The Vibrations of Lineage

A new generation of South Asian American musicians struggle to define their own sound.

October 1, 2006

Writer Robin Sukhadia

Photographer Roger Persson

I grew up mostly isolated from a larger South Asian community in a number of small motels that my family ran in Ohio and Indiana. What little money my father earned, he spent on records and an impressive stereo system. Alongside Neil Diamond, Elton John and the Beatles, my father constantly played his large collection of Bollywood records. I remember him singing along to the great film composers and artists: RD Burman, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bosle. I used to listen to those scratchy records while wearing my dad’s massive Pioneer headphones. Whenever I put them on, I entered a different world—one of whimsical arrangements, catchy melodies and romantic lyrics. For a long time, these strange songs were all I knew of the musical traditions of India.

That all changed in 1998. I was driving through Chapel Hill, NC, one year after graduating from college there. My best friend put in a sampler cassette tape of Talvin Singh’s debut album release, OK, that he had just found in the free bin at a record shop on Franklin Street. I remember listening to the first track, “Butterfly,” and being stunned by the crystalline and resonant beauty of the tablas, vibrating brightly above the richest and sickest drum and bass beats I had ever heard. That’s when the revelation happened: I was hearing tabla in a context that made sense to me, in a way that made it possible for me to reconcile the tradition of my parents with contemporary times growing up in America. Somehow, hearing Singh’s tricked-out tabla beats led me to study classical Indian music with guru Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, and tabla became the lens through which I would begin to understand the immense depth and history of classical north Indian music as a whole.

Starting in the 16th century, classical north Indian music was protected and nurtured by the royal courts under the great Mughal emperors of North India. Their court system of patronage supported artists who developed their music to tremendous levels. This system began to collapse during the British occupation of India and great musicians were forced to seek ways to sustain themselves. They found patronage in smaller courts, with the newly wealthy landlords that were created by the British system, and in the new colonial cities of Calcutta and Bombay. It was only after Indian independence in 1946 that the music slowly became accessible to the Indian public, through public concerts, recordings and radio broadcasts, and, eventually, to the wider global audience at large. Master musicians like Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar, who trained intensely for years in near isolation, brought the music to western audiences starting in the 1950s. The arrival of these and other master artists on the world stage changed the course of classical music forever. New amplification technologies and altered formats for presenting classical music combined to make classical north Indian music more appealing to western musical sensibilities. The willingness of pioneering artists to bring the music to new audiences around the world was seen by traditionalists as an affront to the previously closed nature of the music, which had been guarded for centuries by a strict code of lineage and patriarchy. For most of the history of north Indian classical music, only certain male blood relatives were permitted learn the intricacies of playing instruments like tabla, sitar and sarode.

In the late 1990s, Singh and other British Asian Underground pioneers—including Asian Dub Foundation, Nitin Sawhney and State of Bengal—initiated a global movement of electronic and dance music influenced by the classical music of north and south India, often referred to as the Asian Massive movement. These pioneers created music straddling two musical worlds: a contemporary technological musical world where there are few restrictions, and a traditional acoustic one where respect for sacred paradigms and discipline are of utmost importance to creative expression. The result of their sonic experiments was a new musical identity representing the South Asian diaspora worldwide.

Today, young South Asian Americans are both carrying on the classical traditions of their parents and continuing to forge new ground in the electronic music scene. Artists such as Anoushka Shankar and Alam Khan are carrying on the groundbreaking tradition of their fathers by continuing the tradition of classical music, while innovators such as Karsh Kale are producing electronic tracks with world musicians from all over the planet. But can these musical forms converge and coexist in the modern world without sacrificing the purity of the classical form?

“Classical music is not for entertainment”

Sitting and talking with Alam Khan, 24, at the world famous Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin, CA., is like sharing a sacred meal with a rising acolyte at an ancient temple. One of the youngest sons of maestro Ali Akbar Khan, Alam radiates seriousness and an intense self-awareness about his role as one of the youngest torch bearers of his father’s and grandfather’s legacy. The young Khan began studying sarode—a 25-string instrument that traces its roots to Afghanistan—with his father when he was 7, and has performed with him around the world, including at the prestigious Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, India, and at Carnegie Hall. In 2004, Khan made his debut solo performance accompanied by the great tabla wizard Zakir Hussain.

