Shastriya Sangeet in Northern and Southern California
Ali Akbar Khan, the great Bengali Sarod player, son of one of the greatest Indian musicians of all time and heir to one of the most respected musical dynasties (Gharana) of India, began to teach in the Bay Area in 1967. Although not as well-known as Ravi Shankar, I – and many others – found his music to be deeper and more emotionally moving. He began to attract students who wanted to study with him and so the Ali Akbar Khan College of Indian Classical Music came into being.
I moved to San Rafael from LA on a Saturday in July of 1972. When I arrived I found that the Ali Akbar College was occupying a disused military academy just a few hundred yards from Hargobind Sadan Ashram. Indeed, on the very night of my arrival, there was a concert at the college which I attended.
Ali Akbar Khan himself was not there that evening but I remember the concert featured the dancing of Chitresh Das who was the teacher of Kathak Dance at the college and the table of Shankar Ghosh, the college tabla teacher, who would soon be replaced by a very young Zakir Hussein.
I had wanted to attend the College for several years. I had even sent in a deposit to study there in 1970 but my plans to teach in London had necessitated my cancelling my enrollment.
Even now, I was so busy with my commitments to the three sangats, plus trying to figure out a way to support my pregnant wife and forthcoming child that attending the college would be out of the question.
Nevertheless, there were still plenty of concerts to attend. Not long after I arrived the College moved out of the military academy and into a rented accommodation at another school in San Anselmo. Not walking distance but only two or three miles away. There was, however, a small venue literally just down the street from the ashram and Indian music concerts were often held there.
Close to that hall was the home of Wayne Moskow, a brilliant if curmudgeonly wood crafter who had taken up the manufacture and repair of Indian musical instruments. He was the go-to man for all of the college students who needed repairs or adjustments to their instruments and, since Indian musical instruments always seem to need repairs and/or adjustments, he always had a backlog of pending repairs and thus a good cash flow. Wayne and I hit it off – perhaps because we shared a similarly cynical sense of humor - and I would often go to visit him to hear the latest gossip from the College.
Another neighbor was G. S. (Gurbachan Singh) Sachdev, master of bansuri (Indian Flute) and a teacher at the College. Although clean shaven, Sachdev ji was a Sikh and was quite spiritually inclined. When he found out that we had a copy of the Man Mohan Singh translation of SGGS at the ashram, he would often come to read Gurbani. He and I soon became friends.
He invited Elandra and I to his home for dinner on several occasions. His modus operandi was simple. He would feed you his wife’s fantastic cooking and then – when you were stuffed to the gills and could not move – he would put on the most incredible Indian Classical music records. Although I was way past drugs by that time, I can remember leaving his house feeling every bit as stoned as if I had imbibed some kind of psychedelic drug, just from the food and the incredible music.
It was Sachdev ji who introduced me to the music of Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan as well as many others whom I can’t remember now.
Ali Akbar Khan was known as Khansahib by everyone connected with the college. He also lived in San Anselmo and often gave concerts in the Bay Area. We would attend as many as we could.
I remember one concert in San Francisco in June, not a month known for heavy rain in California. Khansahib played two Mallar raags (raags of the rainy season). The next day it rained heavily throughout the entire Bay Area for the whole day.
In 1974, I figured that I had enough money to be able to attend the College. It was an incredible experience. There were, of course, beginners, intermediate and advanced classes in many different instruments. I decided to take classes in sarod and vocal, because I had taken a few lessons in sarod at the Ravi Shankar School of Indian Music during its brief existence in Los Angeles, plus my studies – again rather brief – with Amiya Das Gupta.
Because of my previous experience with sarod, I decided I could go to the intermediate sarod class, taught by Khansahib.
I soon realized that I had bitten off more than I could chew and laid my sarod down on the floor feeling very sorry for myself. I heard this voice with a thick accent:
“Try to play!”
I didn’t react, thinking he was talking to someone else. Again I heard
“Try to play!”
I looked up, saw Khansahib looking at me and realized that I was the one to whom he was talking. I came to understand that one of his axioms was that any kind of exposure to music was good, even if you were in way over your head.
