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In conversation with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons!

It was a pleasure interviewing the legendary Sarod player Ustad Amjad Ali Khan on his entire journey, what he thinks about the current industry, how he picked up Sarod first and much more.

We also had a very interesting conversation with Ayaan and Amaan on their work currently.

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan

Could you tell us a little history about how you picked up the Sarod?

I cannot remember a particular day that I was initiated into the world of music. It was a part of me from as early as I can remember. Indeed, I cannot think of a moment when music has been separated from my life. For my father Haafiz Ali Khan, though, there was no question of a life outside music. Life itself was music and Music was Life. And so I came to inherit from him the legacy of five generations of musicians as naturally as a bird taking to the air.  Music is the greatest wealth that I inherited from my forefathers. Music is a precious gift of God. Research on this subject has shown that listening to appealing music allows plants to grow faster, cattle give more milk and today the medical world is using music as therapy. Certain ragas take care of certain ailments. In my life and journey from the age of 6, I experienced the ecstasy, peace, tranquilly, harmony, satisfaction and joy though various melodies and rhythm and ragas. The reactions of music kept changing according to my age and experience. Our musical seven notes are closely connected with our important cells of the mind and appealing music becomes the therapy for the musicians and the listeners.

You have been playing for the last 60 plus years. How have you adapted to the change in the music scene year after year for the last 6 decades?

A great deal of importance is given to tradition in Indian classical music. In fact, tradition and spirituality are the backbone of classical music whether it is in the form of the teaching system, or in the structure of ragas and talas. Great musicians or Gurus have been likened to pujaris or priests who perform upasana. That is why we touch their feet. It is not an act of subservience but an elevating and liberating action. It is a unique custom that truly belongs only to our culture. It is understandable to adopt or adapt to a modern way of life and merely seek to achieve technical virtuosity but this does not mean that we forget the most essential values of our tradition and culture. Amaan and Ayaan today do strike a correct balance between the two worlds of traditionalism and contemporary times but it’s not something easy to do in today’s times. I see a great journey of Indian classical music being carried forward by brilliant musicians of the younger generation. These people are getting a readymade remedy to work on the research and time spent by me and all my contemporaries in all these years. Thanks to the net, I-pods, DVDs and CDs, we are at every home in the world. I am very happy that there are young dedicated musicians, they are also committed performers. I wish them all a very bright and successful future and I am sure that our classical music and legacy will flourish not only in India but all over the world. I am also very satisfied with the response of whole world to our country and its tradition.”

If there is one thing you wish could change in the current scheme of things in the music space, what would it be and why?

For me, Music is not a profession but a passion. A way of life! Education unfortunately could not create compassion and kindness in human beings. Today terrorism and destructive activities are at its peak.  As a human being, I feel proud to see the achievements of a mankind.  However, I feel that an educational degree is important for any artist today as a backup plan. Creative fields don’t have formulas or methods. I wish to have music shape the consciousness in a way that contributes to oneness in Children; it must be more practical and less theoretic! Music is the greatest wealth that I inherited from my forefathers; one that I am constantly sharing with my disciples. Therefore, there isn’t an instant coffee culture that I can follow! Only Practice can work and not any kind of digital correction!

Your ancestral heritage has been playing Sarod. Did you ever feel under pressure during your early years?

