By Don Willis
I first saw Ali Akbar Khansahib in 1967, at Stanford University—where I was a student—in duet with Ravi Shankar. It was the height of the Beatles/Ravi craze, and everyone had heard of Ravi Shankar. But who was this other musician, this genius, who outshone him? I was enthralled. Over the next ten years I went to many concerts of Khansahib and bought his records. I knew he had a school, but only when I got a notice in the mail, in 1977—come see our new home in San Rafael—did I make the journey to see what it was all about.
I remember walking up the stairs for the first time, and seeing Khansahib sitting on his dais, with a class full of students in front of him. I had the distinct impression that he recognized me, that he had been perhaps waiting for me to show up. And then, the music started, and I had my real epiphany—this is not just an instrumental virtuoso, but a singer! He sang his way through the two-hour class, and I was spellbound. I had sung my whole life, and always thought of myself as a singer. Until that day, I had no idea that singing was the foundation of Indian music. I was hooked. For the next ten years, I went to almost every vocal class.
My first years at the College were so intense—it seemed that every class was a spiritual experience. Khansahib told me that I should learn to sing, as if I had a choice. He threw me right away into the Advanced Vocal class with Daisy Paradis, Rita Sahai, Marsha van Gelder. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but I rode the tide as best I could, and followed the music.
Those first two years I could do nothing else, think of nothing else. Everywhere I went, the music followed me, in my head and in my heart. I lived by the grace of God. Those first songs are still the ones that mean the most to me, and I wish I had recordings of them.
But that was before tape recording in class. I think I was one of the first students to bring a portable cassette tape recorder, a couple of years later. During that time, Khansahib was increasingly critical of the writing down of the music. He compared it to toilet paper (!), and said that the only way to learn was by ear and by heart. I tried mightily to learn in this way, writing down only the words to the songs, and their meanings. I still have a library of about 250 home- made class tapes of vocal classes, which are my source material for the study of raga.
Some of my greatest memories are of the concerts, of course. Each one was a precious gift, an inspiration to a higher plane of existence. The camaraderie of my fellow students was very special at those times. Keeping tal in the audience, beaming at each other, and finally being utterly blown away by the music showering down on us. We followed Khansahib around to every concert we could get to. I remember especially an afternoon concert in the mountains south of Santa Cruz, for an ashram with a respected spiritual teacher. The raga was Bhimpalasri, and when Khansahib struck the first note, the komal ni below sa, a deep well of feeling rose up in me—with just that one note!
Sometime in the ’80s, Khansahib brought Pandit Jesraj to the school, with the idea of giving us some in-depth vocal instruction. I have to say that I probably squandered this opportunity to learn, because in my mind I thought that Khansahib’s music was so superior, that no one could approach it. Only now I realize what a gift Khansahib was giving us, humbly and with a sincere effort to help us.
Khansahib was very spare in his praise, to say the least. The best you could hope for, after singing for him solo, was a brief “hmm”, and then on to the next. One time, though, I remember—it was a concert of a piece that he had composed for singers and orchestra. After it was over, when I came up to him, he said, “You sang beautifully today.” I could hardly believe my ears, and I think even he was taken aback, wishing he hadn’t said anything.
When I told Khansahib in 1988 that I was building a house in Mendocino County, two hours away, he was visibly sad. I never felt close to him in a personal way, but I could always feel his love. I would come to classes sporadically after that, but my intense years were over. I did travel to India in 1994 to follow him around to concerts, but looking back, it was almost like a farewell. I remember that trip so well though—an unforgettable pilgrimage to Maihar; a concert in Delhi that was oversold, with frustrated ticket holders breaking down the front doors of the auditorium; a concert in Jodhpur, hosted by the Maharaja of Jodhpur, with concertgoers lounging on cushions and chatting in an intimate venue. I remember Khansahib saying audiences in the West were so much more attentive and respectful, he never wanted to play in India again.
In 1994, after that trip, I started my second career, which was influenced tremendously by Khansahib. I became the director of a choir, the Emandal Chorale, which grew over the next twenty-five years to a group of sixty or so singers. Much of my teaching style was informed by what I learned at AACM. My group was open to everyone who wanted to be there. I started rehearsals by singing Sa for five minutes or so. I taught by starting slow, building up gradually, and eventually challenging my best singers. I made each rehearsal an experience in itself.
I arranged much of my own material. I gave each person the feeling that he or she was included in the whole. All of these things I learned from Khansahib. Eventually, I started incorporating talas and ragas in my arrangements. I found that my singers loved this, and we received high praise at a choir festival in Ashland, Oregon, for one of these songs.
When the pandemic happed, two years ago, my choir suddenly stopped meeting, and we have not yet returned. At the same time, I had a vocal crisis of my own, as I learned that I had an essential tremor (hereditary, from my father), which led to my voice being increasingly unsteady and unreliable. I have resumed singing and playing in a small band, but I am having to get used to my new vocal reality.
My debt to Ali Akbar Khansahib is immeasurable. I would not be the person I am today, without his guidance and inspiration. And the gift of the ragas, that body of spiritual knowledge, is priceless. I thank you Khansahib, with all my heart! Blessings to you on your 100th birthday.