First Memories, Vol. 1
By Mary Khan (Mrs. Ali Akbar Khan)
The year was 1972. I was 15 years old and looking for the ‘big something’ to happen to me that would show me what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I know, for some people, that type of searching might come later in their lives, but as a little girl I knew with all of my being that I had an enormous job to do. By the time I was was a teenager, I was actively looking for that job—that work I had to do. Little did I know that I had walked right into it when I entered the Ali Akbar College of Music and signed up to study Indian classical music.
Standing at the counter was Vince Delgado, that first day. (Fast forward 50 years, and Vince is my neighbor. He just turned 89 years old). On that day, he asked me what I wanted to study. The truth is, I had followed a brilliant friend to the college; Peter Peringer had spent a year at the college studying tabla with Zakir Hussain, and it was Pete who introduced me to this music. So, when Vince asked me what I wanted to study, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could choose something other then tabla. I was relieved at the time, because there was no way I was a drummer (ha ha). I chose Kathak dance, and singing, with Vince’s sage guidance.
The college was renting the Arequipa Girl Scout Camp that fall. After registering for classes, I entered the main building—and standing there greeting students was Ali Akbar Khan. Honestly, the only reason I knew who he was was because I had seen George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, and Khansahib was in the film. Now, here he was in the lobby greeting me. I was amazed, and only then did I realize that this was his school, and I was now a student. This sounds naïve now, but that was the Hippie days—we didn’t always do our diligent research before jumping into something. Often, we went with the flow, and this time it meant following a friend to California to try to study this incredibly unusual music.
I was comfortable with the idea of studying dance, even though I had never studied dance before, but I wasn’t so sure about singing classes. Don’t ask me why, but I hadn’t really been around the melodic side of the music, so I wasn’t entirely sure I would relate to it. It’s a bit ironic, because I was always in the choir in school and held the role of high soprano. Singing came naturally to me, so why was I hesitant?
When I entered the first vocal class, everyone was sitting on the floor, and I found my spot and was ready to jump in. When Khansahib started the class though, I couldn’t understand most of what he was saying. It was the strangest feeling because everyone else was attentively listening to him and following what he asked them to do, and I was completely lost. His accent was strong, and I had never been around Indian languages before. I was also completely unfamiliar with the terminology he was using, so when he said, “Sing SA,” and everyone began singing, I was blown away at how they knew what to do. More than anything I studied in those first few years; vocal class was mystifying to me. These memories came in handy when, years later, as the Director of the AACM, I had to hold the hands of new students who would leave their first vocal class in tears, saying they would never be able to do this. I could tell them my story, and my heart would go out to them.
Two weeks after school had started, Khansahib’s beloved father, Acharya Baba Allauddin Khansahib, passed away. It was a sad and rather confusing time at the College. Then Khansahib left for India, and we all stayed behind to continue studying. (To be continued…)
Happy 100th birthday, my love. You are the rare gem in this world.