Ross Kent, right, on sarod, will be accompanied by Daniel Paul on tabla in a concert tomorrow night.

Sun, moon, spirit ... sounds

A musician's explorations
lead him to the Indian sarod

By Gary C.W. Chun

It was the '60s, a time of spiritual exploration, when the influence of India was the strongest on the young of America. One of the sounds most associated with that time was the music of sitar master Ravi Shankar, who often was accompanied by Ali Akbar Khan on the sarod, a classical Indian stringed instrument that is fretless and played with a plectrum.

An Evening of Classical
North Indian Music

Concert time: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow
Place: Atherton Performing Arts Studio, Hawaii Public Radio, 738 Kaheka St.
Tickets: $17.50 general, $15 HPR members and $10 students
Call: 955-8821

In the midst of all those heady times, 20-year-old Ross Kent began what would be his vocation in North Indian classical music in 1966, when Khan, hired by the Society of Eastern Arts in Berkeley, came to the United States.

Within two years, Kent would help found the Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin County and would continue his studies for 14 years .

"Both Khan and Shankar learned from Khan's father Alluddin Kha the gharana school of North Indian classical music," Kent said. "One style he taught them, senaya, is the best known to Western audiences and a music that synthesizes many of the older styles of the music."

Now a sarod virtuoso himself, Kent will give a recital of North Indian classical music tomorrow night at Hawaii Public Radio's Atherton Studio, accompanied by Daniel Paul (also an Ali Akbar College graduate) on tabla and Valerie Payton on the droning tambura.

Kent even started a school in Haiku, Maui, where he spoke by phone. He and his wife, Megan Black, run the Vandana Academy of North Indian Music and Kathak Dance. "My wife, who is a very fine Kathak dancer herself, usually accompanies me in dance, but the music can stand alone with its own repertoire."

As for Paul, he and Kent have played together for 25 years. Paul studied with Khan, as well as Zakir Hussain and Swapan Chaudhuri, and was a Fulbright award winner, studying folk and classical drumming styles throughout India.

Kent first performed publicly in 1971 as part of a student recital. Since then, he has performed and taught throughout the United States, Canada, and even India. "I'm always well-received there," he said, "and it's always incredible when I play there.

"Whenever I play in India, it's like playing before a good symphony audience, one that's well-acquainted with the rules of music that must be fulfilled first, and want the technique to be perfect and emotion to be direct.

"While the music is based on deep history, it's otherwise not so different in purpose. Much of the music is improvised and played in the moment. And when everything comes together, the audience is surrounded by the beauty and spirit of the music."

Even though Kent did not learn the music as a native Indian, his experience playing the sarod makes up for that.

"I've played now for 36 years," he said, "and, at a certain point, ethnicity gives way to the length and depth of practice, and the musician's own imagination. Standard Indian music is very practice-oriented. Like Ali Akbar Khan once said, music is like the sun and moon -- is it Indian or do both shine on everyone?

"I think of North Indian classical music as a particular system of music, and the sarod itself is very much an emotional and rhythmic instrument. In the hands of a skilled and competent musician, it soars with beauty and immediacy."

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