When the sarod and guitar converse

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan collaborates with sons Amaan and Ayaan and guitarist Sharon Isbin to create a meditative new album, ‘Strings of Peace’

August 13, 2020 10:23 pm | Updated 10:23 pm IST

Strings for Peace, the music album by Amaan Ali and Ayaan Ali

Strings for Peace, the music album by Amaan Ali and Ayaan Ali

Instrumental music intrinsically has an earnestness that probably comes from its wordless-yet-plainspoken musicality. And the music of strings produces just such an endearing blend between the manmade and the organic — a naturally occurring material is held taut between two points which, when struck with intent, produces vibrations that can “heal this world through spiritual nourishment,” as Ustad Amjad Ali Khan puts it.

‘Strings for Peace’ replicates this blend through a cross-cultural collaboration between the sarod and the guitar. The Ustad, his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, and the Grammy-winning guitarist, Sharon Isbin, have combined their formidable musical forces for this album to find common ground in ragas and medieval modes and achieve a cross-fertilisation between two different sounds and techniques. A studio offshoot of material performed during a successful 2019 tour, the album invokes Behag, Mishra Bhairav, Pilu, and Yaman, letting the guitar access it via the Ionian, Phrygian, Dorian and Lydian.

Through four pulsating yet pensive pieces, composed by the Ustad and scored for guitar by Kyle Paul, the album seems to explore the serenity latent within natural rhythms and markers. As the titles ‘By the Moon’, ‘Love Avalanche’, ‘Romancing Earth’, and ‘Sacred Evening’ suggest, these are pieces geared to coax the listener out of their digital distractions and into a contemplative mode anchored on the refreshingly mundane.

“When we started out, little did we know that this creation will come to fruition at a time when humanity will need to consider meditation and contemplation more than ever,” says Amaan Ali. Sharon concurs, admitting they “could never have imagined that [the album] would be released at a time the world would be convulsed, when people would need healing and comfort from music more than ever”.

Classical musicians may need comforting of their own, with COVID-19 threatening to choke their mainstay — live concerts. Not so hopeful of a resumption of live music in the U.S. any time this year, Sharon still believes that countries with “good leadership will have a better opportunity to explore scaled-down performances,” observing that chamber performances professionally streamed from concert halls are working for some. Ayaan Ali sees sponsored digital concerts coming into their own in the coming months.

Amaan’s outlook is even more sanguine — acknowledging the suspension of live concerts as “an interval in the planet,” he feels the “second half will be even more magical and breathtaking, god willing”. At any rate, the prolific Sharon has two releases to her credit this season, including Affinity , a solo project of premières composed for her in the form of a multi-cultural world-embrace of music from South America, Cuba, China, Persia, and America, including a jazz and Middle Eastern-influenced concerto for guitar and orchestra by Chris Brubeck that pays homage to his father and jazz legend Dave Brubeck, whose centennial is celebrated this Fall.

When the bill of fare lists the virtuosic likes of the Bangashes and Sharon, among the pre-eminent guitarists of our time, you know that skill is a given. Amit Kavthekar’s tabla provides the compositions with the trademark Hindustani gait and crescendos. But the album’s standout is its performative camaraderie — a delicate and elegant give-and-take. “I have always felt that this collaboration is about letting go of what [one] is best at and more about getting the best out of the other person,” says Ayaan. The sarod and the Spanish guitar are both plucked stringed instruments that have a “shared gypsy heritage that evolved many years ago”. But one is fretted and more suited for polyphonic harmonisation, while the other is unfretted and produces a more contiguous sound conducive to raga-based melodic exposition. How do you make them work together? Well, Isbin’s slides and melismatic filigree natural to the guitar create a virtual bridge. And when the sarod leads, Sharon chips in with chords and bass notes that flavour each spoonful of the melody with a fresh spice. The chordal backdrop hardly distorts the raag, instead playfully asking each note, ‘What if I dressed you in these ornaments today?’ The note seldom demurs.

The album, produced by Zoho Music, is available for streaming on Spotify, Google Play and YouTube Music, while CDs and digital copies can be ordered on Amazon.

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