April 14 marked the 80th birthday of Indian classical music master Ali Akbar Khan. Khan was the first Indian classical musician to perform at a major concert in the U.S. when he appeared at "The Concert for Bangla Desh" at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1971.
He has won numerous international music awards and is the founder and director of the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California. Khan's passion for music came from his father.
Ali Akbar Khan's greatest teacher was his father, Baba Allauddin Khan who once told his son to "spread the music as far as the sun and moon." Known as "Khansahib," the Khan took his father's advice and has spent a lifetime performing, recording and teaching North Indian classical music.
Khansahib's rigorous training, fifteen hours a day for twenty years, included vocal music, drums and a 25-string lute-like instrument called the sarode. Khansahib admits that today's musicians such as his son Alam are quicker at grasping the traditional compositions and techniques that took him and his father years to understand.
Ali Akbar Khan said, "You don't need to spend that much time if you're gifted and talented, and your brain and heart and mind are all ok. Then you don't need so much time."
Levine: "Your participation in 'The Concert for Bangla Desh' 31 years ago, what do you remember from that and what was that experience like?
Khan: "It was a huge crowd at that time but they had no idea what Indian music was. And myself and [sitarist] Ravi Shankar played a duet, and George Harrison was there and about 20 or 30,000 people. When George Harrison started I ran to the bathroom to put some toilet paper in my ears."
Khansahib's 80th birthday coincides with the 35th anniversary of the Ali Akbar College of Music which opened in northern California in 1967, eight years after his first visit to the United States.
Khansahib said it was only a matter of time before he turned to teaching. "At that time I found that many, many young boys and girls were very, very interested [in the music] and started following me everywhere in the United States. No matter what I played," he said, "they got that kind of feeling I had for the music. They became [followers] of the music and liked what they heard. And then they wanted to learn."
When Khansahib isn't teaching at his College of Music, he spends three months a year performing in Europe, the Middle East and India. His 80th birthday celebration in San Rafael on April 13 included an all-day series of concerts, dance and films honoring his work.
Khansahib and his son Alam recently teamed up for the first time on Khansahib's new CD From Father To Son. The disc features Khansahib and son Alam playing the sarode accompanied by Pandit Chaudhuri on tabla with a traditional Northern Indian raga.