Although we automatically assume that Indian music and its instruments to be ancient, the Sarod is one example of an instrument that evolved from other structurally similar Indian and Afghan lutes around the middle of the nineteenth century. The Sarod as we know of today, traces its genealogy and origin back to Rabab of yore. All music evolves because of certain factors which makes it sociological reality rather than simply an aesthetic function. So it was with the Rabab, the folk instrument of ancient Afghanistan, Persia and several other countries, each with a variation giving it an identify of its own. The Pathan Bangash family who were from Central Asia pioneered the task and contributed to the evolution of the present day Sarod. It was the quest of Ghulam Bandegi Khan Bangash for something more that resulted in the modification of the Rabab with certain additions-the new element of melody being the high point of change . And it was this concept of melody, which gave the instrument its name SAROD-being literally a derivation from “Sarod”- meaning melody in Persian. These innovations won Ghulam Bandegi Bangash great acclaim which was further perfected by his son Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash. They were all our forefathers! Having said all this, you eventually are what your music is. Your legacy should show on your work not on facts and history alone!! The Sarod has a steel fingerboard and a belly covered with goatskin. Over this are placed 19 metal strings out of which 11 are sympathetic ones. The plectrum is made of coconut shell called ‘java’. The strings are pressed with the edge of the nails and not the fingertips. This gives a very fine tone that suits the character of this instrument. The body is made of teakwood.

Having seen the transition in music through the years, how do you think technology plays an important role in the current scenario?

There is no formula so to speak to prepare next generation of musicians. There are brilliant young musicians in the generation of Amaan and Ayaan. I am not at all worried about the next generation. By the grace of god they can face the world very brilliantly. Today we have cell phones, I-pods etc, but nobody could create a thirteenth note. These twelve musical notes are the base of every kind of music in the world.  In fact, music has connected the whole world.  We, the musicians of the world are like one big family. Today, especially after 9/11, as a musician and as an artiste, I often think what is the contribution of education in this world? We are still struggling on account of religion and power. We need kind and compassionate people in the world and I see classical music as a means to nurture such feelings. There is room for music beyond technical brilliance and firework mastery. There is a word of punctuation even in music. Appeal, Aesthetics, Poise are all musical terms for me. I am very happy to see the progress of the students who are realizing and feeling music as a way of life.

You have also been a great role model for your sons and helped take Sarod to the western world. Where do you see this instrument stand in future?

I am grateful to God that he has given us Amaan and Ayaan. The years I spent  teaching them have been quite an experience. In a family where music is a way of life, and fundamental to it, training in its intricacies starts from the moment a child is born. When I held Amaan for the first time, I sang into his ear. On Ayaan’s arrival two years later, I did the same. In essence, their training started from that moment, soon after their birth. From the day they came into the world, they were both drawn to music. Perhaps, a wise parent would not allow two sons to play the same instrument, but because music is the only wealth I inherited from my forefathers, I wanted to share it equally with both of them. As a teacher, it was the first time I was able to hold a student on my lap! As time progressed, their training and the musical knowledge that I have tried to pass onto them, continued in our music room. In the course of Amaan and Ayaan’s training, which is an ongoing process for a classical musician, I never encouraged them to copy my style. As they matured as musicians, I was relieved to see that both the brothers were developing an approach that was distinctive and rather different from what they were taught. This I feel is only natural, for the music that an individual creates is a reflection of his or her mind and soul. Over the years they have received immense love and blessings from people in India and all over the world. From the beginning, Amaan has been a protective older brother to Ayaan. And Ayaan has always given him the respect and love due to an older brother. For lot of young people, they have become role models. I feel I too have learnt a lot while teaching them. Today, besides playing classical music, they have made albums of experimental music too. I have really enjoyed their collaboration with guitarist Derek Trucks, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and cellist Matthew Barley. Subhalakshmi and I always hope to see them progress, be successful and happy. By the grace of God, they have matured into multi-faceted personalities. I am sure that by the blessings, love and encouragement of music lovers, they will achieve their goals and everything what they deserve and desire. With time, they have become my closest companions in the music industry. Most of our concert tours, especially the ones overseas, are together, and as a result we have been able to spend immense quality time, both as father-son and teacher-disciple. All concerts have been memorable, from numerous ones at the Carnegie Hall in New York, the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., the Orpheum Theater in Vancouver, among many others.

Tell us about your current and future projects?

There is a US Tour lined up that includes my performances at Carnegie Hall in New York and Chicago Symphony Hall in Chicago. I also perform at the Beloved Festival in Oregon and at the Oudh Festival in Israel. I also look forward to my next release called Peace Worshippers on Naxos and my residency at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

What would be your message to aspiring and young musicians?