“I don’t consider myself a good musician or a learned musician,” Khan says. “I think I am just learning, that I am a student, and that I will always be a student. Right now, I am practicing rigorously and taking all my father’s classes. I instruct review classes, and give private instruction to students at the college. What I need now, and what I am doing now, is the practice that comes only through performance.”

Throughout the interview, Khan deftly evades any opportunity to talk about his own musical achievements. To the point of being self-deprecating, he defers to the elders in his family and the lineage he represents. It is easy to understand why. His father carries forth the teachings of his father, the mystical genius Baba Allaudin Khan. Baba, who was also the guru of sitar player Ravi Shankar, is said to have mastered hundreds of musical instruments—both Indian and Western. A visionary innovator, he is credited with modernizing sitar, sarode and a number of other instruments; he was also able to create and improvise ragas, spiritually attuned examinations of scale and emotion designed to be played over extended periods of time (sometimes more than three hours), at certain times of day and in certain seasons.

“On a conscious and subconscious level, it plays a big part of my mental state that I come from a line of great musicians,” Khan says. “If I didn’t do this, it would haunt me that I didn’t do it.”

Spirituality and reverence for the sacred are central to Khan’s way of thinking about the music and his place in the family profession. “I want to make people happy like my father did. The lineage is important, yes, but devotion to the music is the most important thing. You can be an American student and this music can touch your heart, and it feels like an old friend, it feels right, and you understand the connection and you devote yourself to that.”

Like many developing masters before him, Khan’s course to becoming an established classical north Indian musician has been deliberate and slow. You won’t find any fancy marketing schemes here. He is still establishing himself in the old way, by performing selectively at prestigious conferences in India and throughout the world. His only album release to date, Father to Son (2002), features him playing alongside his father.

When we begin to talk about the Asian Massive movement and about contemporary applications of classical north Indian music, Khan expresses strong reservations. “My father always says, ‘There is fusion, and there is confusion,’” Khan says. “My grandfather spent his whole life learning this music to make it as pure as possible, and he learned it directly from blood-related descendants of Mian Tansen [a 16th Century musical genius in the court of the Mughul emperor Akbar]. It is important to me that this music remains pure. We have the technology and, yes, we can [sample classical music], but we must have a foundation or the building will collapse.”

In 2002, Khan released a self-produced hip-hop album, Raps, Rupees & Rickshaws, featuring himself and Oliver Black as MCs. Khan produced all the beats and the album featured rising tabla virtuoso Debopriya Sarkar on the signature track, “Hangin’ with Bubai.”

“I like electronic music. I listen to it and I make it, so I would be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t enjoy it. But it can only take you to a certain place, it taps into different kinds of emotions and vibrations. But it doesn’t get to the core essence,” he says. “Spiritually, classical music is not for entertainment, it is not fashionable and it is not image-saturated—it transcends all of that. It is for your body, mind and soul; and one of the things that is great about my father—and all the masters living (there are not many living these days)—is that they are able to be open channels for love and compassion to come through them. My grandfather used to say that you can play and devote yourself to the ragas so much that you forget the time of day, your surroundings, the place you are in, your name, everything. In order to achieve that, it has to be very pure, and the emphasis has to be on real pitch, rhythm and tuning. It is a whole different level.”

Khan says he notices a lot of carelessness in pitch in electronic music that utilizes classical Indian samples. The focus on rhythm and beat over tuning seems disrespectful to him.

“A lot of people are trying to fuse this music. I think that is just the medium through which people listen to music these days. Music is made electronically. It is a reflection of our generation today. We want a quick fix. We have no time to meditate, no time to get in touch with old traditions. In modern society, we pick up our Yoga Journal magazine, we wear our shirts with deities on them, and that makes us spiritual,” he says. “It is a whole state of mind that the music misses nowadays.“

“That old world hardly exists anymore”

Anoushka Shankar, daughter of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, was barely 12 years old when she decided to dedicate her life to sitar.

