Amjad Ali Khan

Amjad Ali Khan was born in 1945 in Gwalior, one of the great cities of Madhya Pradesh, India. It is famous as the home of Miyan Tansen (c.1500-1590), one of the seminal figures in Indian music and a court musician to Akbar, the greatest of the Moghul emperors for the arts and culture. The holy tamarind tree by Tansen's tomb is said to convey special musical powers and, no doubt, Amjad Ali Khan's family have been regular devotees.

Amjad Ali Khan gave his first recital at age six. His musical heritage combines his illustrious family heritage of sarod playing with the tradition of instrumental music from Tansen and his disciples.

A recent biography contains a gallery of photos of Amjad Ali Khan with an astonishing array of personalities — from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Diana Princess of Wales, from Yehudi Menuhin to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He’s received a huge number of awards, but unlike many of the other Indian musicians who’ve become famous in the west – Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain, for example – he’s stuck to Indian classical music and hasn’t really been involved in fusion projects. For Amjad Ali Khan, his music is a serious art that deserves time and respect. He’s the sixth-generation sarod player in his family, and his ancestors have developed and shaped the instrument over two hundred years.

He learned from his father Haafiz Ali Khan, who was a court musician in Gwalior up until Independence in 1947. And, in turn, Amjad Ali Khan has taught his two sons Amaan and Ayaan, born in 1977 and 1979, respectively, who are starting out on their own solo careers. You could say it’s my family instrument, he says with justifiable pride. Whoever is playing the sarod today learned directly or indirectly from my forefathers.

In the West, the sitar has become better-known than the sarod, but in India both string instruments are held in the highest regard. The sarod is much smaller than the sitar and sits comfortably in the player’s lap. Its sound has a lithe muscularity that is lean and clean, without the sitar’s prominent jangling of sympathetic strings. The sarod does have resonant sympathetic strings, but they are fewer and far less prominent in the soundscape.

The instrument is a refined version of the Afghan rubab, a folk instrument which still dominates Afghan music today. It was Amjad Ali Khan’s great great great grandfather, Mohammad Hashmi Khan Bangash, who brought the rubab to India about 200 years ago. It was his descendants, notably his grandson Ghulam Ali Khan Bangas, who became a court musician in Gwalior, and who gradually transformed the rubab into the sarod we know today. The predominantly woody, staccato sound of the rubab was developed into a more lyrical sound, with notes that sustained, and one of the major instruments of Indian classical music was born.

The name sarod comes from the Persian ‘sarood’ meaning ‘melody’, alluding to its more melodic tone. There are just four strings used for playing the melody on the sarod, plus four drone and rhythm strings and 11 steel sympathetic strings. The strings are plucked with a small plectrum and the fingerboard is covered with a smooth metal plate which makes it easy to slide from note to note. This plectrum can be a hammer or a feather, says Amjad Ali Khan. You can play very loud, or give it just a feather touch, skimming gently across the strings.

Actually, the range of colours that Amjad Ali Khan can get from the instrument is quite incredible, and his work is certainly a large part of why the sarod has found such an important role in today’s new iteration of classical Indian instrumental music.

Amjad Ali Khan has played at WOMAD festivals in New Zealand and the UK, with a memorable late-night Siam Stage session with cellist Matthew Barley. For the Real World recording Moksha, he tried something quite new for him and very unusual in the Indian classical music tradition.

Further reading

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