to live in this world
as Sogi says is as long as
taking shelter from rain
The legendary haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, so greatly admired the renga poet known as Sogi (1421-1502), that his above verse is exactly like the one which Sogi wrote, save for one venerative detail. Instead of using Sogi’s “wintry showers,” Basho replaced the phrase with Sogi’s name. During his life and into his legacy, Basho had many followers, and his students built houses for him all over Japan. When we learn of haiku, we learn of Basho. He explored many traditional Japanese writing styles to finally arrive at, and create, a haiku style known for both its accessibility and precision. From Basho, we received the western form of haiku. He created a school of writing, and to this day, he has many disciples.
Alam Khan is a contemporary musician who also carries a vision for innovation through evolving tradition. He was born to be prodigal: his grandfather, the multi-instrumentalist Allauddin Khan, taught Ravi Shankar everything he knows and his father, Ali Akbar Khan, was a MacArthur genius esteemed by musicians like Carlos Santana and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Alam Khan was trained to play the sarod in the Maihar style, which is the first well known Indian-classical music style. The Maihar Seni Gharana is responsible for the world’s first exposure to Indian music. This gharana passes down ancient ragas from the courts of Emperor Akbar by Mian Tansen in the 16th century.
However, Khan’s latest album Immersion is his first album after seven years to feature Indian classical music. His previous albums are creative collaborations featuring an array of musicians and sounds. For his 2016 project Grand Tapestry, Khan played sarod for a body of work that married hip-hop and Indian classical music, collaborating with Eligh on vocals and Salar Nader on tabla.
For Immersion, the sound is straight classical. While anciently rooted, the music sprouts like dew on every listen. The soul moves to it without resistance, lapping up both catharsis and medicine. Describing his particular sound, Khan credits and speaks of his father as Basho likely spoke about Sogi.
“My father’s sound was the most beautiful sound that I’ve ever heard. His sound is the peak for me. It’s the mountaintop. [I want to] be like that some way with my own ideas, without blatantly copying him. Of course, certain lines will be copied because that’s the way we were trained: to play just like him,” Khan told Kajal.
Basho built the now classic haiku form by long practicing under traditional conventions. Every time he practiced, an evolution occurred until he finally began to name his creative methods. Similarly, Khan plays ancient ragas in their original forms. Yet, when tradition courses through an artist, something alchemical happens before it reaches the external world, where it is generated again and preserved through interpretation.
“You own experience takes over, allowing you to set your course and pinch your world. Your imagination comes into play. My imagination and style is heavily [influenced by]my father. What ever else is there just happens to be there. That’s my assimilation, my piecing together of the training he gave me,” Khan said. “The listener can take away what they want and I like to leave it that,” he continued.
This album features three instruments: tanpura, sarod, and tabla. The tanpura (which makes a drone sound) and tabla provide the tonic note, or atmosphere, for the sarod to play over.
“Sarod is the brother to sitar. Sitar is the sister to the sarod, is what my father used to tell me,” said Khan.
When a track is denoted by the word “alap,” it means there is no tabla accompaniment to the music. For this album, Khan played the same ragas with and without alap, and the effects are stunning.
“You get to unfold the raga [in alap]. Those rhythms, the ornaments, are playing but there’s no tempo, so it’s free-form. But it’s the hardest part of the music because it’s just pure melody and raga. I wanted to give a flavor of a few different ragas,” Khan said.
Virtuosity, or the exemplary creation of music, is one of the highest qualities a musician can aspire to. Khan comes from a virtuous line and so it is no wonder that he exhibits mastery, which he says is a result of practice that is attentive to a certain energetic pietas.
“It’s a very devotional, sacred kind of place, where you feel like you’re worshiping the music. It’s like an energy, a creation. How did the universe get created? How did we get created? It’s beyond us. It’s like you’re worshipping that and balancing it. The music has that power to evoke that magic,” he said.
This set of instrumental tracks has a way of being accessible to everyone because of its complexity, intricacy and moodiness. And every so often, while guiding your breath, it also takes your breath away.