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Hidayat Husain Khan: ‘I Don’t Try to Associate Myself with Musicians Who are Very Scripted’

The veteran sitarist and vocalist talks about plans for his fusion projects Musafir and Melodic Intersect this year

Anurag Tagat Aug 16, 2019

Sitarist and vocalist Hidayat Husain Khan is part of Melodic Intersect for jazz fusion and classical strains with Musafir. Photo: Rubina Uzzaman

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Shuttling between New Jersey and India and speaking over the phone from Mumbai, sitarist-vocalist Hidayat Husain Khan says his musical lineage always ensured he had his feet planted firmly on the ground.

The son of Ustad Vilayat Khan, one of the world’s most well-known sitarists, Hidayat has thought about what kind of mind space criticism comes from. “It’s crazy how in the fields of art and music, audiences feel that it’s their birthright to critique and whatever they say is set in stone. Even me being an entertainer and a musician, I’ll get out of a movie and I’ll pass a judgment on the director’s direction or the actor’s acting. What an easy thing to do,” he says.

Over the span of two decades, Khan has performed in jazz, Western classical, fusion and Indian classical. He’s currently prepping albums and for concerts with two of his projects – jazz fusion act Melodic Intersect and Sufi/Hindustani classical-informed group Musafir. He says of his collaborations, “I don’t try to associate myself with musicians who are very scripted. What I mean by that is, when we get together, it’s not like, ‘I’m the captain and you’re going to follow my orders’. It’s a full on collaboration of ideas, melodies, emotions and rhythms and everything.”

Ahead of Musafir’s U.S. tour and his own solo performances in the States, Khan spoke to Rolling Stone India about travels, fusion and separating his projects. Excerpts:

We’ve always heard about how travel informs the music of singer-songwriters, so how does it influence an Indian classical musician like you?

It makes all the difference in the world (traveling.) Music is such an extension of one’s life and emotion that traveling and meeting people while on tour or having a nice conversation on the plane really inspires you. All of that inspires what your music comes out to be. The food, the culture and the music of different countries and the fans inspires the music very much.

How differently do you approach your projects Melodic Intersect and Musafir?

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They’re in very different spaces. Melodic Intersect is very much a jazz fusion band, with a jazz background. Musafir is a more wider spectrum – we delve into Sufi music and classical music and take inspiration from all over the world. Musafir has musicians from India, Ustad Fazal Qureshi, Zubin Balaporia [from rock veterans Indus Creed], [jazz guitarist] Sanjay Divecha, [seasoned bassist] Sheldon D’Silva and many others have collaborated with us, like [singer and composer] Vibha Saraf. We’re always looking to collaborate with different artists, like we had Sushmita a fantastic violinist from a classical background who joined us.

We’ll be on tour in September in the U.S. and we’re being joined by Zubin, myself and Fazal bhai. In the U.S., there’s going to be a whole bunch of jazz musicians who are going to join us. The idea with Musafir is… The core group is myself, Zubin and Fazal bhai. We’re always going to have other people come in and collaborate with us. Every time we perform, it’s going to have a very different vibe to it. It’s not going to be stuck to a certain kind of genre.

Watch Melodic Intersect perform “Samosa”

Melodic Intersect has six records out so far and one more in the works. How do you keep it interesting for yourself?

In that, the core is Enayet Hossain, a friend of mine who plays tabla, Greg Hatza, who’s an organ player and myself and Fred Koch who’s the saxophonist. Typically speaking, when we invite people to collaborate in Melodic Intersect, it’s more jazz musicians. When we take Indian melodies, we take it in more of a harmonizing direction and western influence.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time performing around the globe, does everyone abroad expect music from India to be classical?

The Western world has western music, so they’re not looking out for an Indian person to do western music. They don’t want a sitar that doesn’t sound like a sitar. They want a sitar that sounds like a sitar. Whereas Indian audiences, I feel since it’s their own music, they gravitate towards western tones and the like. That’s one thing.

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The purity of Indian classical is something that’s very appreciated in the West over the fusion. Classical music teaches you to be a soloist and if you hear most of the fusion projects by some of the greatest musicians, it’s all about personal virtuosity. It’s not about layering and harmonizing the music.

Whereas if you hear western collaborations and jazz musicians – they may be as great musicians as anyone in the world – but they’re very happy to just play two lines in a song or just layer something beautifully underneath. Their goal is to accentuate the song. Being from an Indian classical background, because you’re used to being a soloist, you don’t come from that mindset. That becomes a big shift in space.

How do you address misconceptions about Indian music to a global audience?

You have to develop a thick skin. I try and not see my critiques… if someone calls me the greatest sitarist on the planet, I don’t believe them, it doesn’t affect me. If somebody tells me I don’t even know how to hold the sitar, I don’t care. I try to keep my head on my shoulders and my feet on the ground and keep a check of reality. Both the extremes are where the problems lie. The truth is somewhere in between.

What else is coming up through 2019?

We partially recorded in July for Melodic Intersect. By the end of August, we have to finish the album. It should release in October.

Musafir is about to embark on the U.S. tour in early September and we’ll be performing in Bombay in early November. I’ll be back in India by the middle of October (Khan will perform at the Jodhpur RIFF in Rajasthan) through the winter season and doing loads of concerts. Looking forward to collaborations with I don’t know who all will join us [laughs] but I’m super excited about it.

Watch Musafir perform at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai in June 

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