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A JOD OF TWO CULTURES

Indian Express – Weekend Edition
Bombay – Saturday, August 8, 1992

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan rates him as one of his most gifted disciples, while connoisseurs recognise in Ken Zuckerman’s felicity with the sarod the soul of his guru’s artistry. Sumit Savur in conversation with the internationally acclaimed Jewish-American sarodist, who has astounded audiences here and abroad with his mastery over the alien instrument. Ken Zuckerman was born to Russian-Jewish parents in America. In 1971 he was swept off his feet by a chance encounter with sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and has been his ardent disciple since. He directs the Ali Akbar College of Music in Switzerland, while also teaching music at the Music Academy, Basel.

Ken, how do you account for your interest in the sarod?.

It was not so much the sarod, as my fascination with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, which eventually led me to California to try out a summer studying Indian music. In fact, I began my studies with the sitar. I switched to the sarod later.

Did you already possess a Western classical background?.

I knew classical music, but I was not a practitioner. It was a long-term background, not particularly classically focussed. I was more in to the lighter forms; played the electric guitar, rock’n’roll, the acoustic guitar, did a lot of composing in jazz and folk music. Indian music has such a broad spectrum of expression through its raag vistaar, bols, layakari…

Did you have any communication difficulties?.

Well, the Ustad always spoke to us in English and his accent was a bit difficult initially. He taught us step by step. That made the task of learning less daunting. The main accent was placed on singing. Khansahib led the class in singing and we were encouraged to follow first in singing as closely as we could and later repeat the tune on the same lines with our instruments.
The methodology of teaching was very direct; the terminology came as we went along. As most Indian music is taught by the ear, a general difficulty for most Western students is to give up the eye contact with the music sheet and cultivate the capacity to listen, commit to memory and develop the mental capacity to reproduce music from recollected lessons. It is an education in itself.

You certainly have assimilated our music very well. How many hours of riyaaz have you put in to attain your level of proficiency?.

Over the years, it has been more intense. Having begun to learn as a young adult, I had to earn a living and as such I had to deny myself the opportunity to exclusively practise on the sarod. Next to my studies, I was always doing something: washing dishes, selling shoes or giving guitar lessons, so my riyaaz was always limited. In these 20 years I have put in the riyaaz of listening to my Khansaab and absorbing all I can. I know I have tried all I can to capture the essence of his style, though I still need to make myself technically more proficient in terms of tayyari.

Tayyari now seems to be the watchword. There is a marked tendency to show off possibilities with the instrument rather than the raga. You, however, seem to favour a quieter melodic line and almost studiously avoid the jazzy crescendo in the progression of the raga..

I have a tendency to go for the lyrical approach and as such my riyaaz has been slanted more on the alap and slow development of the vistaar. The mood of a raga is the essence in Indian music. This is what my Ustad taught us and demonstrated through his playing. If the fundamental melodic line if the raga is sketchy, mere tayyari or striving for speed will not give the desired effect. When I began coming to India, some of these young sarod players in Calcutta would laugh at me because I wasn’t playing very fast. Having learnt outside India, I am lucky I have been out of this vicious circle. (more…)

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