Interviews with Ali Akbar Khan & Jai Uttal

Generation to Generation
by Dan Liss
Imagine that you are three years old when your father says it is time to begin your music lessons. That concept would shock most of us. But if you were born in India in 1922, and your father was preparing to pass on an unbroken legacy of performing as a court musician and concert master that extends back to the 16th century, you might consider it an honor, and the natural thing to do. This is how it began for the person most responsible for introducing the classical music of India to the United States, Ali Akbar Khan.

For the next twenty years, Khansahib (sahib added to the last name is a title of honor, and it is how his students address him) practiced for 18 hours a day. He studied vocal music from his father, drums from his uncle, in addition to several other instuments. He finally settled on the sarode, a 25-stringed instrument. His father continued to teach him until he was over 100 years old. He gave his first concert at the age of 13, and while still in his twenties, was given the title Ustad, a master musician.

Khansahib first visited the U.S. in 1955, pioneering every step of the way: a concert in the Museum of Modern Art, recording the first Western LP of Indian classical music, and performing on TV. since then he has toured the world and founded the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in Calcutta in 1956. In 1967, he founded the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in California, located in the city of San Rafael. there is also a branch in Basel, Switzerland. During this period, he has trained more than 10,000 students. To this day, he still actively teaches and performs.

The classical music of India is one of the oldest continual music traditions in the world. The Ali Akbar Khan Foundation has also been established to preserve the legacy of the music of India, creating new master tapes, archiving written and filmed records of these traditions. Musch of this cultural wealth has been created stored and presaerved with outdated equipment, and the facilities and technology are deteriorating. We had an opportunity to interview him recently.

Do you have any special feelings about the 50th Anniversary of India's Independence?

All of us Indians are proud and thrilled to be celebrating this occasion.

To what would you attribute the growing interest in the classical music of India in the U.S. today?

I worked so hard for many years through teaching and performing all over the U.S. to help educate and excite an interest in this music. Along with my colleague, Pandit Ravi Shankar, who also learned with my father, many artists have come to this country to perform. Today, Indian classical music has become the second most popular classical music in America.

Many people use this music for deep meditation. They feel a sense of spirituality permeates the type of music you play. Is this an important purpose or source of creative inspiration for you?

This is the real purpose of music. Through the sound you feed your soul and heart so that you can reach to God or get mukti (spiritual salvation). And through music you can bring friendship, love, and equality person to person, country to country.

Are there unique methods of preparation, mental or physical, that Indian music requires, compared to other types of music?

First of all, when you're learning and performing your heart needs to be very truthful and honest. You have to discipline your mind and soul and become a devotee of God and your Guru (teacher). It is very important to keep the music and yourself pure. A person needs to devote their whole life to become a musician along with having a good character and kind heart.

If the music was passed on through the family since the 16th century, is it considered breaking with tradition to be teaching this music to all different types of people in a public facility?

My father started teaching students outside of the family because he wanted the music to spread around the world. The old ways have changed and there are no longer many sponsors helping musicians. I believe it's important to teach any students who are capable of learning so that the music will not die.

How do you feel about the new generation of musicians who combine your teachings of classical music with other genres such as jazz or pop?

It is one way to expose people to Indian music. For example, you have many sources of water coming from the mountains like rivers and streams. Then one day when the time comes, they will all meet together in the ocean.

The Ali Akbar Khan College of Music maintains a website: Address: 215 West End Avenue, San Rafael, CA 94901. Phone: 415-454-6264.

Music, Passion & Pagan Love
by Dan Liss

Jai Uttal, in an interview with Rhythm Music Magazine, remembers the first time he encountered the music of Ali Akbar Khan. "I heard him on my first night in college. I was in an altered state of consciousness. When the music stopped, the drone continued; the sound of people talking became the continuation of the melody, and the sound of footsteps as the audience left became the rhythmic cycle. It was as if the music never stopped. It was a manifestation of music being the life force. I knew then that I wanted to study with Khansahib. A few months later, in 1969, Uttal dropped out of college and began lessons with him, which he continues to this day.

Then in 1970, he made his first trip to India to study with the Bauls of Bengal, an outcast religious group of street musicians and beggars whose passionate poetry and music were legendary, and largely unrecorded.

Their influence shows in other ways. When asked why he calls his band the Pagan Love Orchestra, he answered: "It came when I was in a funny mood. It isn't literal and the band is hardly an orchestra. But I think of a pagan as one who is trying to see God in everything and love God in all kinds of forms. I know that's not the dictionary definition, but that's what it means to me personally."

Uttal's musical magic lies in his ability to meld the classical music of ancient India with jazz, blues, and pop influences to create a powerful, passionate contribution to new world music. He has worked with visionaries such as jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer/dancer/teacher, Gabrielle Roth. His touch can be heard on recordings by Sophia and Steven Halpern. He has released four albums on Triloka Records: Footprints, Monkey, Beggars and Saints and Shiva Station. We had an opportunity to interview him recently.

How did you get the idea to start mixing all these different musical influences together?

I started mixing these sounds years before record labels started releasing more world music. I was always combining. I grew up with pop music, so it just seemed natural. My father worked in the music business, I was taking lessons from Khansahib, and when I came home it only seemed natural that they would all flow together.

Have you ever tried to translate some of the Indian songs into English?

Some chants are hard to translate, because it's a matter of finding the right words, the poetic equivalent. And there's another important aspect to it. Some words just translated into English just don't sound that great. Part of that is the sound of the language; you can stretch sounds to facilitate playing with melody, and the language lends itself to that.

Why were the Bauls disliked in India?

They rejected the rules and rituals of both the Hindus and Islam, living outside of the traditional rigidity and forms. They had no temples, no idols or deities, free lifestyle, like gypsies. The Nobel prize winning Indian poet Tagore helped change opinions about them, encouraging respect for them from the Indian people. Today there are recordings of them becoming available, and their sound is changing. The Bauls look to the west, just as we look to east. What I learned from them was passion, about piercing the firmament.

How many strings are on the dotar, and why do you prefer that to other instruments?

The one I play most has six strings, but different ones have different numbers of strings. It's small and portable, so I can move with it. When I'm onstage, I like to move and dance when I play. It's a folk instrument, rather than a classical instrument: dotar and banjo are folk cousins.

How was it to work with Gabrielle Roth?

I've recorded with her, played live in her workshops and concerts. It was different than playing with the Bauls. Here I am supporting a teacher who is teaching people how to get in touch. The Bauls are just living it. From her, I learned the joy of playing with dancers and how the dancers feed energy to the musicians.

Do you still study with Khansahib?

I still study twice a week: once for voice and sarod, once for classical orchestra. My voice is my primary instrument. Soon we will be making a recording with the orchestra, and I'm looking forward to that. What I learned from Khansahib was the commitment to having music come from deepest place it can come from, to take it very seriously.

Your new album is Shiva Station.

Shiva Station embodies the energy of transformation. It's named after the god, Shiva, who represents transformation. I hope the album contains energy of transformation. It's like a train station; the train moves in for a period of time, people change and move on, then the transformation takes place and the train moves on.

Jai Uttal's fall tour, a multimedia show is titled "Night on the Ganges." Both artists have albums on Triloka Records, which has a website at:

by Dan Liss

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