Improvisation Indian style

Sitar master Shahid Parvez Khan exemplifies diversity at Jerusalem Int’l Oud Festival.

Shaid Parvez Khan  (photo credit: ADRIAN BAIRD)
Shaid Parvez Khan
(photo credit: ADRIAN BAIRD)
Over the years, the Jerusalem International Oud Festival has delved into all sorts of sounds and culture, beyond the strict bounds of the Arab world. Indian music and dance have featured in several editions of the festival, which is due to take place for the twentieth time November 21-30 at Confederation House and the Jerusalem Theater.
This year’s representative of the subcontinent is sitar master Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, along with a four piece instrumental group, and with vocalist Parveen Sultana – aka “the queen of Indian classical music” - joining in the onstage proceedings. Their show is scheduled for November 28 (8 p.m.) at the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater.
In India, music often runs in the family, and Khan’s clan is no different. In fact, he is the seventh generation to play the sitar and started out on his musical path just as soon as he could.
“I was four years old,” he notes. “My grandfather started me on vocal music and my father gave me a sitar when I was four.” The die was cast from the start. “I always knew I would be a musician,” he adds.
If you have ever been to a concert of Indian music, or seen a performance, say, on YouTube, you may know that the sitar is a pretty hefty instrument to handle. Parvez, naturally, took his first musical steps on a junior model.
His interest was piqued even before he could lay his infant fingers on the strings.
“I had seen my uncle and father playing the instruments many times, and I wanted to play also,” he recalls. “So, when I started I was very happy.”
He may have been delighted to finally start to get to grips with the sitar and twang a string or two, but his was in for a rude awakening.
“I didn’t know it was going to be very tough. I thought it was fun but it turned out to be very hard, very very hard.”
Many an hour of carefree childhood play time was forfeited so that young Khan could work on his incipient instrumental proficiency. Innate skill is one thing but, as in all creative fields, you’ve still got to put in the time to make it to the top. It may have been a gradual process, starting from just a few minutes’ practice a day but, by the time he was seven, he was spending five hours a day with his sitar. That was quite a challenge for a young kid.
“It was very difficult for me because I didn’t have any time to play,” Khan admits. “I had to go to school, and work on my studies. I only had free time on Sundays.”
Khan’s father and grandfather were keen for the youngster to get a good musical grounding, to support his strides on sitar.
“I started with vocal because our tradition is partly vocal music, and I also learned tabla [percussion] at the same time, when I was six or seven, but my main instrument was sitar.”
The tabla is fundamental to renditions of Indian music, serving as a percussive anchor to the string and wind instruments but also offering some tonal ornamentation. Khan got some solid training on tabla, and spent more than four years learning it before his father told him to focus solely on the sitar.
INDIAN DANCE employs certain hand and facial gestures to convey images that make up a narrative. I wondered whether instrumental mastery incorporated a similar storytelling element.
“I don’t know if there is a story when I play, but there is definitely a message,” Khan explains. “You get feel that and close to that. It is not exactly a story but there is something there.” It is, he notes, a matter of imparting a more abstract sentiment.
“It is not something you can explain in words. It is not about explaining things through the music. It is about listening and what you feel.”
Having attended quite a few performances of classical Indian music over the years with some of the great masters such as iconic sitar player Ravi Shankar, tabla wizard Zakir Hussein and santoor master Shivkumar Sharma, I can attest to that. Indian concerts can often run to three or more hours, but you quickly slip into entranced mode, and time just passes you by.
Then again, in our technology-bound world where people of all ages spend much of their time catching a video clip, Facebook post or succinct tweet, surely ever-shortening attention spans are making inroads into the ability of the average Indian musician to keep their Western audiences on board for the full haul. Khan begs to differ.
“Love is love. People anywhere understand that.” For Parvez, it matters not a jot whether he is playing for an all-Indian audience that is fully conversant with the discipline somewhere in his home country, or performing under the bright lights of Carnegie Hall.
“Anybody can understand the musical language.” Then again, it is not a matter of exercising a cerebral approach to the sounds, and Khan accepts that personal, cultural baggage comes into the consumer equation. “Yes, people from different places will understand the music differently but the feeling is the same.”
After over five decades of honing his craft, Khan says he does not feel the need to tailor his output to a particular demographic. He does not go along with the idea that Western audiences tend to get fidgety during long concerts as a result of the tendency to become engrossed in their cellphone screens.
“I play the same music everywhere, and people sit there patiently and applaud with affection. I always feel that. There is no need to cut our music short. If music is good you don’t feel time. I play traditional music in India and other places and I get the same response.”
Khan says he is looking forward to joining forces with Sultana and the other artists, and enjoys feeding off different vibes and textures.
“When I play solo I can do what I want. But when I play a duet with a vocalist, I have match what I play with the vocalist. It is a little different.”
Jazz instrumentalists often talk about trying to achieve a vocal quality to their playing. Khan says he shares that view.
“I try to make my sitar sing, definitely.” That may be the case, but playing alongside a vocalist doesn’t mean the audience hears the equivalent of two singers. “I don’t copy a vocalist but I try to bring the effects of vocals. What I do also has to sound like instrumental music.”
Khan points to more common ground between exponents of Indian music and jazz.
“Our music is mostly improvised, but we do have certain rules and regulations, and compositions. When we have solo parts we have up tempo music and no planning. But composition is fixed. Raga is fixed,” he explains, referencing the melodic format of Indian classical music. “Still, the raga offers a base for individual expression.” You could say that 70-80% of our music is improvised.”
That means both player and audience have to go with the flow.

For tickets and more information: 02-623-7000, *6226, 02-624-5206 ext. 4, tickets.bimot.co.il, and confederationhouse.org.