“This music, it requires so much because of its immensity,” she says. “There is just so much dedication that it requires and I still go through tussles with that, because I love it as passionately as I do. When you are tied to something so immense, so big, with so many rules and regulations, sometimes it can be overwhelming. Definitely as a 12-year-old, you are thinking: “Do I really want to set myself up to this?”

Shankar, now 24, grew up in London, India and San Diego. She says living in the United States, where lineage isn’t the ultimate parameter for success, gave her more permission to define her own path. That said, her father was a pioneer on many fronts. He was among the first classically trained sitarists to be embraced by Western audiences, thanks primarily to his connection with George Harrison of The Beatles. Performing milestone concerts at Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival, Ravi Shankar presented classical north Indian music in the landscape of a rapidly changing American pop culture. His extensive knowledge, virtuosity and his ability to eloquently educate Western audiences combined with an openness to experiment were critical to bringing new audiences to classical north Indian music.

“I don’t know if it is having a history of royalty in Indian culture, but people really love lineage. They want to see the child of someone who they love being the continuation of that [art],” Anoushka Shankar says. “I saw very early on that there were going to be major expectations. I had to decide, basically, to the best of my ability, to ignore it. I decided at a young age that if I was going to take this on, that this was going to be my journey.”

Beyond her father’s role in turning on the flower power generation to Indian classical music, his real legacy has to do with his intense training under Baba Allaudin Khan. Ravi Shankar spent seven intensive years in Maihar, a small village in India, studying sitar. Intensive, in some ways, is too weak a term to describe the austere and rigorous manner in which Baba taught his disciples. While improvisation is a major element of the music, studying hundreds of ancient compositions and memorizing them is first required to be able to intelligently improvise. The ragas are more like spells, requiring a great deal of time to learn properly and master. For Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, a typical day of practice could include up to 18 hours of playing.

“[My training] is not the same situation of having to leave everything and go to a village and practice 16 to 18 hours everyday for seven years,” Anoushka Shankar says. “That old world hardly exists anymore. It is there in some senses, but as much as possible, my father tried to retain the essence of that in a much more present-day world.”

While Anoushka’s training may have been slightly different from those who came before her, learning from her father has been its own amazing experience. “It is intense. You are very
dependent upon your teacher. It is a very abstract relationship, as it is, because you are connecting through an art form. At least in my life, it is a very unique relationship that I have with my father, and it is the reason that we are as close as we are. It does demand a lot, a lot of memorization, a lot of time and energy. The payoff though is so instantaneous. The relationship that it created between us, it is so magical.”

But beyond her father’s legacy, Anoushka is clearly establishing her own musical identity and is doing it with her own modern style. Her latest album, Rise (2005), is a departure from the past three albums, which were primarily focused on her playing classical sitar. Rise features lush atmospherics and shorter, electronic-based compositions she wrote, featuring sitar. Her forthcoming album will feature collaborative work with electronic artist, Karsh Kale. In the spirit of her visionary and progressive father, Rise reflects her versatility, not just as a sitarist but as an arranger and composer, incorporating elements such as multilayered voicings, harmonization, world instruments and classical Indian instruments. The use of electronic effects is subtle and not so subtle at points, indicators of Anoushka’s openness to experimentation with technology.

Proving that she can bridge the divide, Anoushka continues to perform regularly in India, alongside her father and in a solo context. “It is funny, you really have to prove yourself every time you go back there,” she explains. “For me, the way I dress, the way I am and being female, I get a lot prominence for that in India, being very different from the bulk of the classical Indian music world. So, when it comes down to stripping it down and playing the music, you kind of really have to show that the shell for me may be very different, but the substance is still there, regardless.”

