Most people in the United States experience a huge wave of anxiety this evening, with the dreaded tax monster demanding his dinner tomorrow. For me this day has quite a different meaning. Partially, I suppose, because I’m ALWAYS late doing my taxes, but mostly because today is the birthday of my teacher and mentor, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. I met Khansahib (as we call him) 40 years ago and began studying with him almost immediately thereafter. My first area of concentration was instrumental music, specifically the 25 stringed Sarod, but later my attention shifted to Indian vocal music. As an 18 year old new student I was fanatical in my practice schedule. However, I’m embarrassed to say that over the years, I’ve become a very inconsistent and totally undisciplined disciple, sometimes preferring John Lennon to Raga Yeman! But never once in all these years have I taken Khansahib or his teachings for granted. His unbelievable dedication to his students and to the great ocean of MUSIC has been breathtaking, and the amount of people he’s touched and influenced is beyond count. I really can’t imagine my life without having met and studied with this great man. If I could sum up in one sentence (which is actually impossible) what he’s given me, I’d have to say a deep reverence and awe for music, not just Indian music, but all music, as a way of life and as a way of touching the infinite. Music as spiritual salvation. Intonation as the mystical inner quest.
But Khansahib has also been a friend and mentor on many other levels. When both my parents died, one after the other, he guided me through some simple, ancient and somewhat humorous rituals to help me in my grieving process. When I had ‘girl problems’ he laughed and reminded me of what was important in life. And when I had a baby after so many years of not wanting one, he welcomed little Ezra Gopal into his vast musical family. There was even a time when I taught electric guitar (Jimi Hendrix!!!) to his son Alam.
All of this makes me feel rather bittersweet today because Khansahib is quite ill and weak and very sad as his life begins it’s final chapter.
I just wish I could give back to him one hundredth of what he’s given to me, to hug him and tell him how loved he is. And perhaps even to sing him a lullaby…. But in my heart I touch his feet again and again, and every time I pick up an instrument or open my voice to sing, I pray that I am honoring and loving him in the way he deserves.