Speaking through his notes
Ali Khan is credited with bringing classical Indian music to West
LOS ANGELES — Ali Akbar Khan is a practical man. "I don't like to talk so much," says the Indian musician who has been dubbed a "national living treasure" in his homeland of India.
Master of the sarod, the lutelike stringed instrument of classical Indian music, he is philosophical about the value of discussing his craft.
"You can write or talk about this music, but this music is still beyond all that," Mr. Khan says. "The sound that you hear goes to your soul and from there back to your mind. Really," he adds with a sigh, "my talking is my playing."
Taught to play by his father, Khan is the contemporary embodiment of a tradition that dates back to 16th-century Indian courts. As he turns 80, he is releasing a CD that records a collaboration with his 19-year-old son, Alam.
As with most of his recordings, it documents a live performance rather than a studio production. But this one has special significance for the master, who learned his craft under his father's stern tutelage: The recording represents the passing of the torch from his generation to the next, although Alam is far younger than Khan was when he was considered ready to perform for audiences.
"There are 75,000 melodies you have to learn," says Khan of classical Indian music. There are ragas, or melodies, "for every time of day, for every mood. One lifetime is not even enough" to learn them all.
For 20 years, under his father's instruction, Khan practiced up to 18 hours a day. "My father was very strong; sometimes he beat me also," he says, adding that the times are very different now. "I am not so strong like my father, and my son loves to learn.... "In my time, there was no electric light, there was nothing else you could do but read or practice. Today, there are many distractions."
Credited with introducing Indian classical music to the West in a 1955 performance in New York, Khan says the traditions of India have much to teach people worldwide.
This music makes "your heart kind," he says. "You understand this music, then your heart always wants to give love. If people understood Indian music better, it would help solve world problems because it can help bring out new ideas in people."
The dynamic relationship between audience and performer in the Indian tradition is in large part what Khan means when he says that the music also can help stimulate creativity.
Unlike most Western performances, Khan's concerts have a synergy with the audience. "He often doesn't choose what he plays until he's in the room," says his wife and producer, Mary. "There are seasonal ragas, there are rain ragas. It just depends on his mood and the mood of the audience. He has to listen and decide."
Khan also teaches at his Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, Calif. And he devotes several months a year to touring and teaching in Europe and India. Despite the rigorous training his music requires, young people want to learn it. "Students are still ready to commit to that level" of study, he says, "because they feel what it has to give them."
Echoing the words of jazz great Duke Ellington, Khan says there is no divide between Western and Eastern music, only good and bad music. "If [the musicians] are out of tune or out of rhythm, it's not a question of East or West," he says. "What they need is the right sense of pitch and rhythm, and that takes study."