“The music is diversifying”

Karsh Kale’s groundbreaking electronic music has been at the center of the Asian Underground movement in America for years. He plays tabla, but audiences rarely see him present these drums in a purely classical format. In live performance, Kale, 32, often performs tabla using pedals and effects processors. Reviewers have said of Kale that he is “well on his way to mastering his own musical language” and that he’s a “musical ambassador for Indian sounds.”

Kale’s playful energy and excitement are contagious. He projects a vibrant, frenetic energy when I catch him in Los Angeles. He moved to the West Coast from New York City last year but says he has only been in town a total of three of the last 24 months. His demanding travel schedule takes him around the globe DJing, performing and producing new tracks with musicians all over the world.

Talking to him, there is a loving permission that he grants to any South Asian near him to be more expressive and more free. It is refreshing. Lineage and rules are far away when talking to him about music.

“I don’t really believe in lineage. I think the examples of lineage that we see, people like Zakir Hussain, Anoushka Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan, very much deserve to have the spotlight because they have truly mastered and taken their art form to another level. But in general, I don’t think there should be a rule for other artists to be excluded because they are not part of the lineage in any art form. An artist needs to be able to create their own aesthetic as opposed to trying to fit into all the institutions that exist,” he says.

From Kale’s first solo album, Realize (2001), to his latest, Broken English (2006), his music uses classical Indian musical paradigms and instruments, but he pushes them far outside of their existing stuffy environs and onto the dance floor.

“I studied with three different teachers over a total of six years and the rest of the time I spent learning by myself. I spent a lot of time accompanying people because of my father’s involvement with performing arts in the Indian community. So I spent most of my time learning tabla by learning from and watching tabla players, retaining as much information as I could,” Kale says of his training.

Kale is currently busy touring, doing live concerts with his band Realize and producing DJ events with Kollective—a national DJ collective party that he started last year with resident DJs across the country. Broken English reflects a departure from the electronic music for which Kale is best known. “I have been writing a lot more music and focusing more on songwriting. I have been doing a lot more composition off the computer: sitting with the guitar, sitting on a piano, sitting on a Fender Rhodes, writing full compositions, even within Ragas, and singing all different styles of Carnatic [south Indian] songs,” Kale says. “I’ve spent the last 12 years collaborating with so many different incredible artists. I haven’t really sat down until recently and just looked at what I have received from all those experiences.”

Kale has spent much time traveling in India and performing there in the growing dance and electronic music scene. “The most exciting thing for me is to see people redefine the stereotype of the modern South Asian,” Kale says. “More South Asians are coming up from different parts of the world and are incorporating different aspects of world culture into their South Asianness and then projecting that on the world. The music is diversifying: There are singer songwriters, hard-core scratch DJs, tabla players and Indian classical musicians all changing the way we hear South Asian music.”

Coming From the Future

The more I study and practice tabla, the more I realize its potency as an art. Even though the compositions are in some cases hundreds of years old, they can sound as if they are coming from the future. I have been able to apply the compositions I have learned on tabla to a wide range of genres, from classical to trip-hop to experimental IDM. Only the versatility and depth of an instrument like tabla can allow for such wide collaboration. I think the application of tabla in so many environments is a reflection of my Americanness, a reflection of how in this culture a musician is exposed to so many different forms of music, and that experimentation is accepted, if not required.

The danger, as purists like Alam Khan convey, is that classical Indian music can be presented in a distorted way. Even though I came to playing tabla by hearing it in a drum and bass track, I’m concerned that many people will never understand the full depth of this music’s depth, thus endangering its lifespan in the West. How awful would it be if a listener’s only exposure to classical Indian music is through the samples heard in a Missy Elliot song, a Beatles songs or a distorted, looped Asian Massive track?

I often hear from people that Indian classical music isn’t sustainable in American culture, because it requires so much patience, discipline, time and energy to understand. But seeing the dedication with which artists such as Khan, Shankar and Kale are giving this music, I don’t think there is too much to be worried about.

Robin Sukhadia is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in world music at CalArts, after studying tabla at the Ali Akbar College of Music for five years. He is the International Grants Program Director for Project Ahimsa, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth through music.

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