He would always encourage people to do as much as they could even if that meant things like holding the sarod and just plucking one string continuously.
Another incident happened in that same class that was astounding. Khansahib was teaching a difficult krintan (an ornamental flourish) but the students were not getting it. Since Khansahib would always teach with voice and harmonium, he asked one of the students to hand him his sarod. It was a cloudy and overcast day but, as Khansahib started to play this krintan, the energy in the room shifted dramatically. It was as if the sun had come out inside the room.
Now I was in a proper learning environment for Indian music for the first time, I soaked up as much as I could. I learned about the structure of Raag and Taal, and started to learn compositions in several important raags. In between trying to do my seva for the three sangats and trying to earn enough money to support my wife and new born baby, I practiced as much as I could.
One of the most amazing events to do with the college happened in 1974. Ravi Shankar brought a group of the finest Indian Classical musicians to the US to tour with George Harrison. They came to San Francisco and had a night when they were not performing. An informal concert was hastily arranged at the College.
Elandra and I were both very excited to go but we didn’t have a baby sitter for our daughter Pritam who by now was about a year old. We left home at around 8 pm with Pritam asleep on our bed and left the door to our room open. Because we lived in an ashram we knew that, if someone heard her crying, they would come in and take care of her.
It was an incredible night. The different musicians performed and, since it was an informal recital in front of a group of people who were totally into Indian music, they stretched out and did amazing things.
One of the highlights was a tabla duet with Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussein,his son. It was a wondrous experience to see these two masters, father and son, playing together and it went on for perhaps an hour. Hariprasad Chaurasia was another master who performed that night on the bansuri, Indian flute.
When we left at 4 am, the concert was still going strong. When we got home Pritam was still asleep where we left her and showed no sign of having been awake.
I was only able to attend one term at the Ali Akbar College but it was an experience that totally changed my attitudes and understanding about Shastriya Sangeet. I still have my class notes.
We had been going through some legal hassles trying to get Elandra a green card so she could become a permanent US resident. In February of 1975 it finally came through and she was able to leave to go to New Zealand to visit her parents whom she had not seen for many years. Naturally she took Pritam with her.
While she was gone I decided I had enough of the Bay Area and resolved to move to Southern California. I left San Rafael and arrived in Holly wood to stay with my friend Hari Shabad Singh. A few days after my arrival we were in a New Age bookstore in Hollywood where we found a flyer for a concert by a group of Sufi musicians known as the Sabri Brothers.
The concert was at a theater not far away and due to start in a few minutes. We made it there in time and took the cheapest seats up in the balcony as the ticket prices were rather high. While we were sitting, waiting for the concert to start, one of the organizers came up to us and invited us to go down into the stalls as the crowd was a bit sparse. They apparently wanted to concentrate the crowd as close to the stage as possible in inspire the musicians. We quickly went downstairs and got great seats close to the stage.
I had no idea what to expect but we didn’t have to wait long to find out.
The Sabri Brothers were a Qawwali group. Qawwali is devotional music, played by Sufis, who eschew the traditional Islamic ban on devotional music. It has its roots in Persia, but is generally accepted to be a fusion of Persian and Indian musical styles. Qawwali was reputed to have been created by Amir Khusrow, the great Sufi musician of the lat 13th century, who is credited with many innovations and inventions in Shastriya Sangeet and poetry.
A group of Qawwali musicians typically consists of eight or nine men (I was told never less than seven nor more than eleven) including a lead singer, one or two side singers, one or two harmoniums and percussion, usually tabla or a dholak, sometimes both.. There is also a chorus of four or five men who repeat key phrases of the songs, and who aid percussion by clapping their hands.
The performers sit cross-legged on the ground in two rows — the lead singer, side singers and harmonium players in the front row, and the chorus and percussionists in the back row.
And this is how the Sabri brothers looked. The two main men sat front and center with their harmoniums. Flanking them on each side was one man. Perhaps you could call these guys assistant lead singers. They certainly didn’t get as much time as the two main men. Behind these were the tabla player and chorus.
