Representing the sixth generation of a family of musicians and sarod masters and its tradition known as the Senia Bangash Gharana, Ustad (maestro) Amjad Ali Khan is steeped in the classical Indian tradition of ragas and talas, which he learnt first from his father and guru Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan from the court of Gwalior, a true capital of North Indian classical music since the height of the Mughal Empire. In turn, Amjad Ali Khan has been guru to his two sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangaash, so the family tradition continues with a seventh generation and flourishes on the world stage as never before.
In recent years father and sons have turned their attention more and more towards collaborations with musicians from other great traditions, especially Western classical music, seeking ways in which their Indian music finds resonances and parallels in other music, so that the Western musicians concerned can find a way into Indian music without the years of formal training expected of an Indian. An obvious connection featured in this album is that the sarod and guitar are both leading plucked stringed instruments of their respective traditions. The sarod does not have frets, and this enables it better to replicate the essential slides and other embellishments demanded of raga performance.
Thus it requires a guitarist of the caliber of Sharon Isbin to interact with no fewer than three sarod masters. In the words of Amjad Ali Khan himself, “each of the artists brings the spirit of sharing the great unique treasures of their own artistic traditions, as well as finding common ground in ragas and medieval modes. The idea is to achieve a cross-fertilization at both the cellular and cosmic levels of two classical music traditions, which are often held to be radically different.”
Yet if we focus only on the music, or even the instruments, we can miss the essential point: this is a meeting of living musicians across cultures and it is as feeling human beings that we can understand and appreciate each other and thereby heal this divided world, and what better way is there to achieve this ideal than through the joy and spiritual nourishment that music brings? Sharon Isbin adds her understanding of Indian music to her expertise in her own musical tradition and to an unusual interestfar more than just a childhood hobbyin rocket science. (A comparison of that with the depth and complexity of the raga and tala systems is not that fanciful). The daughter of a nuclear scientist, she took over her brother’s guitar lessons in Italy when he discovered they weren’t orientated towards rock and roll. She became the first female classical guitarist to win not only one Grammy (in 2001) but two (the second following in 2010), and she is the founding director of the guitar department at The Juilliard School in New York.
While developing as a classical guitarist, from the age of nine, she also pursued her other great passion: building model rockets and launching them from a nearby field. She began practicing Transcendental Meditation and appreciating Indian music while in her teens, but her experience of India and its great classical music is more recent and has taken off at least as spectacularly as her work with rockets. Apart from a rigorous classical training with, among others, the legendary Segovia and the great Bach pianist Rosalyn Tureck, Sharon Isbin enjoys working with jazz musicians and those in other genres who improvise, so her combination of experiences is an ideal basis for her ventures into Indian music.
If we are to seek the common ground between Indian and Western music, we can look to the modes of Ancient Greece and European medieval and renaissance music, all of which are found in the ragas of India, and to the towering figure of JS Bach, who was also a master of improvisation, and whose unsurpassed compositions have what may be described as a spiritual geometry that is also the foundation of the raga system. This album is all ragas, unfolding according to traditional Indian practice, to which Sharon Isbin adapts admirably. In her own words, “it is an honor and joy to perform Strings for Peace! The music Amjad Ali Khan has composed for guitar and sarod is sheer genius, and I don’t use this term lightly. In an amazing way, it interweaves our varied musical, spiritual and artistic traditions with mystical beauty, creativity, grace and great emotion.” The four artists are accompanied on the tabla by Amit Kavthekar, a disciple of two giants of Indian drumming, Alla Rakha and his son Zakir Hussain.
By the Moon - Raga Behag, performed by Amaan Ali Bangash and Sharon Isbin, uses the same notes as the natural scale, or the C-mode (Ionian), with the addition of a sharp fourth in certain phrases within the prescribed ascending and descending shape of the raga. Sharon commences the dialogue, exchanging short alap phrases with Amaan before he launches into a longer improvisation. A jor section (recognisable from the sense of a pulse and faster movement) leads into the gat, which is a composition set to a rhythm cycle, in this case of 16 beats at a fast tempo in the commonest of all North Indian talas, known as Teental, starting as a dialogue before the two artists join in unison for the statements of the composition. Just over halfway through this section with tabla accompaniment, the first gat gives way to a much faster gat, also in Teental, allowing the music to accelerate to a thrilling climax.
Love Avalanche - Ragas Bhairavi and Pilu (the former on this track and the latter on the track entitled “Romancing Earth”) have much in common. Both are extremely popular, especially as shorter, more relaxed items in a concert, as in this little gem performed by Ayaan Ali Bangash and Sharon Isbin, and both are often described as “light classical”, mainly because a greater degree of freedom is allowed in the choice of notes than with most ragas (and both items in this album have the same lilting rhythm in the light classical vein). The basic scale of Raga Bhairavi is the same as the European Phrygian or E-mode, so all seven notes of the Indian scale are in their flattest position. Bhairavi is related to Bhairav, as the names suggest, for she was the consort of Bhairav in the Hindu pantheon, and, interestingly, the melody introduced in unison by Ayaan and Sharon after an initial flourish on the tabla by Amit Kavthekar suggests Raga Bhairav.
Romancing Earth Raga Pilu is a popular raga, rendered here by Amjad Ali Khan himself, with Sharon Isbin. It’s often described as “light classical” mainly because it is thought to contain many folk songs and there is more freedom within it than is the case with most other ragas. (The lilting tala that accompanies the folk-like gat melody later is also typical of the light classical style.) The basic scale of Pilu emphasizes the flat third and leading note, which give the raga a wistful mood, both to Indian and Western ears, though the mood can change to joy, devotion and happiness. Amjad Ali Khan anchors the raga firmly, allowing Sharon Isbin sensitively to explore it, to which he responds in agreement, creating a gentle dialogue and musical testament to some of Sharon’s words quoted earlier: “creativity, grace and great emotion.”
Sacred Evening Raga Yaman. Performed by Ayaan Ali Bangash and Sharon Isbin, this piece is based on Raga Yaman, one of the most popular of ragas and performed in the evening. Using the same notes as the European Lydian or F-mode (natural notes, with a sharp fourth) it emphasises the third and leading note (the latter dominating the opening of Ayaan’s alap improvisation). Sharon joins in the dialogue, coaxing some characteristically Indian slides from her instrument, and later she leads the faster, rhythmical jor section. The two artists join together with the tabla player, Amit Kavthekar, for the gat set to a brisk tempo Teental (16 beats). The constraint of the repeating 16-beat cycle enables the two artists to play in perfect unison, as well as continuing to improvise individually, and Amit Kavthekar is also given a chance to venture beyond sounding the beats of the tala to demonstrate his own virtuosity. Near the end an unexpected touch reminds us that Western music uses harmony, as well as hinting at the medieval practice of organum, when Sharon joins Ayaan’s phrases a fourth below.
Produced by: Sharon Isbin, Amjad Ali Khan, Kabir Sehgal.
Recorded: April 10 & 11, 2019 at Reservoir Studios in New York City. Recording Engineer: James Yost. Editing: Sai Shravanam. Mixing and Mastering Engineer: Sai Shravanam at Resound India. Cover Photo: Suvo Das. Inside Photo: Prabhat Shetty for Hindustan Times Brunch. Art Direction and Package Design: Jack Frisch. Executive Producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker. Publishing: ©Amjad Ali Khan. All tracks arranged for sarod & guitar by Kyle Paul, with fingerings by Sharon Isbin. Sharon Isbin plays a guitar by Antonius Mueller with Savarez strings.