I don’t think there can be many people who won’t agree that 2020 has been a tough year. Music has been my solace for most of my life, and it seems, especially so this year. In recent times, I have kept coming back to Alam Khan’s appropriately titled Solace. Sometimes people seem to forget progressive music needn’t be all about bombast. For every 21st Century Schizoid Man, there’s an I Talk to the Wind. If you’re after the soothing and calming effect of the latter, then look no further than Solace.
Alam Khan may not be a particularly well known name in Western music, but he comes from a line of prodigious talent. Perhaps the most famous of students of Khan’s grandfather was Ravi Shankar. But, more importantly, for the purpose of this review, Allauddin Khan also passed on all he knew to his son, Ali Akbar Khan, who in turn taught his son, Alam. Alam Khan’s mastery of the sarod is plain to see on Solace where there is nothing else to distract from the sound of that instrument.
North Indian classical music usually begins with a section known as Alap, which is an unaccompanied melodic improvisation to introduce and develop the more structured section of the Raga that follows. Effectively Alam Khan has presented us with Alaps, and it’s really quite an incredible listening experience, and definitely one I find myself turning to if I’ve had a particularly horrid day (of which I’ve had several, since returning to work). The sarod is a particularly effective instrument to play unaccompanied, as although it is a stringed instrument, it has a beautifully percussive sound. That sound, along with richly resonant slides between notes (Meend), provides a profoundly intimate and captivating sound. The use of space is incredible. It would be so easy to fill every space with a note, but Alam Khan knows exactly when to play none.
The Alap is generally understood to be the hardest part of any North Indian classical music, left for the virtuoso to play. Melody, rhythm and ornamentation come from a single instrument. There is no tempo. It’s free form. And when entire Ragas are performed Alap, I’m hard pressed not to call it prog. Alam Khan is certainly no stranger to progressive takes on North Indian Classical music, as his work with hip hop group Grand Tapestry and blues rock group Tedeschi Trucks Band shows (to give just two examples of many such collaborations Alam Khan has been part of). Solace is perhaps more traditional than Grand Tapestry and Tedeschi Trucks Band, and yet, is no less contemporary.
(No video has been released to accompany Solace, but Alam Khan’s sound is captured well here.)
Despite, or perhaps because of, the complexity and intricacy of these three spacious improvisations, Solace is a remarkably accessible album. The three Ragas may not take your breath away, but they will surely guide your breathing. I find it impossible to listen without my breathing slowing down. Alam Khan says of the album, that “Solace is something I think we could all use right now. In this fast paced and turbulent modern age, where distractions and triggers are more abundant than ever, people need the opportunity to slow down, calm their mind, and go inward.” I’m not sure I’m spiritual enough to go inward, but I certainly appreciate the opportunity to slow down and calm my mind. There is something truly cathartic about this album.
The aesthetic tone, soul, and feel of Solace is, quite simply magic. Despite the calm and quiet of the improvisatory expositions, there is a power and intensity in the playing. The music is played with patience and care, and yet evokes passion and cheer. Indian Classical music has always been used as a healing medicine. I don’t think it’s necessarily particular to Indian Classical music, because I’ve long used music (any music) as medicine, and have often found catharsis through listening to it. But certainly, it is hard to argue with the rejuvenating power of Solace. Thank you Alam Khan, for your prescription. I will likely be continuing this course of medication for some time to come. With all due respect, however, I do hope there comes a time when I no longer need to listen!
01. Hindol Hem (12:37)
02. Miyan KI Malhar (10:08)
03. Pahari Jhinjhoti (9:59)
Total Time – 32:44
Alam Khan – Sarod
Record Label – Worlds Within Worlds
Country of Origin – United States/Bangladesh
Date of Release – 31st July 2020