Alam Khan, master of the sarod, set for SLC events sponsored by Mundi Project, India Cultural Center of Utah; Westminster Concert Series

Alam Khan was seven years old when he started learning to play the sarod, a 25-string instrument with no frets which comprises strings for performing melodies as well as sympathetic strings to create resonating drone-like sounds. The head of the instrument, which resembles a lute, is made from sheepskin and the neck is metal plated.

Learning to play the sarod, an instrument which stands out in the classical music tradition of northern India, as Khan explained in an interview with The Utah Review, requires the student to replicate as closely as possible what the teacher is playing.

In Khan’s instance, he had the foremost teacher that any young musician could ever imagine having as a mentor: his father, the late Ali Akbar Khan, who was named a national treasure by the Indian government in 1989 and was described by the legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin as “an absolute genius” and “the greatest musician in the world.” 

Alam Khan.

Khan is coming to Salt Lake City this weekend for performances and events with the India Cultural Center of Utah, in partnership with the Mundi Project,  and culminating in a concert as part of the Westminster Concert Series (WCS). Khan also will be joined by Indranil Mallick, who will perform on tabla, for an evening of North Indian classical (hindustani sangit) raga, in the Vieve Gore Concert Hall at Westminster University, on April 1 at 7:30 p.m.

Khan said in the interview that while he started on the sarod, he also had set his eyes on other musical options, including the guitar. “By the time, I was 13, I kicked it into gear,” he recalled. “I finally heard the calling because earlier I was not connected to it as deeply but once I became serious, I forged the connection.”

It is a formidable undertaking for a young person to follow in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather, who stood out as among the greatest modern era performers of Hindustani classical music. Khan’s grandfather was Allauddin Khan, “whose ashram in East Bengal produced some of India’s most celebrated musicians, notably Mr. [Ravi] Shankar, the flutist Pannalal Ghosh and the sitarist Nikhil Banerjee,” a point noted in the June 20, 2009 New York Times obituary announcing the news of the death of Khan’s father, Ali Akbar.  His father often performed with Ravi Shankar, his brother-in-law.

Indranil Mallick.

Khan spoke about carrying on the legacy of his father and grandfather while carving out his unique identity as a performer and teacher. “I have maintained that line of family in our music as purely as I can,” he explained. “At the same time, people tell me that they can hear my voice which is not the same as my father’s voice.”

Khan said that his father had developed his distinctive musicianship similarly, in evolving the tones and textures of his sound. The 2009 obituary about his father noted the performance difference from that of the younger Khan’s grandfather and Shankar: “[He] maintained an austere demeanor onstage while coaxing passages of extraordinary intensity from his sarod, an instrument with 25 strings, 10 plucked with a piece of coconut shell while the remainder resonate sympathetically.”

With vast influences from contemporary music that extended far beyond the classical sarod tradition, the younger Khan grew up in, as he described it, “a melting pot of sounds” in the San Francisco and Bay Area. His mother was much younger than his father. She grew up in the midst of the Sixties with hippie culture and the emergence of the Haight-Ashbury and California sound along with psychedelic, acid and punk rock.

His father’s first performance in the U.S., which Menuhin arranged, took place at the New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1955. Western musical circles did not hesitate to embrace Indian classical music, with Khan recording the first album for the U.S. market. In 1967 the elder Khan, founded the Ali Akbar College of Music, in San Rafael, California. 

Alam currently teaches at the school. Khan said that he has many in-person students as well as online students (who have lessons in simultaneous livestream), who are not only from India but also Canada, Japan and countries in Europe and South America. Unlike when his father normally conducted lessons one-on-one, Khan said that the sarod’s popularity has led to classes where 25 or 30 students are interested in learning to play the instrument and delving into the immense creative language of Hindustani classical music. 

When Alam was in his twenties, he began collaborating with musicians who understood and respected the form, by not fusing elements merely for the sake of it but instead to find the right groove for keeping the integrity of the Hindustani classical music language. One of the finest examples is Revelator, the 2011 debut album by the blues-rock Tedeschi Trucks Band, which also won the Grammy for Best Blues Recording. Khan and tabla player Salar Nader were featured on the track These Walls.

As for the April 1 concert at Westminster, Raga: That Which Colors the Mind, Khan will select a Raga, which epitomizes a melodic concept which reflects the specific atmosphere surrounding the audience on that particular evening. “The best circumstances is when you have an audience which clearly has an open mind and is conducive to absorbing the storytelling experience for the evening,” he said. Khan said that when his father performed, “it was like he was doing a sonic prayer” and expressing the catharsis of his spiritual journey through the energy of his music. Similarly, his grandfather was like a shaman because performing was not just entertainment but a journey to realize the holistic potential of music. “There would be moments when the audience might have forgotten that it was time for applause because the music had moved them to tears,” he added. “It is a transformative process in performance.”

The performance will proceed in four parts, broadly identified as Alap, Jor, Jhala and Gat. Alap is the opening section which is characterized by a slow, meditative and introspective unfolding of the Raga and the emotions it conveys. There is no rhythmic accompaniment during this section. The Jor introduces a steady pulse and rhythm into the performance but still without accompaniment by the tabla. The tempo quickens gradually, with an integration of rhythmic elements. Highlighting the virtuosic elements of this musical style, the Jhala comprises intricate patterns of cross picking the resonating and Chikari strings of the sarod, joined by melodic phrasing. 

Unlike the broadly improvisational nature of the preceding three sections, the Gat features a composed theme, either traditional or contemporary, with a fixed but pliable structure, incorporating specific melodic phrases and rhythmic patterns. Khan explained that Gat’s rhythmic aspect must be played precisely within the framework of a particular time cycle (tala). The interaction between melody and rhythm is well-defined in this section. After the Gat, there are many improvised sections which develop through variations, dynamics, tempo increases and the the ensemble musicians responding to each other. 

In partnership with the local nonprofit Mundi Project, Khan and Mallick will perform a free community concert at the India Cultural Center of Utah on March 31 at 6:30 p.m (details in the link). 

For tickets and more information about the Westminster event, see the WCS website

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