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Amjad Ali Khan in Berlin - Puzzling Disappointment

Review by Sebastian Dreyer
(January 2010)

A long awaited, memorable concert took place in Berlin on December 13th: sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan performed together with his sarod-playing sons Amaan Ali and Ayaan Ali, accompanied by tabla players Tanmoy Bose and Mithilesh Kumar Jha. It was long awaited, because concerts of the great names of Indian music have become rare in Germany. And it was memorable, because Amjad Ali thrilled a big part of audience, but left the lovers of raga music puzzled and disappointed. Amjad Ali Khan, son of legendary Hafiz Ali Khan, mentor of his sons Ayaan Ali and Amaan Ali, recipient of highest awards, is probably the most famous living sarod player. He has gained his position by decades of publishing high quality raga recordings and giving acclaimed raga concerts. His second field of activity, however, is much lesser known: it is the area of tribute-, memorial- and entertainment-music. Examples for this are his raga creations „Tribute to Germany“, „Tribute to USA“ and "Priyadarshini" (dedicated to Indira Gandhi) as well as his CDs „Yaara“ (with ghazal singer Pankaj Udhas) and „Breaking Barriers – All time favourite Christmas Hymns and Carols“.

It was the entertainment aspect, which the maestro chose to present to the German public during his recent tour. Those who had watched his video clip "Joy to the world" might have thought twice before going to his concert. Instead of in-depth raga performance, Amjad played a medley of favourite songs, dedicated among others to Mahatma Gandhi, Ganesha and Rabindranath Tagore - easy-listening stuff instead of creative raga elaboration. Spontaneousness did not have any place in this event - in contrast to the habits at raga concerts, all compositions had already been printed in the programme.

Only the duet of Amaan and Ayan Ali in raga desh and the trio of Amjad with his sons in raga kirwani presented a more classical approach. Especially the kirwani had touching moments, e.g. when Amjad was visibly proud of his sons' performance during the question-answer section. It was irritating, though, that even in the raga interpretations, the two great tabla players were given scope for only one (!) single solo part each. Their inappropriate subordinate status was further stressed by seating them at the far corners of the stage, outside the huge carpet reserved exclusively for the sarod players.

The final applause clearly demonstrated the split reactions of the audience. While many people were giving standing ovations, others were rushing angrily out of the hall, starting heated discussions with fellow connoisseurs in the lobby. Sometimes an event raises much higher expectations than it is able to fulfill.