A Brief Encounter with Ali Akbar Khan

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Ali Akbar Khan
Photo courtesy The Ali Akbar College of Music


It was sad news to hear that sarod master and icon of Indian music Ali Akbar Khan had died, and on my birthday no less, June 18. I first heard his music as a small child growing up in Los Angeles in the early sixties. I remember my South Indian father being so excited to get hold of LPs of music from his country of origin, balanced by the exact opposite reaction from my American mother who couldn’t abide the whiny sound of the instruments. I have to admit that at first I sided with my mother, who not only raised me but also was responsible for putting a violin in my hands. But I do remember that one particular record—East Meets West—had violinist Yehudi Menuhin on it, which did make a more favorable impression on me.

When the Beatles went into their psychedelic Eastern obsession phase, I was in my early teens and was looking to rock music for identity, so naturally I developed some curiosity about those old Indian music recordings my dad had laying around. But even then it was more the sitar of Ravi Shankar that I was attracted to. The sarod sounded too much like a bizarre version of a banjo, and in those days I was definitely not interested in anything remotely related to hillbilly music (that came later in a big way!).

A trip to India I took with my father, my first time there actually, in the late seventies, sparked my interest in studying Indian music. To my great surprise, the musicians I spoke with in New Delhi told me the best place to study was all the way back home in the San Francisco Bay Area—at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael. I filed that information away, returned to the United States, and didn’t think about it again until a couple of years later when I moved into an apartment in San Anselmo that happened to be just five minutes away from the college.

At that point in my musical development I was still in the “establishing fundamentals” phase, although I wouldn’t have been able to see that at the time—I was too busy enjoying myself, having by then wiggled my way into the new acoustic music scene dominated by the David Grisman Quintet. A bad-boy-wannabe-blues-rock-garage band violinist in high school, I had polished my skills in classical violin and composition in my undergraduate work, followed by four years of intense study of bebop jazz. Along the way, I fell in love with Grisman’s Dawg music which opened yet another door into the American string band music tradition. (Who knew that the banjo could be so hip?) I was even getting the odd chance to jump onstage with Grisman’s band, especially exciting since in those days he had hooked up with the gold standard of jazz violin, Stephane Grappelli. Being part of that just blew my young head off completely. I was quite full of myself when I look back! But I had no serious understanding of the music of my paternal ancestry, and felt that lack quite strongly.

Before my Grisman-obsessed days I was an equally maniacal devotee of the music of John McLaughlin, starting with his seminal jazz-rock group the Mahavishnu Orchestra—with rock violinist Jerry Goodman, later replaced by the modern generation jazz violin icon, Jean-Luc Ponty—and then came Shakti, the first Indian fusion supergroup. The tabla player was Zakir Hussain, son of the tabla player Alla Rakha, who was on pretty much all of those early recordings my dad had of Ali Akbar Khan. At least that is my memory. Plus the astounding Carnatic violinist L. Shankar, once again radically altering my concept of what the instrument was capable of. All of this set the stage for my finally taking the plunge and undertaking serious studies at the Ali Akbar Khan College—which I attended for about three weeks before I landed a five-night-a-week gig at a night club and that was that.

During those three weeks, however, I was fortunate to have the chance to study directly with Ali Akbar Khan, or Khan Sahib, as his students knew him. What an amazing experience! When giving his evening classes in raga, he didn’t talk much about theory or anything too conceptual—most of what we did was ear training call and response. I was very proud that I could follow reasonably well, enough so that it seemed to me he was directing his lines towards me to see how much I could keep up. Inevitably there was the moment I fell on my face, but still it seemed that the great man had taken notice of me and was impressed, which was a thrill, being so young and desperate to find my musical direction.

Of course three weeks was a pittance of time when approaching something as deep as Indian Classical music, but even so it was an experience of great value to me. Eschewing the traditional guru-disciple approach, Khan Sahib was one of the first—if not the first—to set up a system of study that followed the Western style of classroom dissemination and analysis, which gave incredible access to what had hitherto been a style one had to be born into. Through this I gained my first understanding of the Indian notation system, as well as the rhythmic cycles that dominated the structural aspects of the music. I started to get a sense of the possibilities inherent in the modal development encapsulated by the intricate system of scalar melody called raga. But maybe the most important imprint left on my bones was a deeply felt, loving respect for this ancient tradition, on par with the best the West had to offer, and as so nobly embodied by Khan Sahib, who was relentless and uncanny in his complete mastery of the North Indian style.

I reached the clarity that as much and as passionately as I loved this music, it was going to be beyond my reach no matter how hard I tried. Having not grown up grounded in the system, it was just too remote to imagine ever achieving any true fluency, just as speaking my father’s native Malayalam language was not in the cards. And dabbling was not something I was interested in, either. In the end, the need to connect to my cultural roots without losing my sense of self played out in my post-graduate composition studies with my main teacher and mentor, Allaudin Mathieu, himself a disciple of legendary Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath.

As the years went by, I would occasionally get the chance to hear Khan Sahib play in concert, and I continued to follow his recording career diligently, including a period in the mid-nineties when he experimented with his own brand of Western fusion. My former Turtle Island bandmate Irene Sazer took part in that, leading to intense jealousy on my part—sometimes life just ain’t fair!

The last time I heard the master was a couple of years ago at the ashram my wife and I attend in San Ramon. He played for Amma, also known as the hugging saint, who is the leader of the denomination we are part of. He looked so happy, especially when he got her darshan, which means being seen in the traditional sense but for Amma it means getting a hug.

I have to admit that I am glad to be a spoiled kid who grew up in the affluence of the Los Angeles suburbs, as opposed to the alternative universe of the rural village of India my father came from. I heard stories about how Ali Akbar Khan’s father, who was also Ravi Shankar’s guru, would tie him up by his hair so if he fell asleep while practicing the pain would wake him up. He went on from there to make such a huge impact on the way the world views the music of his country. What a long and amazing life Khan Sahib led!

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David Balakrishnan,
photo by Peter Serling

David Balakrishnan, violinist/composer and founder of the Grammy winning Turtle Island Quartet, graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in music composition and violin. In his subsequent postgraduate studies at Antioch University West, he developed a revolutionary compositional style—based on the principle of stylistic integration applied to bowed string instruments—that became the template for the Turtle Island approach, and earned him two Grammy nominations for his arrangements as well as numerous composing grants from prestigious organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, and the American Symphony Orchestra League. His most recent commission, from the Lied Center of Kansas, resulted in a full-length work involving theatre, dance, poetry, video, and Turtle Island with the KU wind ensemble that is an artistic response to the social issues concerning the various theories of evolution, both scientific and cultural, entitled The Tree Of Life.