Musicians and listeners of music have been communicating with each other across all barriers through this ‘language’ from time immemorial. As we use flowers in worship, welcoming, honoring, departure, and celebration no matter what our race, origin, religion or language, we similarly arrange musical notes into ‘bouquets’ or compositions which display all our human feelings and emotions.  Musical vibrations can convey moods and emotions and have the ability to mould and shape our consciousness. Different types of music can have different effects on the mind-both positive and negative. Our mind is like any living organism. It must be nurtured and needs stimulation to develop and grow. Music is one of the most important ‘foods’ for the intellect. Each musical note is connected to this most important part of our minds. Music has many faces. Conversation, recitation, chanting and singing are all part of music. Before I talk about the spirituality, I must clarify that there are only two types of music in the world. One is based on lyrics, text language, poetry also known as songs and the other kind of music which is pure sound like sound of symphony Violin, Cello, Sitar or Sarod. The sound through voice or instruments is the purest form of music. Songs become popular because of the language text or lyrics. It is easier to talk about spirituality through words but it is difficult to realize or explain the spirituality through the sound. I am grateful to God that I belong to the world of sound. There is an old saying that ‘SWAR HI ISHWAR HAI.’ I have realized the existence of God or the creator of the world through sound and music only. I cannot manipulate through sound because sound is very transparent. Language creates barriers; one can manipulate through words.

Amaan Ali Bangash

Growing up in an environment with legendary musicians like your dad and grandfather, did you always feel the pressure to follow the path or was it easier since the foundation was laid?

Initially I was conditioned into music but now it’s a passion and a reason for immense happiness in my life. Being Ustad Amjad Ali Khan Saheb’s son, it’s a matter of great honor and I feel highly privileged that God gave me the opportunity to be born to this family. My main concern is not to just get popular but the fear of embarrassing my father god forbid, if I am unable to make good music. Abba as we call our father is more of a father to us. Of course the change in role for us and for him to guru to father and back to guru is somewhat effortless; however, it is a relationship with two people, like batman and Bruce Wayne! He has been the most patient teacher and the most loving father. Abba’s teaching and philosophy is beyond music. It’s a way of life. The mantra taught by our parents has been to be a good human being first and good music will follow. Music is who we are and our nature reflects in our music. Therefore as siblings we know each other’s mind on stage. There is no rehearsal!! Our mother’s role has been immense in our lives. Being an artist herself who learnt from the great Rukmini Devi Arundale, she sacrificed her career for the family. Today, what we are, who we are all her contribution. As our father says, a mother is every child’s first guru.

We have heard that your dad used to play nursery rhymes on the Sarod when you were kids. That sure does imply that he wanted to imbibe this onto you at a very young age.  Is that true?

It was the best move to attract children. It was the basic old McDonald, Do a deer etc. Our father is man of his principles and says that God watches every individual in this world and takes care of everything. The mantra taught by our parents has been to be a good human being first and good music will follow. Music is who we are and our nature reflects in our music. Therefore, as siblings we know each other’s mind on stage. There is no rehearsal!! The idea when we play duets is to create a bouquet of flowers though we have our solo careers too. My parents have influenced me on a personal, emotional and spiritual level. My parents continue to be my epitomes of being inspirational figures.

Has the journey for you two been easier, considering you had a stalwart as your father?

Abba’s teaching and philosophy is beyond music. It’s a way of life. The mantra taught by our parents has been to be a good human being first and good music will follow. Music is who we are and our nature reflects in our music. All I can say Is that it’s a complete privilege to be the older son of a monumental icon. I have never figured out Kids of famous fathers getting rebellious on account of whose sons or daughters they are. Parents are like Gods. Enjoy them and serve them.

What keeps you two out of the industry of Bollywood?

