In late 2005, an eager crowd of music lovers, aging hippies, and artsy types gathered at the Berkeley City Club’s upstairs theater. Despite some significant buzz, they didn’t know exactly what to expect. Soon, a lanky, confident young man bounded up to the front and center of the stage, folded his legs, and settled onto a Persian carpet on the floor. He cradled a gleaming sarode — a fretless guitar-like instrument more than half his size — and greeted the audience warmly. Then the young East Bay resident proceeded to knock their socks off.
The man was Alam Khan, son of Indian classical music megastar Ali Akbar Khan and heir apparent to a musical dynasty that traces its origins to the 13th-century Moghul courts of north India. Since that auspicious launch, Khan, 24, has toured with his famous father to sold-out crowds and has established a name for himself as a solo artist in India. No mean feat for the son of a man violinist Yehudi Menuhin once described as “the greatest musician in the world.” This Friday, February 9, Alam Khan makes a return visit to the East Bay for an 8 p.m. concert at Arlington Community Church’s intimate performance space, accompanied by his younger brother, Manik, on tamboura, and Debopriyo Sarkar (“Bubai”) on tabla.
As the namesake of his legendary grandfather, Alauddin Khan (who played more than 200 instruments, both Eastern and Western) and the son of a man who has received just about every musical accolade possible and whose discography numbers in the thousands, Alam realizes he has some mighty large sandals to fill. The eldest of Khansahib’s three children with his American wife, Mary, an accomplished tabla player, Alam stands behind siblings who had stellar musical careers long before he was born.
He fully grasps the enormity of his musical heritage, and instead of bolting, he embraces it. “I started playing sarode when I was seven, but my father traded with one of his students to also teach me guitar. In my teens, I played electric guitar with a rock band. My idols were Jimi Hendrix — my mom was, of course, a big Hendrix fan — and the whole Seattle grunge movement. But, as I started really studying guitar, my interest for Indian classical music also became more serious. I realized that if I wanted to focus on Indian music, then I’d better do it, because it was going to take all of my time.”
Alam sped through his high school GED in order to devote himself full-time to studying with his father at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, where the younger Khan also now teaches.
Standing as a traditionalist, he frequently has to defend his position in the musical schoolyard. A recent Hyphen magazine article juxtaposed Alam with several up-and-coming Asian-American musicians, including fusion artist Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar.
“I sounded really sober, like an old man,” he laughs. “But I’m not a hypocrite — I still do electronic beats in my off-time.” He added, “It’s just that it doesn’t take you to the same place as classical … this music really changes you. You have to purify your heart and soul to let it come through.”
It’s likely he’ll yet get his day in the sun. A local film crew has been working on a documentary about him for the past year. “It’s a little intimidating but if people take an interest, I’d take that as encouragement,” he says. In addition to European and Indian tours this year, Khan is working on a new disc: “I prefer recording outside of a studio,” he says. “And when I hear something I like I’ll put it out.”