The Magical World of Mousiki

It’s not easy to be a Bangash. And if Ustad Amjad Ali Khan happens to your father, then you are sure to be compared all life long. Yet, Ayaan Ali Bangash has carefully carved a distinct niche for himself. An interview with the young musician.

Ayaan Ali Bangash is a dapper, humble, respectful man of great lineage and talent. In his delicate, nimble hands he has inherited the magical gift of playing the Sarod from his father, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan Saab and through his legacy he relives the strong musical tradition of the Bangash Gharaana. Rendering raagas and symphonies, performing at concerts, he has brought to the world a legacy of soul song.

Ayaan, married to the soft-spoken beauty Neema, made his formal debut in the early 1990s. Performing all over the world, winning many awards and accolades, he won over many hearts. With his tender renditions of melodies, his enigmatic stage presence, and his innovation of the classic form, he has to his credit an illustrious career spanning over the last 20 years. His style of playing is intense, with a piercing clarity rendered in the alaap, an intricately woven traditional gat, blended into a morning raaga. He and his elder brother, Amaan Ali Bangash, have many a times formed a trio with their father, the much-respected Ustad, Padma Vibhushan Amjad Ali Khan Saab, creating lyrical harmonies of love, faith and belief, true to essence.

In recent times, the trio performed at the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo. In the Millennium Year 2000, Ayaan performed with his father at the Dalai Lama’s Sacred Music Festival inauguration in New Delhi. The brothers Ayaan and Amaan have written an ode to their father, titled Abba: God’s Greatest Gift to Us. The book was published in 2002, charting the impressive history of the Ustad.

In their dual recording, the album Amalgam, the brothers collaborated with Elmira Darvarova, the American classical violinist, to help recreate world music. A brilliantly rendered work, Amalgam is a blend of Indian and Western tradition. Ayaan shares a bit of his life here. Excerpts:

Q. How do you describe your relationship with your father?

A. My conditioning from the time I entered the world was in a musical environment. I am privileged to inherit a legacy from my father. His excellence in music is a tremendous inspiration. Polite, understated, kind is his persona. My relationship with Abba is of a father and son, not of a guru and shishya. His teachings to Amaan Bhai and me have helped us form our own philosophies, he is our mentor. Without him, I am anchorless.

Q. Your passion on stage while performing is evidently visible. What is your essential emotion towards music?

A. Music is who I am and my nature reflects in my music. No rehearsals. When Bhai and I play duets, we create symphonies through our connection to God. It’s like praying. Head bowed in humility to the Maker, the resonance of the strings work with my fingers, with my Sarod, my comfort factor. Inexplicable is my friendship with my music, sleeping or awake, I am tuning my limbic sensory mind into a heightened space. The sound of the wind, the silence of the night, speaks to my soul. I derive inspiration from the godly senses.

Q. How was your childhood? Were you introduced to music early on?

A. I remember music as an essential part of my life, jabse hosh sambhala thha. Maa and Abba would encourage us to listen to the music of an entire range of artistes, from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century. Prominent artistes from my grandfather’s time, to Abba’s contemporaries. And we did tune our ears to music of the West and Hindustani filmy music. K.L. Saigal, Hemant Kumar, Lata-Asha ji, and the current music from Bollywood.

Q. Was it easy to learn the Sarod?

A. The Sarod is a very difficult instrument. A lifetime is not enough to master or rather understand what the instrument wants to say. We press the strings with the edge of our nails and not with the fingertip as in most stringed instruments. There are no frets like in the Sitar or the guitar. You are pretty much walking on the edge at all times. Hours and days of riyaaz are never enough. When we are travelling for concerts, we always give in our resting hours to tune into the Sarod, which helps us ease into a calm space.

Q. What does music mean to you? How would you take your particular brand of music into an ongoing world of existentialism?

A. To me, music is a constant evolution. You have to keep incorporating your life’s experiences, your journeys, your highs and lows into your music: your way of expressing your soul’s inner dilemmas and joys.

There is no formula that defines the presentation of music, except that the base must be solid, of raagas, which have been in our musical roots for centuries. Social media has its positive and negative effects. So much digital content online is available that a young music student can get easily misled. To take Indian classical music forward, I advise practice, hard work and riyaaz. Remastering, editing digital content, short-cuts don’t work. To exist as a keen lover of the finer arts, you need to be attentive to your studies of Shastriya Sangeet. There isn’t an instant coffee culture that you can follow! The age-old slow and steady mantra wins for the generations ahead.

Q. Do you and your elder brother perform together? How does that work?

A. Yes, we do. Our performances together really are effective. Last year, we performed many duet concerts. As a duo, we get inspiration from each other. Amaan Bhai and I have only known music as our Pranaah: Life Breath. Music is what we are, like water is to a vessel. Over the years, Bhai and I have tried to take our Sarod playing to new heights, performing all over the world. We have received so much love and adulation from music lovers all over the world. Performing in nearly every city across the world, collaborating with musicians of international repute, getting many awards, has helped us carve a place under the sun, with all humility, paying obeisance to the Almighty. We feel honoured to collaborate with Guitarist Sharon Isbin in our latest works, Strings for Peace! It’s released on all digital platforms. When you hear the album, you can feel the intricacy of every beat and rhythm and you will be transported to a different consciousness. This collaboration is unique as we all have extracted the best out of each other, in our message to the world, of light and love.

Q. Which are the raagas for various seasons of the year?

A Raaga is made of a set of ascending and descending notes within a certain discipline. It is much more than a scale, which also refers to the set of notes. A raaga has distinctive features with prominent notes, combinations of notes and timings of the day and season. However, there is no logical explanation as to why a raaga is seasonal and why certain raagas with the same combination of notes become a morning raaga or an evening raaga. Thanks to YouTube, there is so much content available out there. We are just a click away from thousands of hours of research.

I am revisiting many old recordings of many great vocalists at this time and also reinventing my musical journey. It’s not time bound. Indian Classical music has indeed a very spiritual and scientific development and growth. This is a phenomenon that has existed from Vedic times. The tradition of classical music dates back to the Sama Veda period. The earliest version of classical music was the Vedic chants. Interestingly, the effect of all the 12 notes on our body, mind and soul is very scientific. If we sing out all the 12 notes with concentration, the human body receives all its positive vibrations. In fact, the positive effect transcends even on plants and animals. Various permutations and combinations give the scales a shape of a raaga.

Q. Did you have to learn an accompanying instrument, such as the tabla, to take your skills ahead?

A. I can literally “play around” with other instruments like sitar and guitar but I did learn vocalmusic.