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Review Sun Sep 26 2010

Review: Aashish Khan, Alam Khan, Swapan Chaudhuri @ Cultural Center

Aashish.jpg

Most attendees at Friday's concert (part of the Chicago World Music Festival) at the Chicago Cultural Center, a Hidustani classical performance between iconic musicians Aashish Khan (son of the world-famous Ali Akbar Khan), his younger brother Alam Khan, and tabla accompanist Swapan Chaudhuri, seemed to be seasoned veterans. Scanning the room, it was easy to see listeners transitioning with the musicians to the various sections of the ragas, applauding at natural ends to solos, and the occasional nod of recognition as titles of rags were announced. It was a crowd that understood the caliber of musicianship and emotion it was getting, absorbing every nuance, every call-and-response. It was not, by all accounts, the type of audience that was "waiting for the part when the drums kick in." We were here to exist in the presence of a historical continuum of master musicians reaching back to Mian Tansen (b. 1493), one in which the previous two generations pushed forward not just musical skill, but compositional innovation for the entire art. The emcee described Baba Allauddin Khan (Aashish and Alam's grandfather) as "The Mozart of Indian Classical Music," only stopping himself to note that, "That might not actually be expansive enough."

Older brother Aashish (now 71) and younger brother Alam (jumping forward several decades at 28) flanked accompanist Chaudhuri, filling their 90+ minute performance with three ragas. The mic was not terribly loud, and I'm not anywhere near encyclopedic in my knowledge of ragas, but I think the trio started with the early evening raga Puriya Kalyan. Played entirely without tabla accompaniment, the two sarodes took their time with the alap (the pulse-less opening sequence), which is the point in the piece in which the individual emotional timbre of the raga can be fully explored.

Alam Khan, the younger of the two, had an exceedingly nimble grasp of his instrument, pulling fast, complex figures out of every corner of the composition, but it was Aashish Khan who dug deep into the resonances of this raga. It's like the old saw that only old men can really play King Lear, because he needs to have lived the years of disappointment, regret, the burden of time that emanates from that character. Aashish Khan, like his father and grandfather before him, can play his years through his instrument: more deliberate, considered, and percussive than his brother, he allowed Alam the fireworks, while he played the night sky behind. As the alap gradually coalesced into the Jor (the section of the composition in which playing is done to a steady pulse) and sped into the jhalla (the very fast finale, in which the sympathetic drone strings are raked furiously, emitting a shimmering sound ["jhalla" being the term of "Shimmer"]), the melancholic, wistful raga thundered into the station, bringing down a rain of applause from the audience.

The second rag was credited as being written by Allauddin Khan, but again, the mic amplification was not kind: did I hear "Jaunpuri Todi"? (Anyone out there who knows, please post in comments!) After a much quicker alap, the duo were accompanied by Mr. Chaudhuri, who immediately charmed the crowd with a quick and utterly mind-shattering solo. I knew coming in that Swapanji was going to make waves with the crowd -- my brief tablas studies were under one of his students, and I had seen and heard many of his recordings around that time. His speed and precision, mated with a nimble delicacy on his tabla is like no virtuosity you've ever seen before. Like a herd of horses running in lock-step down a mountain, the sound could jump from quiet and distant to physically overwhelming in one measure, the bassy thuds of the bayan (the larger of the two drums in the tabla) nearly resonating through the floor. It was a short piece, but the crowd was instantly smitten. The raga included a number of great back-and-forths between the two sarodes, including a round of trading fours (four measures back and forth, Aashish setting up a rhythm and melody, Swapan and Alam attempting to emulate it back to him, often with small embellishments), the sort of thing you might associate with a blues session. Again, the raga built to several crescendos, with Chaudhuri's tabla solos commanding attention for fleet precision...his skill with the "dhine dhine" (check the youtube clip my preview writeup the other day) is legendary among tabla players and enthusiasts, and he's more than happy to oblige the fanboys. The mood of the room was congenial, and the musicians all obviously were having a joyous time together. The applause after the second piece was even louder and longer.

For a finale, a piece of light classical -- I think I heard Misra Kafi -- the usual finale of such a concert. "Light classical" in this context means that a raga is chosen, but is often mated with elements of other ragas, or maybe even aspects of popular song. It is not usually a "pure" raga ("Misra" means "Mixed") and allows the performer more freedom to improvise without constraint. As such, the piece was played plaintively, the sarodes at time resembling flamenco guitars in their tone and texture. The final piece was only 15 minutes (compared to the 30-45 minutes allowed the other ragas), but again brought the crowd to several crescendos of applause for all manner of dazzling solos. The stand ovation at the end of the concert seemed entirely natural, the kind of jump-to-your-feet reaction of soul-filling art that would happen whether you were joined by 100 other audience members or doing it all by yourself. Although the set was billed as a dedication to Allauddin Khan and Ali Akbar Khan, very little time was spent discussing their legacies or their contribution to Indian classical music in the 20th century. There was no need. The three musicians told the stories, and the audience hung on every word.

 
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