I first heard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan perform live when I was a freshman at Reed College in Portland, Oregon in the autumn of 1969. I’d listened to his music a lot by then, sometimes jamming along on the guitar, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to attend a performance. So, being a good hippy kid, I prepared myself by taking a large dose of mescaline, my drug of choice in those early years. Sitting in the front row, I was totally mesmerized by the music but it was when the concert was finally over that the fireworks really started for me. People were walking around, talking, mingling, discussing tomorrow’s classes, and I sat there in awe, wondering why everyone had gotten up. The music was still happening!!!!!!! The raga, the tala, it was all continuing but I was the only one who noticed. In fact, the sound of talking WAS the raga and the clumping of feet WAS the tala. I was witnessing a divine performance of the music of the spheres, the very song of life! Of course we all have had transcendental drug experiences, but how many of them actually last past the first rays of dawn? This one is still with me. Ali Akbar Khan had brought me to the realm of pure sound, where music touches God, where music IS God. And in that moment he changed the course of my life.
Three months later, much to the anguish of my parents, I had dropped out of Reed and was in the beginning class at the Ali Akbar College Of Music in San Rafael, California. My guitar and banjo were given an extended vacation in the hall closet and I had purchased my first Sarod. Since that time, up till the present, I’ve been an on-again-off-again student of the master, who we call Khansahib, or sometimes simply Baba. At times I was obsessive, practicing many hours a day, driven with the ambition to be ‘great’. But more often than not I was a terrible student, okay at attendance but totally lazy when it came to practicing. Still Khansahib gave freely. He told me just to come and absorb. He offered me discounts. He encouraged me in every way to become a true musician – serious, caring, respectful, soulful. He said over and over again that music was medicine, that music brought us into the closest communion with God.
But, perhaps more importantly, Khansahib welcomed me and many others into his family and his home. I taught electric guitar to his son, Alam, now a masterful Sarod player, and spoke with Baba about all the problems of my life. We drank whiskey together and he regaled me with stories of his most amazing life. I worked with him closely on two recordings, learning so much in the process. However, it wasn’t always super easy to hang out and relax with Khansahib. He seemed to have one foot firmly planted in the other world, and one foot rather uncomfortably planted in this one. And he accepted nothing less than total honesty and ‘realness’. Still, his conversations were always inspiring and enlightening, sometimes funny and sometimes deeply moving. And he constantly reminded us and guided us on the profound spiritual path of music. When my parents died one after the other in the ’90s, Baba guided and counseled me through some simple but ancient rituals to help with their passage and my own grief. And when it came to ‘girl trouble’, well, he was a master and a comedian as well. All of his students laugh and talk about Khansahib’s ability to insult and complain to us, sometimes so severely that we had to laugh just to keep from crying. And when we laughed, that stern face of his broke into a grin and we felt his love once again. He just kept asking us to practice. To do our sadhana. To treat the raga like our beloved. To try to play and sing in tune…
Well, several days ago, when my family and I were in Frankfurt, Germany on the way home from a wonderful trip to India I received an email that Baba had died the night before, just hours after giving a final lesson to the friends, students and family members gathered around him. He died as he had lived, sharing his treasures with all who came to him. I know the news of his passing has spread around the world by now, but I still find it hard to believe. Yesterday was spent at a beautiful memorial service and a very sweet, gentle wake, filled with tears and and laughter. But I just cant seem to get used to the fact that he’s not around, that I cant go to class, that I cant stop by and visit. I can only imagine what his family must be feeling now. Yet, as Zakir Hussein said at the memorial, Khansahib was finally through with the suffering of his body and was “up there giving a concert for God, who must surely be marveling at the truly wondrous job He’d done in creating this great, great man, this miracle of music.”