a musical time machine, a rare recording with a quality and weight so tactile it fills space up like smoke in a bottle. “This is an intimate telling of the Indian music story”, recounts Hussain, “music as understood, interpreted and conversed by us, 3 musicians. There was a thousand-year-old sound behind us as we played, but it was fresh and new on that day because of the spontaneous interaction in the telling amongst us. It had a meditative quality, to be listened to with focus and calmness.”
Get the soundtrack today by visiting the Owsley Stanley Foundation page!
Anisa Qureshi is a writer, filmmaker, strategist, consultant, and adventurer. She is the daughter of Indian music legend, Zakir Hussain.