Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 25, 2012

Rhythms and ragas

Famed sarod player educates about the life of an Indian classical musician

by Rebecca Wallace

Class ended half an hour ago, but students still gather in hopeful clusters in Stanford's Braun Music Center. When they get their moments with the teacher, the famed Indian classical musician Amjad Ali Khan, they all look thrilled, respectful, maybe even a bit star-struck.

Khan makes time for all of them. "Please practice that," he advises two students in response to a musical question. "This is a lifetime experience of rhythm." The young men nod and nod, backing away and beaming.

Khan smiles his gentle smile at the approach of another student. "He's from Lebanon. He plays the oud."

"I love Indian music," the student says earnestly.

The 20-some people in the class bring diverse backgrounds with them. Besides the Lebanese student with his pear-shaped stringed instrument, there's also an opera singer, a cellist and many other types of musicians. Some are music majors, some not; some are Indian, some not. All have signed on for an unusual spring-quarter class that is less about memorizing points of music theory and more about having a musical soul.

In "Indian Classical Music: A Way of Life," Khan teaches through the oral tradition, sharing stories from his life in an established creative family. His sons are the seventh generation of musicians, and Khan's own guru was his father, Haafiz Ali Khan. His main instrument is the sarod, a fretless stringed instrument well suited to the sliding and gliding characteristic of Indian classical music.

But Khan is not at Stanford to teach sarod lessons. "Sarod I will only teach to those who will give their lives to it," he says after class. Rather, his students are clapping rhythms and singing ragas, lilting series of notes. They're learning to appreciate the music's emotions as well as its structures.

At the close of the class, the students will sing what they've learned in a public performance on June 4.

Khan also has a concert planned at Stanford, on June 1. The next day, the Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra will perform a portion of his sarod concerto, "Samaagam," which was premiered in 2008 by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Khan takes great pleasure in cross-cultural collaborations. "Samaagam," he says, is Hindi for "confluence of two cultures."

Khan encourages even people who are unfamiliar with Indian music to attend. At a live concert, listeners have a fuller appreciation for the music's wealth of improvisation, its complicated rhythms, and the "slide and glide" that can produce nuanced emotion and find the notes between the notes. Khan plays the sarod sitting cross-legged, using his nails instead of fingertips, his face a study in concentration.

Though he doesn't describe himself as a singer, Khan often vocalizes as he plays. In conversation, he slips easily into song. His many recordings include traditional ragas, love ballads, Christmas carols and hymns, and a tribute to Gandhi.

Khan is an enduringly popular performer, as much at home at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts (which he played last year) as he is in concert halls in New Delhi and New York, the two places he lives in. Classrooms are another home. He makes time every year to teach in a university, from York University in England to the University of New Mexico.

Khan's father always encouraged him to pass on his music to the younger generation, and Khan believes it is important to also spread a message of peace.

"I'm Muslim, and my wife is Hindu. In our family, we feel connected with every soul, every religion and every song of the world," he says.

Khan certainly grew up immersed in Indian music — he is said to have given his first sarod recital at age 6, although he confesses he doesn't remember it. But he also listened to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart from an early age, and says he admires Western music.

He's clearly passed that global approach on to his sarod-playing sons. Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan have released albums pairing the sarod with electronic music, and all three teamed up with American folk singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer to record an album, "Everything is Everywhere."

"I've been learning ever since I was born," Ayaan says after class at Stanford. "My father's like a moving music room. He can teach anywhere."

Father and son clearly feel a strong connection to Stanford and the Bay Area, and plan to return. "This area is so musically charged, and there's so much warmth for music," Ayaan says.

Stanford would love to have the Khans back, Anna Schultz says. An assistant professor of ethnomusicality at Stanford, she met Amjad Ali Khan last year when he was performing at the Palace of Fine Arts. At the last minute, Khan was desperately seeking someone to play the tamboura (lute) with him. He called the consulate; the consulate called Stanford; and Schultz found a thrilled student musician at U.C. Berkeley. Stanford's music department ended up offering Khan a class.

Schultz had long been a fan of Khan's music, but she didn't know if he could teach. She's been more than pleased.

"He's incredibly patient. His students are of all levels, and he makes sure that they all understand. He creates this kind of calm atmosphere," she says.

Info: Amjad Ali Khan will give a solo sarod concert at 8 p.m. June 1 in Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Tickets are $38-$42 general and $15 for Stanford students, with discounts available for groups.

On June 2 at 8 p.m., the Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra will perform at Dinkelspiel, with the program including part of Khan's sarod concerto "Samaagam." Khan will solo with the orchestra. Tickets are $10 general, $9 for seniors and $5 for students.

Khan's students will also give a post-class recital at 7:30 p.m. June 4 on the CCRMA Stage at The Knoll at Stanford. Go to http://music.stanford.edu .

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