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World Music Features

Shujaat Husain Khan

By Derek Beres
Published September 1, 2005

Shujaat Husain Khan, both on his own and as one-half of Ghazal, brings innovation to the Indian classical tradition.

Indian classical

I remember thinking, This guy is just not from this planet. A rather benign muse, certainly, but sitting seduced by Ravi Shankar, a lot arises. The way his fingers worked deftly his sitar’s strings, playing them like long lovers, his detached bemusement, the constant drone sedating each spectator while sudden tonal changes jumped as rapidly as idea to mind—the classical music of India is more journey than theory, and within the travels unlimited possibility abounds.

            The West is slowly awakening to the unique architecture of South Asian sound. Not only are the (usually) 16-beat rhythmic cycles completely foreign to our 4/4 blueprints, but the amount of dissention within is boggling. The systems of raga and tala are intricate, complex and gorgeous; like any craft, however, there is movement within regulation. Many artists obtain knowledge, but to master one must step beyond the foundation.

            Shujaat Husain Khan is a rather mobile musician. Born into a lineage of sitar players (his father, Ustad Vilayat Khan, and grandfather, Ustad Inayat Khan, are both heavy hitters), Shujaat is a seventh generation student of the classical tradition. But like his recently deceased contemporary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (whose family has been in the Qawwali game 700 years), he knows tradition is all good, but innovation is where it’s at.

            His groundbreaking work with Iranian kamancheh (spiked fiddle) master Kayhan Kalhor, under the name of Ghazal, resulted in one of 2003’s most beautiful recordings, The Rain (ECM). The union of classical India and Persia, complete with Khan’s dynamic vocals, captured an hour-long meditation. Keeping to the new, Hawa Hawa (World Village) finds Khan breaking bread with Punjabi and Hindi folk music, a move questioned by the classical community, ironic as it sounds.

            The irony lies in history: classical repertoires always evolve from folk traditions. Folk is the root of society, and before it can become dogmatized it must be introduced (think of Gnostics before Christian fundamentalism ran rampant). Hawa Hawa is an exquisitely textured, quiet album centered around simple, meditative love songs. Each song has length (seven to 11 minutes), but for those in love, that is seemingly a second. His voice, soft, and minimal sitar playing (you won’t hear schizophrenic solos here) make this simply, and unassumingly, poetic.

            If we look at our own innovators—Miles Davis and jazz, Marvin Gaye and R&B, Common and hip-hop—we know the power of pushing boundaries. To an untrained ear Hawa Hawa will instantly captivate you. For the trained ear, well, sometimes training leads to rigidity, and this is music we’re talking about. It’s to be felt, not intellectualized, and with that, we stop here.