BWW Review: MAESTRO AMJAD ALI KHAN & SONS Mesmerizes at Orpheum Theatre
There are other paths in this world than the clearest, largest, and most trod. The dominant paradigm is not the only way. That is the message of cultural integrity in the 21st century. The truth about other paths is that they begin from a different place and so have a different perspective on the world. They also lead towards a different future.
Classical Indian music is one of the rare culture forms to have survived into the present with a gaining momentum, despite the scarring influences of Western hegemony in contemporary society, politics, culture and economics. In such places as North America, and Asia alike, where assimilation and integration endanger ancient traditions, the fact that classical Indian music has achieved a continuing stature on the world stage is a testament to its transcendent, ageless strength.
A tradition stemming from over two millennia, Indian classical music is arguably eternal. Sourced in the Vedic concept of the nada brahma that the universe is a manifestation of sound energy, Indian classical music is steeped in the echo of creation. In this way, the tradition encompasses all forms of music and spirituality.
So the concert, entitled The Strings That Bind Us, began with the cordial and thrilled introduction of Indian Summer Festival artistic director, Sirish Rao. Special arrangements were made to accommodate attendees observing Ramadan and vegan snacks were gifted to all as the intergenerational, multidisciplinary show commenced.
There is a difference between convention and tradition. These words of wisdom are attributed to the living maestro of sarod, a lute-like instrument invented by a direct ancestor of Amjad Ali Khan. The master appeared onstage to a standing ovation, and began the first half of the recital to a standing ovation in the company of two tabla virtuosos, Abhijit Banerjee and Vineet Vyas.
The Indo-Canadian community showed their immense respect for a man who represents more than fame. He is a preeminent descendant and proponent of a core tradition of Indian civilization. He is the people's living connection to their roots, their foundation, where, especially in times of social and personal instability, they can find solace knowing that their spirit is enduring and in many ways deeper than time itself.
Although they may not appear similar, Western classical music shares certain traits with Indian classical. Firstly, in both settings, the sound of instruments tuning can be heard. The sound of every player in a symphony listening to their respective instruments individually is an experience that defines the inceptive ambiance of seeing an orchestra.
One of the signatures of a classical music performance is the preconcert assembly, in which instruments are tuned and performers practice scales and segments from the compositions. The primer always reminds an audience that the evening will be a performance especially befitting everything from the number of people in the room to the humidity, acoustics, and all dynamics considered.
Similarly, before the recital of The Strings That Bind Us began, the 25 five strings of the maestro's sarod tightened and loosened, discordantly and harmoniously into the aural characteristics of the Hindustani sound. Truly, harmony is not found without dissonance, which is not only why tuning is integral to the feel of the music, but also to the techniques honed to play the iconic, microtonal harmonies of Indian classical music.
Then, Khan spoke with a barely audible softness in his low, humble tone, demanding every ear to pitch forward and prepare to receive the impeccable subtleties from his effusively disciplined tone. He would play melodies loved by Mahatma Gandhi, he told the audience, a gesture to the ecumenical, transnational unity of popular Indian consciousness, as shared by the brilliance of the spiritual philosophy that has so enlightened the world.
One of the pieces he performed in Raag Bahar absolutely mesmerized, lulling his listeners into the profound cosmic breath, the exacting strength of a music aligned to the movement of the spheres and the flight of the soul. Like the foundational jazz traditions of pianist Bill Evans, or in the neo-traditionalism of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Khan's playing strikes at the base of the root. His sound emerges from thousands of years of life in Mother India, her rainforests, rivers, heavens and mountainous depths. Khan's fretless sarod strings bend with the voice of the blues, provoking earnest compassion for the round of human life as a piece of music, measured and paced by a certain time, and flowing through a nonliteral sonic narrative.
Indian classical music has a special capacity to expose the magnetic sophistications of the human intellect as equally as emergent of pure nature as any other form of life. The conversational and impromptu call-and-response in the music is reminiscent of birdsong, with its sequential mimicry of sounds that are as light as play, and bring the audience to laugh at the sheer joy of living.
After a fleeting twenty-minute intermission, audience members filed through the lobby of the opulent architectural magnificence of the Orpheum Theatre, home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and were graced with a priceless array of chandeliers and exquisite artworks of diverse mediums. While most waited in line for a drink to calm their highly stimulated nerves, Muslim attendees were provided with dates and water to accommodate their nightly Ramadan fast, a symbol and demonstration of multicultural respect in the Indo-Canadian community.
The sons of Maestro Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan pressed their palms together as they walked beneath the spotlight. The tabla players seated themselves to the right and left of the two brothers. Amaan and Ayaan both exuded a seamless comfort before the hundreds of spectators, as lifelong performers without pretense, who are calling forth a masterfully stunning prowess with respect to their forebears. Their styles are both unique to their own voices, and also in tune, harmoniously, of the same essential ground and spirit as the ancestral sound of the sarod.
Everyone who knows jazz has heard of trading fours. Well, anyone who hears Amaan and Ayaan in The Strings That Bind Us will most likely be very impressed by the sonic rush of trading nines. And the Khan brothers play madly, with a hot energy likened to the spirit of youth. The eldest brother, Amaan, slides his notes more resonantly in line with the sound of his father, while Ayaan is a heavy-hitter of punchy strikes with the Javva plectrum.
Traditionally, a musician would never play after their guru. Ayaan spoke candidly into the microphone, "Especially not before your father." Indian-Canadian people in the audience laughed brightly, warmed by the presence of a family trio who, in their music, express such an awe-inspiring devotion to their people, the spiritual womb of the culture, and sound of the collective heart of India, whether in diaspora or at home.
The Khan Brothers also played a composition by their father, as the Maestro himself sat between them, complimenting his sons as maestros in their own rights before the glowing eyes of innumerable admirers.
To conclude, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra violinist Jeanette Bernal-Singh stood beside the five musicians who beamed in the metallic shimmer of the three reflective sarod fingerboards. Her seductive violin became a revelation of the times, as she descended and ascended with artful adjustments of volume and tone, following the lead of the magnificently massive sound of the three sarods resounding together.
If there is anything to walk away with after listening to The Strings That Bind Us, it is that Indian classical music is so holistically expansive as to embrace the relatively young generations of Western classical music. The imposition of the globally dominant paradigm has not diminished the rich musical heritage of the Indian subcontinent in the least. Maestro Amjad Ali Khan and his two sons exemplify how absolutely alive and well Indian classical music is in the modern world, and yet, that there is still very far to go, and all are not just wholeheartedly welcome, but must realize that we all share a common path on the journey of the lifetime of humanity.