"I don’t read music, I don’t write music. While performing, everything is fresh, [emotion] which I translate through my instrument, and it cannot be repeated.”
Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan to perform new raga dedicated to Abu Dhabi
Within minutes of talking to master sarod player Amjad Ali Khan, it’s clear that for him music is part of a philosophy of life from which it cannot be separated. Each time he begins to discuss his own career, he swiftly segues into his thoughts on the power of music to unite communities and the need for cross-cultural understanding.
“There are only two types of music in the world. One is pure sound – the sound of symphonies, guitar, oud, rabab, sarod. The other kind of music is based on language – lyrics – which we call song,” says Khan, who speaks slowly, choosing each word with care. “Music is a precious gift of God and music doesn’t belong to any religion – like flowers, air, water, fire, fragrance and colours.”
Composing a tribute to Abu Dhabi
Khan is speaking ahead of his performance at the Abu Dhabi Festival tonight, where he will perform with backing from tabla – a versatile Indian percussive instrument – and tanpura, a stringed instrument designed to be played as accompaniment.
A virtuoso widely considered to be the world’s best sarod player, Khan has composed a new raga – a classical Indian melodic framework facilitating improvisation around five notes – specifically for his performance at the festival.
“I have composed a special piece as a tribute to Abu Dhabi. It’s a tribute to Arab music,” he explains. “Arabic music and Indian music have a very close relationship. It’s also a traditional raga but there is room for every creative musician to compose something different, something new.”
Born in 1945, Khan is the sixth generation of a family of musicians who claim to have invented the sarod, a lute-like instrument descended from the Afghani rabab. Made of teak wood, with a soundboard of stretched goatskin, it has 19 strings.
Eleven of these strings are designed to resonate in harmony with the melody.
“Sarod is a Persian word and the meaning of sarod is music,” Khan explains. “This instrument has been invented by my forefathers. They came from Afghanistan and they used to play the rabab, which is still used in Kashmir and Central Asia.”
Khan’s two sons, Amaan and Ayaan, are both celebrated musicians in their own right. The three sometimes play together and were invited to perform “Raga for Peace” at the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in honour of recipients Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai.
Khan’s career has spanned more than six decades and he is mesmerising to watch. Complex improvised melodies spill from his jawa – a plectrum made of coconut shell – seemingly without effort. Sitting cross-legged, his instrument balanced across his lap, he sways, smiles, grimaces and occasionally closes his eyes in contemplation as he coaxes extraordinary sounds from his instrument.
“I’m not playing sarod, I’m singing though my instrument,” he says. “That’s the concept because I don’t read music, I don’t write music. While performing, everything is fresh, [emotion] which I translate through my instrument, and it cannot be repeated.”
Ragas – named for the Bengali word for “colouring” or “dyeing” – are designed to “colour the mind” of the audience, eliciting powerful emotions. Classical Indian ragas can be hours long, but Khan is known for his experimentation, sometimes playing a series of ragas lasting just a few minutes each.
He likens the process of performing a raga to playing jazz. “Jazz is also improvised,” he says, “and jazz musicians are very fortunate that they are at liberty to use all 12 musical notes … In Indian music we don’t have that ability. We have to maintain the discipline of ascending and descending. By maintaining the discipline, we improvise.
“Improvisation is nothing great – I think a child can also improvise – but in our music we have slides and glides,” he adds, breaking suddenly into warbling, wordless song. His voice skates seamlessly from one note to the next, mimicking the smooth glide between notes common to the sitar, sarangi and sarod and known in Urdu as meend.
Collaborating with Abu Dhabi musicians
Khan has collaborated with a wide range of musicians from other traditions, including Iraqi-American oud play Raheem AlHaj, with whom he recorded an album called Ancient Sounds, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, for whom he composed his first symphony, a 45-minute long sarod concerto called Saamagam – a Sanskrit word he translates as “the confluence of two cultures.”
“All the musicians of the world are like a very close-knit family,” he says. “I would love to collaborate with any musicians from Abu Dhabi, any day, any time.”
For Khan, music is a means of combating the world’s problems, which are clearly preying on his mind. “This is the 21st century, but we are still killing each other on account of religion,” he says.
“It’s very sad … I believe that all of us have a common God in the same energy, the same power, who brings us to the world and takes us away from the world.”
“If you listen to music, all your negativities are suppressed,” he adds. “Most of the medical world today is using music as therapy. When I am performing, if you listen to my music with full concentration, it is very handy for the mind and body. It is much more effective than yoga.”
The Sarod Master: Amjad Ali Khan is at Emirates Palace Auditorium on Sunday, March 25, at 8pm. For more information and tickets, see www.abudhabifestival.ae