I never found out which of all these characters were the actual Sabri Brothers, but I had to assume that the two main singers were the real deal because they proved it over and over again with their singing. I may have been wrong because it appears from Wikipedia that one of the key singers in the group wasn’t even a brother. Never mind, they were great.
Both of the two main singers were outstanding in their voices and their vocal technique. But the “one on the left” since I have no other way of describing him, was the one who really made an impression.
This guy was big; you could definitely say he was overweight. He was clean shaven except for a typical Indian/Pakistani moustache. He had long, greasy black hair which tumbled out of his astrakhan sufi hat (which they all wore) and cascaded down his back. And every so often, during a pause in the music, he would extend his right hand out for emphasis and growl “Allaaaaah” for no apparent reason other than to just make a point. Hari Shabad and I loved this guy.
I found the Qawwali music of the Sabri brothers to be very different from Gurbani Kirtan. It was more emotional, less controlled, more uninhibited on the part of the singers. There was also a tendency towards showmanship.
In Gurdwara, it is quite understood that people will place money on a ragi’s harmonium or on the stage near it. Everyone knows that the ragi needs money to survive and Sikhs will give generously, especially if the kirtan is of a high standard. The ragis, however, no matter how much that money means to them, will ignore it and the person giving it. After their performance they will walk away and leave it on the stage. This is with the expectation that someone else will pick it up and discreetly pass it to them.
With the Sabri Brothers there was no such inhibition. Everyone who deposited money on the stage was acknowledged with a nod or a friendly and often ostentatious hand gesture.
Although Qawwali and Gurbani Kirtan are two different forms of music, they have their similarities. Both are devotional, both are performed on harmonium and tabla, both have their own forms of high energy which separates them from each other as well as the comparative passivity of Hindu Bhajans.
So much of Qawwali involves behavior and musical grandstanding which would be out of place in a gurdwara, especially the handclapping of the chorus, since the clapping of hands is not allowed in gurdwara. Yet when the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan came to a gurdwara in Vancouver to sing kirtan, the management gave him and his party a special dispensation to clap since it was such an integral part of their music.
From April of 1975 to February of 1976, my family and I lived in Anaheim, where our second daughter, Siri Lakshmi Kaur, was born. We then moved to Los Angeles, living within a couple of hundred yards of Guru Ram Das Ashram. During this time. I was often called up on to play kirtan there.
The Los Angeles Indian music scene was nothing like the one in the Bay Area. Still, there were some fine concerts being promoted by Harihar Rao and at one of these I had an opportunity to see another tabla duet with Alla Rakha and Zakir.
In the fall of 1976, Yogiji told me to go to San Diego and take over the ashram there and in January of 1977 I moved there with my family to take up the position.
There followed several years of hard work and struggle to build up my business and run the ashram.
At that time there was no Sikh Society in San Diego and only a few families. We started a regular diwan at the ashram on a Sunday morning and gradually, as the Punjabis found out about us, they would attend and often bring langar.
I didn’t have much time for study of Sangeet so my kirtan went into somewhat of a holding pattern. There also was not much of an Indian music scene there, in spite of the heroic efforts of a young man, Alok Das Gupta who arrived a few years later and tried to get something happening.
Nevertheless I did see some outstanding concerts there, although I’m pretty sure most of them happened in the latter part of the 80’s.
I saw Ravi Shankar twice, the first time with his sadly deceased son, the second at a rare morning concert where he did a fantastic job on Raag Ramkali in Vilambit Rupak Taal, (a very slow 7-beat cycle) the only time I have ever heard Vilambit Rupak Taal.
I didn’t find out until many years later that Pundit Ravi Shankar ji lived for many years up in North San Diego County, only 30 minutes drive away from where we were living.
I also saw Harprasad Chaurasia, Ali Akbar Khansahib and Salamat Ali Khan with two of his sons. All of these were tremendously inspiring.
By the summer of 1979 I was finally settled enough and financially secure enough that I could follow my heart’s desire; something that had gnawed inside me ever since I became a Sikh; but that I never had the wherewithal to fulfill.
I signed up to go with the3HO yatra to India. I was finally going to visit the Harimandir Sahib, Hemkunt Sahib and other sacred sites blessed by the touch of the Sikh Gurus’ feet.