One Nation Under a Guru

Habib Khan
Freight & Salvage, Berkeley
Sunday, Jan. 31

Look around these days, and it's all about India.
The subcontinent is everywhere -- from Talvin Singh and Bombay the Hardway to that heinous Alanis song and Madonna's clothes; even Beck went Indian on Saturday Night Live last month. There's chai at Starbucks; bangles and shawls splashed across the pages of fashion magazines; Lord Krishna on T-shirts and lunch boxes in the Haight. Recent commercial growth on Valencia Street has circled a nexus of four curry houses. We've finally gotten what the Quiet Beatle was trying to tell us all along: India rocks.

Lifelong sitar player and local legend Habib Khan is no doubt oblivious to the current trendiness of his nation's culture. But luckily for him, interest in the instrument his father taught him to play from the age of 5 is -- literally -- in Vogue. Last week, about 150 Indian classical music enthusiasts assembled at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage for what amounted to a recital by students from the East Bay-based Habib Khan School of Music, as well as a demonstration of the instrument by master Khan, though it wasn't advertised as such.

Music is taken very seriously at the Freight, so if it all sounds a bit sober, it was -- until Habib hit the pillows/stage. The program was bookended by a formal and methodical introduction by Khan's wife, and a dance by his pre-adolescent daughter. For nearly 2 1/2 hours in between, the family affair raga-ed and rolled, with Khan smiling as he led his crew on tabla, tambura, and voice while also working his own gigantic fretboard.

Khan explained he would be using five notes in his first raga -- which, as he demonstrated, sounded a little like what we've come to know as the sound of a guitar being tuned. But once the tabla player and a student on tambura kicked in, Khan's minilesson made sense -- after all, the blues are based on the pentatonic scale too. Ascending scales on the sitar, Khan do-re-mi'd his point home, eliciting a couple of good laughs in the process.

After five minutes the raga started cooking, as Khan riffed with a hand as fast as that of a guitar god like Eddie Van Halen or Kirk Hammett. In a sort of crazy call-and-response with himself, Khan created increasingly outlandish progressions, which he would duplicate perfectly, then improvise over. At other times, he played so quietly, I strained to hear the beautiful lyricism of the single notes.

After 10 minutes, as the raga continued, and in the tradition of stringed instrumentalists around the world, Khan was making a face. He looked a little bit like Prince, evoking that way the Artist contorts himself when he knows he is ripping off a really good one. Several times Khan beckoned with his free hand, à la Jimi (and every Indian musician for the past thousand years or so): Come closer and let the music inside. This dramatic hand movement helped bring the songs to life -- Khan didn't provide translation, but he didn't need to.

After 20 minutes: Finally the mridangam player, identified only as Ben, got to join the fray with his double-headed percussion instrument.

After 25 minutes: The raga was still going and Khan was on fire -- he was actually headbanging, his hair flying in his face as he kept time with his increasingly speedy notes.

Finally it all wound down and the audience erupted at the appropriate time. Who knew? In the Hindustani gesture of humility, Kahn put his palms together and nodded a couple of dozen times. I asked my partner how long the raga had gone on, guessing maybe half an hour. "At least," he replied, a little exasperated but no less in awe than I of the proceedings, the likes of which some of us haven't witnessed since Ashwin Batish rocked the V.I.S. club (the space that now houses the Justice League) with sitar power in the '80s.

Khan explained the 16-beat cycle that would drive the next number. "If I don't come in on the one, then I'm wrong, so watch me," he joked and then whoomp, there he was. Not only has rock benefited from Indian style, it would appear that the hip-hop nation has stolen a move or two, which I didn't realize till Khan started yanking his head and shoulders to one side; at other times he shook his head back and forth, in an exclusively Hindi gesture. The musicians onstage followed suit, as did some of the audience members; it would appear to be preferable to the up-and-down bobbing in which some of us normally indulge in the concert setting. Oops.

The second half of the show was devoted to a display from Khan's four sitar students. Their performance of "Confusion Fusion" definitely leaned toward the former word in the title, but it was still fascinating to watch five dueling sitars. They were followed by 10 vocalists -- four women, three men, and three children -- who made a bit of a din, though an impressive one; with a little work, these kids have a future. Two of the young women's voices rocked the house, and they had that whole hand gesture thing going on, an added bonus.

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