Al Gromer Khan is a German-born sitar player and composer whose music spans the genres of Ambient, New Age, World and Electronica. He is the author of four novels and has been involved in German National-Radio documentaries on music for more than 25 years. He is also a visual artist. In 2015 the Indo-German Society awarded Al Gromer Khan the RABINDRANATH TAGORE CULTURAL PRIZE for his lifetime achievement as a musician/performer of sitar and surbahar of the highest order, as well as for his work as a composer, writer and visual artist.
1 – You’re an award-winning artist who works with music, words and visual images. You’re a Westerner who has fully integrated into Eastern traditions. In many ways you’re a prime example of someone who breaks through generally accepted categories. Did this come naturally to you, or was it something you learned and developed?
Yes, it did somehow came naturally – but it didn’t come easily. It’s an intoxication, really, in terms of peak experience. Doesn’t everybody follow the thing that made them feel best in life and along the way? According to one’s disposition, one wants to go back to the place where one’s heart first opened.
About ten years into the study and practice of the sitar you are confronted with it. First you hear it through the grapevine: ‘They don’t give the secrets to outsiders, only to their own sons.’ ‘You will never be part of the clan, part of the gharana.’ ‘You will always be an outsider.’ And this realisation comes into it, plays a role, when your teacher recognizes a mistake in your playing, but decides not to point it out to you because you do not belong.
Here is the test: is the intoxication, the euphoria, authentic and strong enough to carry you, or was it a mere passing fad. On the other hand, the fad carried me during those early years. Concert offers came on a regular basis, in fact the phone always rang, We need a sitar player, can you come and play? So, after five, six years into your apprenticeship, too early really in this tradition, you go out and just play, you start giving performances. The Flower Power Years carried you, and you think, ‘Oh, this is good, a nice kind of life.’
As soon as I needed money again, to pay my bills or to be able go to India again for a winter season, I accepted concert invitations. But even though the inspiration carried you, learning and discipline were certainly essential, played an important part in one’s apprenticeship. But, again, one’s prime motivation should always be to make something refined, something beautiful, out of any given situation – in life as in art: the Vilayat Khan Principle. Vilayat was actually criticized for certain unorthodox musical expressions, but he maintained that ‘beautiful’ beats ‘traditional’ anytime. I would agree with that.
2 – As an accomplished sitar player, the influence of Eastern culture on you is evident. But has this flowed the other way as well? Do you combine Western and Eastern influences in your art?
I don’t combine East and West. At least not willingly or arbitrarily. Well, actually I abhor fusion projects. I think fusion projects are at the expense of both or all of the involved cultures. And often enough these experiments are brainless displays of virtuosity, like sports shows or circus acts.
The challenge lies in finding the highest common denominator of cultures, in going beyond the differences. There is that – it is called the Trance state. Through this process one penetrates into deeper and older strata of one’s psyche. One should create only from that position, or else one becomes the Doer, when one should remain the tool.
In writing as in music I start with an idea, a basic structure, but as soon as I feel a higher power take over, I follow that, instead of clinging to the original plan. When you say Eastern culture I can only refer and respond to Indian classical music, which I have learned and practised. I often hear people say that they “studied Indian music”, but there isn’t very much to study unless you are an anthropologist or a historian.
No, Indian music is a craft, like cooking: to make a dish tasty you have to cook it hundreds, thousands of times even. Sometimes you read it in some academic’s personal date sheet that they ‘studied’ with some great Indian musical master. It looks good on their CV. But in actual fact they just sat in the master’s house for tea for a few afternoons, taking notes. On the other hand, mere technical practice isn’t the point either; people have done excessive practice, but ended up as heartless virtuosos, unable to tell their own story, simply because there is no story inside them. All in all that may be the reason why people say that it takes more than an lifetime to master Indian classical music. To master a few attractive licks and runs on your instrument, that can be done in year or so, if you practise extensive and regularly.
But to master the subtle nuances in the ornaments of meend-work, that takes decades – and each and every time you go out on the stage to perform, you can’t be sure if the desired effect will occur, because it is all so subtle. Why, actually, go to India at all when you were born in a small Bavarian village, why not stay content with your own folk- or classical music, with blues or jazz? Well, Indian classical music – mainly due to Vilayat Khan’s influence – was the only musical type for me which slowed down the emotive and thinking process to a degree that the world appeared in a different light, a certain contentment and gratitude. While I used to enjoy lots of other types of music, Vilayat Khan’s hand did the trick. It was who he was, and not only what he learned and practised.
3 – What have your experiences crossing cultural barriers taught you most about yourself and the world?
At the same time I do think that interesting experiments are going on in this day and age, despite all the noise and destruction. As a young boy I felt misplaced, being born in Germany. As a matter of fact I’ve wondered almost all of my adult life about this: why was I born in to this rational and un-smiling culture? In other words, Is there anything German about in this oversensitive person?
Anyway, when you’re young you don’t think about possible consequences – you simply go out and do it. Going into Indian classical music as a 23-year-old Westerner with the illusion of being able to eventually pay one’s bills on that premise isn’t a very intelligent thing to do. There was an army of brown men out there, sitar players from India, who’d absorbed this music with their mother’s milk, had early training from competent masters, lived in the environment of Indian music day and night. So how could I even think of being able to play a role in that field of music.
But at the time I only saw Vilayat Khan and foolishly thought, ‘I want to be and I will be like that’. This indescribable sweetness and euphoria when making ornaments with sound and beat, seeing my fingers dance up and down the fret board like a dancing ballerina. The rude awakening followed naturally and inevitably when I ended up at the court of two egocentric and atavistic sitar masters at a time in my life when one’s contemporaries were focussed solely on career and family-planning.
The rift between cultures is greater than anticipated, and one often enough was forced to remember the famous Rudyard Kipling quote: ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ On the other hand, through all these experiences of having to leave behind my nationality, religion, ethnic background and tradition, and exchange it for another, through all of that – which crippled ego and identity – something else evolves. And today when I work with sound and structure often things occur of which I must honestly say that I could never have done this with education and willpower alone – it came out as it did because I’d become what I am.
In these times of emancipation, speed, universal thinking, and technology, concert attendees nowadays, even in India, go outside for a cup of tea while the alaap, the slow part of the raga performance, takes place, only to come back when the rhythm, the fast part commences. Pity really, for the meend work – small filigree and subtle melodic ornaments through pulling the tin-plated steel string of the sitar sideways – can, if performed by a master musician, lift one into a state of euphoric timelessness. In my ambient work I try to preserve precious memories, remnants from the age of devotion, albeit not by spelling them out, but by pointing out signifiers, and giving hints and indications to something sacred.