From the Lennons to the Marleys and a bevy in between, the history of music is rife with stories of children inheriting a massive sonic legacy from their superstar musician parents and trying to build upon it – some better than others.
Although he spent most of his 70-year career far from the spotlight of Western popular music, few can match the multi-faceted legacy of Indian classical music icon Ali Akbar Khan. , which screens Sunday, Oct. 9 and Wednesday, Oct. 12 during the , tells the story of that legacy and his son Alam Khan’s drive to continue it. The younger Khan anchors a , along with Mickey Hart, John Handy and more, on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at .
Known for his virtuosity in playing the sarod, Khan was one of Indian classical music’s greatest ambassadors, along with sitar legend Ravi Shankar.
But along with a career that saw him draw the admiration of scores of musicians, including George Harrison and Carlos Santana, Khan also made the teaching of Indian classical music his lifelong pursuit. He created a music school in Calcutta in 1956 and opened the Ali Akbar College of Music in the Bay Area 11 years later. That school has been based in the West End section of San Rafael since 1968, educating legions of aspiring musicians.
Khan died of renal failure in 2009 at the age of 87 after several years of ill health. Before he passed away, his son Alam Khan, a Drake High grad who is now 29, sought to ensure that his father’s legacy remained intact, and he did so not knowing entirely if his young shoulders could bear that weight.
Rohnert Park filmmaker Joshua Dylan Mellars initially approached the Khan family six years ago to film some concert footage, a project that evolved into a feature film. While Ali Akbar Khan is the dominant figure in the film through old clips and tributes from the likes of Santana, guitarist Derek Trucks and former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, Alam Khan is its heart.
Play Like a Lion’s most compelling scene is at Khan's funeral in 2009. As the camera scans the large gathering of friends and family at the cemetery, it pans up the hill to Alam Khan, standing next to a tree near his father’s grave site, gently but adamantly zooming into his face, which reflects his loss and the impending burden on his shoulders.
“I didn’t even notice Josh filming,” Khan said of the scene. “I walked up the hill before everybody else. I was in a different world.”
Not long after that, Khan decided to dedicate himself to teaching full-time at his father’s school, hoping to spur a love for the music as his father had done for him. Khan said it wasn’t until his early 20s that he became fully aware of “how much of a colossal figure” his father was and “his magnitude as a musician.”
The Khan family is in the midst of a massive archiving project called The Maestro & Me, hoping to transfer 40 years of Ali Akbar Khan’s material and related video into digital formats so that they can be made available through the school. The family needs to raise $90,000 more of its $350,000 total goal to finish the project.
“It’s never been done for another Indian classical musician,” Khan said. “This will ensure that the music will survive and outlive all of us.”
Khan is also becoming a touring musician. He’s already made two trips to India – where acceptance is crucial – and has played shows in Europe, Canada, New York, Chicago and the Bay Area.
“My father planted so many musical seeds in my heart and mind and those seeds took time to grow,” he said. “I’m constantly getting epiphanies or realizations. Some days it seems impossible and it’s too hard to play, where I can’t recreate my father’s music or grasp the depth of how much knowledge there is to get.”
“There are other days where I’m OK with what I do have and with expressing myself in my own way,” he added.
The latter realization has given Khan some momentum to not only preserve but expand upon his father’s legacy. He wants to create new audiences for the sarod itself, which has gotten far less attention from Western audiences than Shankar’s sitar.
“I really want to help the sarod gain a lot more recognition and expose more people to it,” he said. “It’s such an old music that it needs to be re-introduced,” Khan said. “I used to be a purist about things, but I’ve come to a point that I really just want people to hear the sarod.”
To that end, Khan is open to collaborations. Trucks, a longtime fan of Ali Akbar Khan, expresses reverence for him in Playing Like a Lion and notes that learning the sarode helped him immensely with his own slide guitar playing.
Trucks became friends with Alam Khan over the years and asked him to collaborate with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, his project with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, for the group’s new album, Revelator. That collaboration yielded “These Walls,” with Khan playing an extended intro and weaving in sarod flourishes throughout the song.
“I want to do more touring and more things like that and generate interest in the music and the college,” Khan said, noting that he and Trucks have discussed recording a full album of slide guitar and sarode music one day.
“My father had such a presence in so many people’s lives that it would be a shame if others don’t get to experience and feel that love that he gave to so many people,” Khan said.