A Passage to India

The list of astounding Indian classical musicians landing in St. Louis this year keeps growing longer. This week, sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, whose musical lineage and mastery of the instrument stretches back six generations, will perform at the Ethical Society of St. Louis.

"Every raga has a soul, and every musical note is the sound of God," Khan has said, and listening to his "Raga Bhimpalasi," you can hear its soul buried deep and trembling. This representation begins as a sort of wary trepidation and then slowly gains confidence, and then an enthusiasm, all the while speaking directly and articulately -- each note Khan plays has an emotional impact. From the sarod, his instrument of choice, he ekes out a nearly human moan. The sarod is made of a single piece of wood, with a hollow-bodied drum that's covered with goatskin, and has 25 strings, of which the four main strings are plucked and span three octaves. The others are either sympathic or drone strings. Because the instrument lacks frets, it's both difficult to play and heavenly to hear. Each note slides, as if the instrument is humming a melody to itself.

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan's notes and melodies are as direct and thoughtful as his ideas on music: "Music can be appreciated without knowing it," he says, another way of saying that music is music, sound is sound, and even if you're not fluent in the finer points of the sarod, the tone and meandering bliss that the instrument articulates transcend notions of expert "understanding." When Khan's fingernails caress his instrument, listeners, regardless of background or musical predilection, are likely to be moved.

-- Randall Roberts