It is clearly not planned! We have many friends from Bollywood but work wise there wasn’t any offer that caught our attention. The closet we came to film music was the background score for American Daylight in 2003 by academy award winner Rodger Christian starring Nick Moran.

What is your take on technology being used these days in music?

It’s great! The fact that things are working means people love it! Today, Indian artists have classical concerts selling out all over the world. We need to understand that this has been a very intimate art form, initially not meant for masses. It was only post the aristocratic era that it opened its doors to the masses. Like one can’t compare cricket and chess, you cannot compare Bollywood to Classical Music. It’s like comparing sushi and chicken tikka! Today there are maximum numbers of youngsters learning music and also performing at all levels including posting themselves on YouTube!

Ayaan Ali Bangash

What was the first ever tune you learned?

When we were growing up, our father would always be very happy to see us listen to music, not just practice it. Not just his own music, but the music of an entire range of artistes from the era of our grandfather to the contemporaries of our father. We were never asked to listen to a particular artiste, or not to listen to another; to listen only to classical music and not to listen to the music of the West or Bollywood. The choice and the freedom was entirely ours. But it is only natural to be influenced by the music that your guru speaks of or refers to when he plays. We thus became engrossed in the world of Indian classical music that our father had grown up with, along with our own contemporary choices. To be a musician is in itself a blessing as you are really not answerable to anyone but yourself. For those few hours when you are onstage, you are in a creative frenzy, sometimes supernaturally unreal. There are times when you get off stage only to realize that something special happened up there on stage that day.  It is a blessing to be in a profession of what you love doing.  It is also a non debatable factor that music is indeed the best way to connect to that supreme power that we have never seen. Be it any religion, music has always been the pathway to spirituality.

How to strike a balance between sticking to the roots of your art form and also taking it to places across the globe?

Music is our life. From the time we were born, the language spoken was music; the air that we were breathing was music. We took shape of the vessel like water. Though our father has been a very strict traditionalist, he has always believed in adapting to change. In all honesty, Indian classical music has no rules about how it should be presented or executed. That’s very individualistic. Over the years we have tried our best to make the Sarod reach out to a new audience, to listeners that perhaps would not be at a classical concert!

Tell us about your best tour till date and why?

There have been so many but the Nobel Peace Prize concert was special. We performed at the Nobel Prize ceremony and the Nobel Peace Prize concert.  We presented ‘Raga for Peace’ on this momentous occasion as a tribute to Kailash Saryarthi and Malala Yosufzai. Both Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai got this great honor for their work against suppression of children and their right to education. We performed on two occasions. The first was at the Nobel Peace Prize presentation ceremony. It was indeed a moment of pride as an India to see Kailashji receive this great honour. It was after thirty six years that an Indian received the Nobel Peace Prize. The second was at the spectacular Oslo Spektrum. It was perhaps the largest gathering I have performed in, outside India. This venue seated over 6,000 people including Prince Hakon of Norway and members of the Norwegian royal family in the audience of course along with both the Laureates. It was so wonderful to perform alongside Queen Latifa, Steven Tyler of the band Aerosmith and Nuno Bettencourt the great Guitarist from the band Extreme. The atmosphere back stage was magical. All artists were interacting with one another with the highest regard for each other’s musical genre.

If you had a chance to collaborate with a particular artist, who would it be and why?

So many!!! It’s a long list and a journey full of surprises. We have been very fortunate to have received so much love and adulation from music lovers all over the world. It’s such a long journey! Sky is the limit. The main mantra is that we have never taken any concert for granted. You are as old as your last concert and every concert is the first concert of your life. We have done many collaborations in the past with Allman Brothers band guitarist Derek Trucks, American Folk song writer Carrie Newcomer, Grammy nominated Oud player Rahim Alhaj and also with the performed with London Philharmonia, Avignon Symphony Orchestra, Welsh National Oera, Britten Sinfonia and National Youth Orchestra of United Kingdom. Every field has its low and high phases.

This exclusive interview is featured in our August issue:

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