Sitar so good

This year’s Oud Festival featuresv Indian musician Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan.

November 3, 2016 22:46
4 minute read.
Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan

Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan. (photo credit: DAN NEWMAN)

This year’s Jerusalem International Oud Festival, which will run under the auspices of Confederation House in Jerusalem from November 17 to 26, has plenty of big names in the lineup, and quite a few genre orientations to boot.

Even so, the core material hails from this part of the world. As Arabic music incorporates a good deal of improvisation, it makes perfect sense to have Indian sitar master and vocalist Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan on the program.

The 56-year-old Grammy nominee has been gracing some of the world’s top festivals and auditoriums since the age of 12, and he took his first public bow even before that.

Mind you, he probably didn’t have much choice regarding his choice of profession or possibly the early start to his career. His father was stellar sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan, and his musical pedigree goes back seven generations. He also has a sitar-playing brother, and two of his sisters are singers.

Khan’s style has been lauded by critics, many of whom have noted that his approach to rhythm is “largely intuitive, fresh and spontaneous.” With that in mind, Khan was perfectly happy to enlighten me about his life and work without preliminaries.

“Too much preparation, too much getting together and analyzing too much – these are not things I do. We [musicians] are supposed to create things right in front of the audience,” says Khan in a phone conversation from his home in India.

To Western ears that may sound a bit like jazz, but Khan nips that notion in the bud.

“With jazz you can have no boundaries,” he says. “What we do is use something called raga [Indian melodic mode]. That gives you a boundary, but within that boundary you can do whatever you want.”

Khan was practically born with a sitar in his hands.

“I started playing when I was three,” he says. “It was a smaller model of the instrument, and I was six when I started performing in public.”

Khan says he slipped seamlessly into the role of performing artist.

“I played with my father. There was no pressure. I was just having a good time. I was just a young boy enjoying himself,” he recounts.

Listening to Khan talk and having watched some of his concerts on the Internet, I got the impression that he is just as relaxed today as he was when he had his celebrated dad next to him on stage half a century or so ago.

By the time Khan began strutting his youthful stuff on stages around the subcontinent, Indian music had already been introduced to Western audiences by the likes of iconic sitar player Ravi Shankar and tabla (percussion) player Alla Rakha, who starred at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California. And The Beatles famously spent some time in India in 1968, focusing global media attention on local music. But Shankar was not a guiding light for Khan. “My father was my inspiration,” he states.

Khan may have been immersed in his country’s classical music from the word go, but he was not exactly a musical monk.

“I listened to a lot of Western pop and rock on the radio in the 1970s,” he recalls. “I used to listen to people like Michael Jackson, Simon and Garfunkel, and Deep Purple. And we went to nightclubs.”

That may have sown the seeds for Khan’s later ability to embrace other genres. He has collaborated with Western classical orchestras, jazz artists, Persian musicians and even the likes of Asian Underground scene leader Karsh Kale, who fuses disparate genres such as Indian classical and folk with electronica, rock, pop and ambient music. Khan is not one for labels or for associating some project or other with a particular genre or style.

“I work with human beings, not with genres,” he declares. “The genre of music we play does not mean anything. It is just a means of expression. It is the people who are important, and we need to enjoy mutual respect.”

By now it was becoming pretty clear that Khan is a free spirit and that he does not stick to tried and tested ground as an artist or in his everyday life. So there was not much point in asking him if he knew what he was going to play for his November 22 (9 p.m.) audience at the Jerusalem Theater.

“I never really know what I am going to play beforehand,” comes the expected response. “I feel the energy from the audience and see where that takes us. We musicians want to enjoy ourselves.”

One of the most striking aspects of Indian music is the sense of calm and the unhurried attitude of the performers. I told Khan that around 25 years ago I attended a concert with Shankar and stellar tabla player Zakir Hussain in London that went on for more than three hours.

There was something hypnotic not only about the music but also the tranquil ambience the performers exuded. For Khan, the spiritual output is part and parcel of his craft.

“It is not always the destination that is highlighted. The destination is part of the travel, and I think one has to enjoy the journey,” he says.

Khan’s concert in Jerusalem on November 22 will, no doubt, bask in the bonhomie aura he will give off, along with tabla players Amit Choubey and Sapan Anjaria.

For tickets and more information about the Jerusalem International Oud Festival: *6226; (02) 623-7000; (02) 624-5206 ext. 4; and http://

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