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‘Music is who we are’

Patriot has a tete-a-tete with Ayaan and Amaan Ali about their journey so far and upcoming performances on the Peace Tribe tour

Brothers Ayaan and Amaan Ali Bangash will be in the capital on February 22, alongside Grammy Award winner Sharon Isbin, on their Peace Tribe tour, which is a collaboration of Indian classical and western classical music brought by legends in their own fields of sarod and guitar. An interview with the duo:

Besides being from a long line of musicians, what external factor drove you to embrace this as a profession?

Amaan: Even though our conditioning was in a musical environment, now it’s a passion and a reason for my existence. Being Ustad Amjad Ali Khan Saheb’s son is a matter of great honour. The mantra taught by our parents has been to be a good human being first and good music will follow. Music is who we are and our nature reflects in our music. Therefore, as siblings we know each other’s mind on stage. We were never asked to listen to a particular artist, or not to listen to another. The choice and the freedom were entirely ours. But it is only natural to be influenced by the music that your guru speaks of or refers to when he plays.

Ayaan: Apart from the humanity and compassion, I learnt that to be a musician is in itself a blessing as you are really not answerable to anyone but yourself. For those few hours when you are onstage, you are in a creative frenzy, sometimes supernaturally unreal. There are times when you get off stage only to realise that something special happened up there.  Music is indeed the best way to connect to that supreme power that we have never seen. Be it any religion, music has always been the pathway to spirituality. Our mother’s role has been immense in our lives. Being an artist herself, who learnt from the great Rukmini Devi Arundale, she sacrificed her career for the family. As our father says, a mother is every child’s first guru.

Having performed all across the globe, what difference did you notice in the Indian audience and the audience abroad?

Amaan: Today, Indian artists have classical concerts selling out all over the world. We need to understand that this has been a very intimate art form, initially not meant for masses. Like one can’t compare cricket and chess, you cannot compare Bollywood to classical music. Today, maximum numbers of youngsters are learning music and also performing at all levels, including posting videos on YouTube!

Ayaan: We have been very fortunate to have received so much love and adulation from music lovers all over the world. The main mantra is that we have never taken any concert for granted. You are as old as your last concert and every concert is the first concert of your life.

How much guidance does your father still provide from his vast experience after you grew in popularity?

Amaan: The relationship with our father was more Father Son than Guru Student initially. Of course, the change in role from guru to father and back to guru is somewhat effortless; however, it is a relationship with two people, like batman and Bruce Wayne! He has been the most patient teacher and the most loving father. Abba’s teaching and philosophy is beyond music. It’s a way of life.

Ayaan:  It did take time to draw the line as to when he was a father and when he was a guru. This realisation obviously happened as I grew older. I feel ecstatic that my guru is my father. As a classical musician, music for me was not just a profession but a complete way of life. Abba is an old timer with regards to many things. For one, even though he is a dear friend to me, a certain protocol in the relationship is always maintained. Abba is God loving and a very religious person, however, his religion is music. His intuitions are scary; in fact, it’s indeed very surreal at times. Some of Abba’s very common musings are — ‘Have patience and tolerance’ ‘We make our future in this world’ and ‘God is within us.’

What was the experience of playing with full-fledged philharmonic orchestras?

Amaan: Like cosmic divinity, music knows few barriers. However, often in the race for cultural superiority, we pit one order against the other. The impact of this conflict phenomenon is called fusion music, a rage among the current generation of music-lovers, which sees the world as a global village. Every collaboration has a vision and a concept.

Ayaan: Anything creative is like a musical flirtation. It’s an extension of your creativity. I don’t think on any level, it dilutes who you are as a musician. We have done what we believe in. There have also been many projects and offers that we have said no to as we didn’t feel it would work for us. The universal concept of togetherness and unity has a beautiful message through the world. You cannot impose an artist on anyone.

What was the most memorable collaboration that you were a part of and why?

Amaan and Ayaan: Every collaboration is a memory as it’s like your own child. You cannot like one more than the other! We have done many collaborations in the past with Allman Brothers band guitarist Derek Trucks, American Folk song writer Carrie Newcomer, Grammy-nominated Oud player Rahim Alhaj and also performed with London Philharmonica, Avignon Symphony Orchestra, Welsh National Opera and National Youth Orchestra of United Kingdom.

What would you consider your most famous or fulfilling performance, and why?

Amaan: I think the most memorable concert was when I was 18 and I played a solo in Mumbai with Ustad Zakir Hussain. He was very gracious and it was a blessing. My parents were in the audience too.

Ayaan: It was 1997 in New York’s Carnegie Hall. It was a celebration concert for India’s 50th year of Independence.

What was it like performing at the UN Headquarters last year?

Amaan: India presented a musical concert at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York after 52 years. We played with The Refugee Orchestra Project, and paid homage to Mahatma Gandhi.

Ayaan: It was a surreal experience to play in a room that has such great history.

Tell us something special about this show that you are doing alongside Sharon Isbin? What are your expectations and apprehensions, if any?

Amaan: We are extremely excited about presenting Peace Tribe in India. The guitar for one has a very jazz, rock and roll kind of profile in India, however Sharon is a classical guitarist. This will be a very new experience for music lovers in India.

Ayaan: Sharing our respective traditions and genres with each other, while keeping the integrity and character of those traditions intact, and exploring the idiom and styles of the other with fearless, ferocious energy.  The sarod and guitar come from a common family of stringed instruments, however, the sarod is a fretless string instrument played with the finger nails. Indian Classical Music is primarily homophonic, whereas Western Classical Music is to an extent polyphonic. The music for this project includes compositions that were formally written using staff notation which took almost six years to develop.

Give us a little insight into your track Peace Worshippers. How was it born and what was the process behind its composition?

Ayaan: We aimed to preserve the essence of both Indian and Western traditions, so that they are able to partake of each other without artistic compromise. We are glad we got to try our hand at electronic music again. It has been a while since we ventured into electronica; it was wonderful to revisit the genre. Karsh Kale made it special.

Amaan: The album will be a mix of classical and electronic. The record is nearing completion. Karsh is a visionary composer and producer. He is a trailblazer, not only in his own career, but also for an entire scene to emerge in the world of electronica and fusion music. Although we have performed with Karsh only once in Mumbai, but as artists, we connect on so many levels.

What is your hope for classical music in the younger generation of Indians?

Amaan: I guess we got lucky. It’s a blessing. I feel bad for kids who get rebellious against their own families. Carving their own identity is more important to them. What they don’t understand is that it will happen with time. It is good to be self-made, but try to add on to what your parents have given you.

Ayaan: Try to grow your own flowers in a garden that is already being nurtured. I have no complaints because I got way more than what I deserve as a human being or even a musician.

Is your audience more of a niche population or is there something for everyone in the music you make?

Amaan: Classical music is not a commodity that it needs to be promoted. Yes, it needs to be initiated. But then the music needs to flow, it needs to speak for itself and encourage the masses to listen on the basis of its intrinsic melody.

Ayaan: Reversely, the masses have to be free enough to respond openly to what they hear based on the energy created in them by the music. It is this free flow that creates a true and lasting relationship between the music, musician and the people. The media and propaganda are critical to this equation only in relative measure.