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Rag steady

Ali Akbar Khan: India's classical music ambassador



Over the past decade, the accelerated integration of North Indian classical music into the digitally arranged music of the West has met with both celebration and suspicion. A contested philosophical territory arises in that space where synths trigger sitars and tablas grace Technics turntables. At the core of this debate is a familiar conflict surrounding digital media and globalized culture: By sampling the sounds of traditional Indian music and throwing them into the proverbial mix, are Western producers and DJs advancing progressive, multicultural expression, or simply perpetuating some house-beat homogenization of previously distinct musical voices?

If one living figure of North Indian classical music embodies this continuously evolving bridge between the musical traditions of India and the U.S., it is Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (Khansahib). If Khansahib's prolific life can be considered an example, the case for personally engaged, mediated dissemination of musical culture is well made.

Khansahib was on the forefront of extending regional musical culture through media. In the 1950s, he became the first musician to record and release an LP of Indian classical music to the West. When the Indian classical style was first broadcast on television, it was again Khansahib who acted as its featured ambassador. After performing in the States for more than a decade, he moved to California in 1967 to found the Ali Akbar College of Music. In addition to educating American students in the instruments and philosophy of the North Indian classical style, his college has taken on the task of accumulating and preserving recordings of this music, as well as videotaping the instruction and performances of Khansahib himself.

But the efforts of Khansahib have followed a decidedly "inside-out" model of musical multiculturalism. Having spent more than 30 years disciplining his craft, he was able to bring his music to a larger global audience largely on his own terms. Conversely, the 21st century's digital production model -- with its pick-and-choose, sampled phrases of musical culture -- can feel more intrusive, like the hands of an outsider grabbing at will, cutting and pasting whichever pieces might seem to work.

Moreover, the 77-year performing career of Ali Akbar Khan represents the kind of intense musical focus and dedicated tradition that is being recast in the hyper-mediated digital present. While globally flavored producers like über-hip Washington, D.C., duo Thievery Corporation can now "travel" to many musical locations at once, they tend to stay at each for only a short time, jumping from India to Brazil to the States faster than you can say "DJ Kicks."

Digital technology creates immediate access to sounds and performance, but it also has the tendency to quash some level of nuance and subtlety, which are both particularly important components of classical Indian music. While a sampler can replicate the sounds of Khansahib's 25-string sarode note-for-note, it short-circuits more dynamic considerations like prahar and nasa -- categories of performance that correspond to the time of day, and development of moods through performance, both of which are crucial to the classical tradition.

"There are many kinds of music just for temporary entertainment," says Khansahib. "But this music is real work. It's work in your mind and soul. This music is going to help not only while you are listening, but it will work inside like a medicine and food, and improve your real thinking."

Speaking to Khansahib, you get the feeling that he doesn't really care so much about the politics of musical appropriation or the ethical ambiguities of remix culture, or any of these academic exercises removed from music itself. His greatest consideration is more stripped down and elemental -- music at its point of impact. It's about music's power to improve people's lives.

"This music is like a fresh air, and people's bodies respond to that," says Khansahib. "Sound and melody and time, and all the moods -- all kinds of things are there. People who have anger, you can make them cool down through this music. And people understand what is peace and what is not peace in the mind and soul. When they are happy inside, the whole world is happy." a>

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